The Lentil: Your Health-Friendly Pulse

The Lentil: Your Health-Friendly Pulse

Lentils are one of the world’s oldest domesticated crops, initially used by the ancient Egyptians and Romans in 8,000 B.C. Today, lentils have become a nutritious food staple across the world, enriching meals with their high fiber. Many plant-based diets use lentils as meat substitutes due to their high protein content and rich, hearty texture. In addition, these legumes are relatively inexpensive and versatile to use in foods, imparting a delicious, earthy flavor for many dishes.

What are lentils?

Similar to beans, the lentil (Lens culinaris) is a pulse or the edible seed of legumes. Lentils are commonly cultivated during the cool seasons in Western Asia, Northern America, Europe, and North Africa. They are produced within pods that grow on annual bushy legumes. 

Lentils come in many varieties, differing not only in color and size, but also in shape, flavor, and methods of optimum cooking. Here is a brief guide on the different kinds of lentils classified based on their color.

1. Brown lentils

Brown lentils are the most common type of lentils. They have a flattened lens-like shape, manifest a mild earthy flavor, and appear tan to khaki brown. Because they hold their shape well during cooking, they are ideal in casseroles, soups, and stews or toppings in salads.

2. Green lentils

Similar to brown lentils, the green variants lentils have a flattened lens-like shape and usually retain their shape in cooking. However, they impart a more slightly pepper-like flavor and vary in color, from pale to slate green. Like brown lentils, they are found in casseroles, soups, stews, and salads.

3. Red lentils

The red lentils appear split into two halves due to the removal of the seed coat. They are less dense than the aforementioned lentils, leading to a shorter cooking time. Red split lentils impart a sweet, nutty flavor and provide a bright color to dishes. They are usually broken down after cooking, becoming mushy in texture. Because of this, they are recommended in Indian curry (daal) dishes or sauces.

4. Black beluga lentils

Though not as common as other varieties, black beluga lentils offer a strong earth flavor. They are spherical in shape, dark brown to black in color, and have a thicker coat and larger size than other types. Black lentils are often more expensive and require a longer cooking time. They are great as salad toppings and ingredients in soups as well.

5. French lentils

Unlike green lentils, French lentils (lentilles du Puy) are smaller in size, have a darker green hue, and are more thick-skinned. They retain their shape well when cooked and provide a peppery taste to dishes. Due to their lack of mushiness, these lentils are best in salads or as side dishes, dressed with oil and seasoned.

Lentils are undoubtedly a great source of macronutrients and micronutrients, such as folate and minerals. They are relatively low in fat and sodium, but rich in potassium and iron, making them a great meat substitute, especially for those who are dealing with obesity and cardiovascular diseases.

Listed below is a table of the approximate nutritive value of one cup of cooked lentils.

Amount% Daily Value
Energy (kcal)229.6813
Protein (g)13.136
Carbohydrates (g)73.318
Fat (g)2.51
Dietary Fiber (g)15.6456
Folate (mcg)358.3890
Copper (mg)0.5056
Phosphorus (mg)356.4051
Manganese (mg)0.9843
Zinc (mg)2.5123
Potassium (mg)730.6216
Sodium (mg)3.96 0
Source: http://www.whfoods.com/

Variations in the nutritional information of the different varieties of lentils are minimal. For example, whole green lentils may contain more fiber and protein than split red and brown lentils do, respectively.

However, all lentils contain rich amounts of vitamins and minerals, helping to prevent nutrient deficiencies, especially for vegetarians. In addition, lentils contain polyphenols, such as flavonoids, tannins, and phytosterols which act as antioxidants, anti-cancer and anti-inflammatory agents.

1. Lentils improve digestive function and gut health.

Lentils contain a great percentage of insoluble dietary fibers. They promote the movement of food in our digestive system and increase stool bulk by absorbing and attracting water from your system. This encourages regular bowel movements to release wastes and prevents constipation.

In addition, the prebiotic carbohydrates found in lentils improve our gut health by increasing the population of helpful microflora. These bacteria help prevent and resist colonization by pathogenic and opportunistic microorganisms. In addition, beneficial bacteria in our gut aid in digestion of substrates and production of vitamins. 

2. Lentils protect our heart function and health.

Consumption of lentils is inversely associated with the incidence of cardiovascular diseases, including hypertension. The rich amount of polyphenols in lentils reduces blood pressure by dilating blood vessels, lessening the load on the heart.

In addition, folate-rich lentils decrease the extent of hyperhomocysteinemia, which involves having abnormally high levels of homocysteine in the blood plasma. This condition contributes to increased risk of atherosclerosis, coronary heart disease, heart attack, and stroke.

High amounts of dietary potassium also has a protective effect against the risk of stroke and high blood pressure.

3. Lentils can help control food intake and reduce our risk for obesity.

Studies have shown that intake of lentils is associated with reduction of food intake by making us feel fuller due to high amounts of fiber and flavonoids. By inhibiting the action of enzymes which can decrease fat and glucose digestion, flavonoids in lentils can contribute to the management of our body weight and blood glucose levels. These support the observational studies under Advances in Nutrition that show an inverse relationship between lentil consumption and the risk associated with obesity. 

It is highly recommended to consume cooked rather than raw lentils so they can be readily digested by our bodies! Like other legumes, raw lentils contain toxic lectin proteins that bind to and damage our digestive tract, leading to toxic reactions, such as diarrhea and vomiting. When lentils are rinsed, pre-soaked or sprouted and cooked however, lectins are deactivated and broken down.

Here are some ways and tips to cook lentils that you’ve bought: 

  • Lentils should be rinsed in a colander under cold running water prior to cooking and thoroughly sorted to remove small stones or debris. 
  • Lentils can then be boiled in a pot. Typically around three cups of water or stock are needed to cook one cup of dried lentils. Split lentils only require 10-15 minutes of cooking time, while green and brown take around 20-30 minutes. Because of their thicker skin, black beluga and French lentils take around 30-45 minutes to cook.
  • Split lentils are typically great for making purees because of their mushy texture, while firmer whole lentils are recommended as toppings on salads and soups. 

Lentils are also consumable after sprouting, wherein the pulses are germinated, making them available to our bodies for digestion. Sprouting reduces the antinutrient content of raw lentils, including lectins, which negatively impact our digestive system and trigger autoimmune reactions. In addition, the process also facilitates the bioavailability of nutrients and vitamins, like vitamins B and C. Here are some ways and tips in sprouting lentils:

  • Sprouting works well with whole lentils which have their seed coats intact.
  • Lentils should be initially rinsed before soaking in water in a loosely covered container for 3 to 4 days until sprouts appear.
  • For best results, the water should be changed every day to eliminate waste or dirt that may appear.
  • After the lentils have sprouted, they should be let to dry before eating them.
  • Due to their grassy, crunchy texture, they can be used as toppings for salads, stews, or any dish of your desire!
  • You may also cook sprouted lentils in a method similar to cooking regular lentils. Add them to any lentil recipe!

Bought, cooked, or sprouted lentils in bulk? That’s okay! Dried lentils can last for a year in your pantry from the date of purchase. After initial opening of the package, make sure they are stored in an airtight container in a cool, dry area. On the other hand, already cooked lentils can be stored in the freezer and used within three months, or refrigerated for up to one week. Sprouted lentils can stored in the refrigerator a week after sprouting.

1-pot Vegan Lentil Soup (left) and Lentil Stew with Mashed Potatoes (right)

Not yet sure how to incorporate lentils in your diet? Here are some simple and neat ways to maximize the versatility and nutrients in lentils for your next meal:

  • The lentil, an edible pulse member of the legume family, is a versatile, nutrient-rich ingredient for meals. 
  • Lentils are rich in dietary fiber, iron, potassium, vitamins, and phytonutrients, preventing deficiencies and augmenting our health. 
  • Lentils provide numerous health benefits, such as improving digestive function and gut health, providing protection for the heart, and helping to control food intake and preventing obesity.
  • Be careful not to consume raw lentils! Lentils can be sprouted and/or cooked. Add lentils to your salads, stews, curries, and pastas! Be creative!

References

Bea Reyes

Bea is a graduating student of the BS Biology program in the University of the Philippines Diliman. She is an aspiring medical physician who aims to integrate functional foods and holistic wellness in her practice. Her interests lie in sustainable living, mindful self-care, and fitness, and strives to empower other individuals with these passions. In her free time, she loves creating hearty food recipes, listening to inspirational podcasts, nature walks, and staying active.

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