Back in 2013 when the United Nations General Assembly declared 2016 to be International Year of the Pulse I must admit I was a bit nonplussed. International Year of Peace? Yeh, that makes sense. International Year of the Child? Great idea. But pulses? Hmmmmm....
I forgot all about it until 2016 rolled around. And then the fun began....
Because if you take your nutrition advice from the "wellness guru" blogger set, we shouldn't be eating legumes at all.
But why would the UN devote an entire year to pulses and legumes if they are so bad for you?
I put my science-nerd cap on and buried myself in research land for a while, and this is what I found:
The Health Benefits
Legumes are an excellent plant source of protein and are rich in soluble fibre. Not only will this, ahem, "keep you regular", soluble fibre can reduce your cholesterol levels. They are low in saturated fat and high in B group vitamins and minerals including iron, zinc, magnesium, calcium and phosphorous. And many legumes, such as red kidney and black beans, are also an excellent source of antioxidants!
So what's not to love?
What you'll read on various blogs out there: "Legumes contain phytates. So don't eat legumes."
What I found out: yes, legumes do indeed contain phytic acid, but as with most issues in the field of nutrition, it's a lot more complicated (and interesting!). So let's break things down...
Phytic acid is found in the skins of nuts, seeds, grains and legumes. It binds to minerals like calcium, iron and zinc, preventing them from being absorbed in our bodies. It can also bind to heavy metals like lead and cadmium and prevent those from being absorbed too!
Phytic acid can also chelate the B vitamin niacin, which is why you might hear it referred to as an anti-nutrient.
You can reduce the phytic acid content of legumes by soaking them. If you add something acidic like lemon juice or vinegar it will reduce it even further. Cooking soaked legumes reduces the phytic acid content yet again.
Some "wellness gurus" out there would have us believe that we still need to avoid legumes, even after they have been soaked and cooked. Because "phytates are bad". But these same wellness gurus don't say a word about eating nuts. And yet nuts, especially unsoaked nuts, contain phytates too. Hmmmm....
But leaving that aside, there are some pretty impressive health benefits associated with consumption of phytate-containing foods.
Studies have shown a protective effect against various forms of cancer and heart disease. Phytic acid may also have a beneficial effect on insulin regulation. And because of their iron-binding effect, legumes can be particularly helpful for people with Hemochromatosis (iron-overload disorder), by reducing their iron absorption.
Naturally, the supplement industry is all over this: you can even buy phytic acid supplements!*
Another concern I've seen in the blogosphere is that "legumes contain lectins which are toxic, so don't eat legumes".
Legumes do indeed contain lectins, including phytohaemaglutinin, which are simply proteins that bind carbohydrate. They can cause digestive disturbance, and even nausea or vomiting. But they are also very easily reduced by simply bringing your soaked beans to the boil for 10 minutes before reducing the heat and simmering them. This is especially important for legumes with a high haemaglutinin content like red kidney and black beans.
My verdict? Healthy healthy HEALTHY!
Remember to prepare and cook them right and enjoy them as part of a balanced diet!! Many of the overblown health concerns would only apply to people who firstly consumed legumes as most of their daily food intake, and secondly did not prepare them correctly. Remember: Soak your legumes! For bonus points, change the soaking water a couple of times. For certain beans like red kidney and black beans, always bring them to the boil for at least 10 minutes before reducing the heat and simmering. This will reduce the phytohaemaglutinin.
* It's sold as inositol hexaphosphate, aka IP6. But don't go out and buy it, m'kay?