THE ROLE OF LEGUMES IN THE HUMAN DIET
Legumes are rich in vegetable proteins and micronutrients making them a healthy and delicious alternative to proteins of animal origin. They have a low fat content (2-4%) and are an important source of iron and zinc, carbohydrates and fibre. Completely gluten-free, they are suitable for celiacs.
In Italy, the rediscovery of the beneficial effects of the Mediterranean diet, combined with a greater sensitivity to environmental protection, have contributed to a return to the cultivation and consumption of legumes, which had been lost in the 1960s.
The term “legumes” refers to the edible seeds of plants belonging to the Fabaceae family (from faba = broad or fava bean), also known as legumes, from the Latin “legere”, to pick, to pick up, which referred to the custom of hand-picking the pods produced by these plants, or as Papilionaceae, from papilio, or butterfly, by virtue of the shape of the flower. They can be eaten fresh, dry, frozen and preserved.
The Fabaceae or Leguminosae family, commonly known as the legume, pea, or bean family, are a large and economically important family of flowering plants with quite similar botanical and nutritional characteristics. The fruit is the legume or pod, which contains the seeds. The species cultivated today generally have larger fruits and seeds than their wild ancestors.
Legumes are part of the Italian gastronomic tradition; beans, peas, lentils, chickpeas and fava beans hold a special place in the culinary joys of Italian food. Soy is becoming increasingly common, both as an ingredient and a food.
Though vegetable proteins, which legumes are rich in, have a lower biological value than animal ones, eating them together with other high protein foods works to form complete proteins. The exception is soy protein, whose nutritional value is comparable to that of meat, making even a vegan diet balanced in protein.
The small amount of fat in legumes is rich in polyunsaturated fatty acids. Legumes contain insoluble fibre which helps to keep the bowels healthy and soluble fibre which can help lower blood cholesterol levels. They contain calcium and iron, as well as good quantities of B1, B2 and niacin, and, when fresh, vitamin C. Together with leafy vegetables, they are among the foods with the highest content of folate.
Fresh legumes, characterised by their high water content, with hydrosoluble vitamins and mineral salts, are rich in nutrients with a low calorie intake. Frozen legumes preserve all the nutritional properties of fresh legumes with a very slight loss of hydrosoluble vitamins and mineral salts.
Dry legumes are the most caloric due to their higher concentration of proteins, carbohydrates (low in soy) and lipids (low in all legumes except soy). Most legumes, such as chickpeas and lentils, are found only dried. Canned legumes preserve all the nutritional properties of the dry product.