Legumes are a sustainable, fast-growing food crop of plants from the Fabaceae family, also known as the Leguminosae family.
Most legumes like beans and peanuts grow underground. However, a few specific legumes like green beans, peas, and lentils grow in pods above ground.
There are over 20,000 species of Fabaceae plants, but only a handful are cultivated for agriculture.
This healthy food group can be broadly divided into forage and grain legumes.
Forage legumes like alfalfa and clover are typically used for livestock consumption.
They can be cultivated or grown wild. The pods are usually underground, with the leaves and flowers above ground.
One of the most common forage legumes is alfalfa.
Commonly grown to feed livestock, the annual production of alfalfa in the US alone is about $8.8 billion.
Other types of forage legumes are:
- Sweet clover
- Burr Medic
The other classification of legumes is grain, the seeds that usually end up on our plates.
They are grown for our consumption and include beans, lentils, peanuts, and peas.
Grain legumes can also be called pulses. A pulse refers to the edible seed found in the pod of a legume plant.
Most pulses like beans and peanuts grow underground. However, green beans, peas, and lentils grow from plants that have pods above ground.
Cultivating pulses is an essential part of food agriculture. Legumes have a unique and symbiotic relationship with the bacteria in the soil known as Rhizobacteria.
These bacteria can absorb nitrogen from the earth and release it back into the plant.
This process results in more nitrogen-rich soil and benefits the next round of crops planted.
The nutrients in the ground last for several weeks and bring balance to most other carbon-rich crops such as wheat and grain.
Because nitrogen is a component of amino acids, the essential building blocks in protein, the levels of nitrogen and protein are interrelated.
The high levels of protein content in legumes lead to similar levels of nitrogen in the soil.
Where Do Legumes Come From?
Legumes come from primarily the seeds, but sometimes the leaves and stems of the flowering Fabaceae plant family.
The Fabaceae family of plants includes 20,000 varieties, but only a handful are cultivated for human and livestock consumption.
These seeds are often enclosed in a pod and are called pulses. Pulses are a group of legumes that include beans and peas.
Legumes can refer to the whole pod, including the seeds, like snow peas or green peas.
The pulse, however, refers to just the seed, which is a bean or pea.
Legumes grow mostly underground, but some species make their home above ground.
Green peas, green beans, and lentils have their pods above ground. Other forage legumes like clover and alfalfa also grow above ground.
The earliest records of legume cultivation were found in the Middle East, as far back as 10,000 years BC.
Because of its rich nutrient content and high production, legumes quickly became widespread across the OId World.
Now, legumes are grown throughout the world. The most popular legumes include soybeans, pulses (beans and peas), and peanuts.
Soybean production is concentrated mainly in North America and Latin America.
Together, they account for over 95% of exported soybeans. (Source)
Beans and peas are known collectively as pulses. They come from the seed of a Fabaceae pod, often encased in a pod. Canada, the US, Myanmar, Australia, and China at the top exporters of pulses.
Peanuts are not technically a nut! Surprisingly, they are a legume and grow underground, unlike tree nuts.
The top three exporters of peanuts are Argentina, India, and the US.
What Is The Most Consumed Bean?
Chickpeas, or garbanzo beans, are the most consumed bean globally, while pinto beans are the most popular bean in the US.
Other hugely popular beans include kidney, mung, navy, black, and soybeans.
Chickpeas, the famous bean used to make hummus, has an impressive nutritional profile.
Not only jam-packed with fiber and protein, but chickpeas also contain all kinds of antioxidants.
According to the USDA, chickpeas have the following nutritional content per 100g (half a cup):
- Calories: 364
- Fat: 6g (9% of RDI – Recommended Daily Intake)
- Sodium 24mg (1% RDI )
- Potassium 875mg (25% RDI)
- Carbohydrate: 61g (20% RDI)
- Dietary fiber: 17g (68% RDI)
- Sugar: 11g
- Protein: 19g (38% RDI)
- Vitamin C: 6% RDI
- Iron: 34% RDI
- Vitamin B6: 25% RDI
- Magnesium: 28%
- Calcium: 10%
It’s no wonder the USDA recommends ½ a cup of chickpeas at least three times a week.
These little gems pack so much nutrition that it is easy to see why they are all the craze.
In addition to that, the wildly popular dipping paste hummus is made with chickpeas, olive oil, lemon, garlic, and tahini.
Hummus is usually paired with crackers or fresh vegetables. The first record of its consumption was found in Egypt in the 13th century.
Pinto beans are the most popular bean in the US. They are usually included in soups, stews, gravy, and refried beans.
They are commonly included as a dip for corn tortilla chips.
The nutritional value of pinto beans are:
- Calories: 347
- Fat: 1.2g (1% RDI)
- Potassium: 1,393mg (39%)
- Carbohydrate: 63g (21%)
- Dietary fiber: 16g (64%)
- Sugar: 2.1g
- Protein: 21g (42%)
- Vitamin C: 10%
- Calcium: 11%
- Iron: 28%
- Vitamin B6: 25%
- Magnesium: 44%
Bonus Tip: Beans and some other legumes contain compounds called lectins.
Lectins have been known to cause gastrointestinal complications such as vomiting, nausea, and pain.
To inactivate the lectins, beans have to be cooked or presoaked.
You cannot eat raw beans!
Which Country Consumes Most Beans?
India consumes the most beans, followed by Brazil, Mexico, and the USA.
Here is a list of the top 15 bean-eating countries:
- South Korea
India alone is responsible for 28.7% of the global bean consumption.
The top three countries, India, Brazil, and Mexico, collectively consume almost half of the world’s beans.
What Culture Eats A Lot Of Beans?
Although beans are globally enjoyed, certain cultures have made them part of their staple food.
These cultures include Japan, South America, Mexico, India, and some parts of the Mediterranean.
The biggest importer of beans, India, consumes a whopping 28.7% of the world’s global supply.
Although technically not a bean, lentils are a staple food in the Indian diet.
You’d be hard-pressed to find a meal without the inclusion of lentils, either in dal or as a side dish.
Japan has a high consumption rate for tofu, and soy (edamame), while Mexico uses many different beans in their sauces and food.
Blue Zones, a term coined recently, refers to geographical areas of the world with the oldest people.
First used by author Dan Buettner in his book called “The Blue Zones” (surprise!), the five earliest zones were:
- Icaria, Greece
- Sardinia, Italy
- Okinawa, Japan
- The Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica
- Seventh-Day Adventists in Loma Linda, California
Buettner has identified these areas as places where the most nonagenarians (people who live over 90 years, and centenarians (over 100 years) live.
He found that genetics played a small role in longevity, about 20 to 30%.
Most importantly, the diet and lifestyles of blue zone dwellers show some similarities.
Their diets are 95% plant-based and consist primarily of whole grains, legumes, vegetables, and nuts.
In addition, they eat slowly and restrict caloric intake, stopping before they start to feel full.
Slow eating prevents overeating, which in turn reduces weight gain and the risk of chronic diseases.
Intermittent fasting is also used for weight control and to lower blood pressure, cholesterol, and the risk of many other chronic diseases
(in this article I answer a common question o get asked; can we eat chia seeds in fast).
Together with healthy eating habits, they share other lifestyle characteristics, such as:
Regular exercise – They incorporate activities such as gardening, walking, or cooking into everyday life.
Sleep lots – They rest as much as they want, as much as their bodies want them to, with no set time to sleep or wake.
In addition, they take plenty of naps under 30 minutes long. Alcohol in moderation – They consume little to no alcohol.
The Icarian and Sardinian zones consume one to two glasses of red wine a day.
Religious or spiritual – Many are religious or spiritual people with strong social support from the community.
Studies have shown that being religious might increase longevity. Have a purpose – They have a purpose for waking up each day.
The Okinawans call it “ikigai” and the folks from Nicoya call it “plan de vida”, or “life plan”.
The Zone Diet recommends a ratio of 40% carbohydrates, 30% protein mostly from plants, and 30% fat.
Legumes are recommended as both a source of low-GI carbohydrates and protein.
Legumes have been our staple food for thousands of years.
One of the earliest cultivated crops, they will continue to nourish us for thousands more.
We hope this article has helped share some of the fascinating facts about these delightful foods and look forward to bringing you more!
I’m Chris Watson & the Founder of EatForLonger.com. I’m a food and wellbeing enthusiast researching and sharing foodstuffs and simple food-based concepts, such as fasting and clean eating.
I hope it inspires you to make tiny changes to what you eat and when you eat while optimizing your healthspan and all-around well-being.
Read more About Me here.