The lentil or daal or pulse (Lens culinaris) is a bushy annual plant of the legume family, grown for its lens-shaped seeds. It is about 15 inches tall and the seeds grow in pods, usually with two seeds in each.
The plant originated in the Near East, and has been part of the human diet since the aceramic Neolithic, being one of the first crops domesticated in the Near East. With 26% protein, lentil is the vegetable with the highest level of protein other than soybeans, and because of this it is a very important part of the diet in many parts of the world, especially in India, which has a large vegetarian population.
A variety of lentils exist with colors that range from yellow to red-orange to green, brown and black. Red, white and yellow lentils are decorticated, i.e. they have their skins removed. One variety of yellow "lentils," Chana, is in fact made from the kernels of chickpeas. There are large and small varieties of many lentils (e.g. Masoor Lentils). Lentils are sold in many forms, with or without the skins, whole or split. The urad bean, a species of the genus Vigna, is also referred to as "black lentil". Split Pigeon peas (either green or yellow) are sometimes erroneously sold as lentils. They are considered pulses, which includes peas and beans.
Types of lentils
- Brown/Spanish Pardina
- French Green/Puy (Dark speckled blue-green)
- Green (Most common variety)
- Yellow/Tan Lentils (Red inside)
- Red Chief (Decorticated yellow lentils)
- Eston Green (Small green)
- Richlea (Medium green)
- Laird (Large green)
- Petite Golden (Decorticated lentils)
- Masoor (Brown-skinned lentils which are red inside)
- Petite Crimson/Red (Decorticated masoor lentils)
- Chana (Kernel of chickpeas)
- Urad (A type of bean)
- White/Ivory (Peeled Urad beans)
- Garlic Lentils (Genetically altered)
- Macachiados (Big Mexican yellow lentils)
- Tutsikimiyanchek (Small Latvian green lentils)
The seeds have a short cooking time (especially for small varieties with the husk removed, such as the common red lentil) and a distinctive earthy flavor. Lentils are used to prepare an inexpensive and nutritious soup all over Europe and North and South America, sometimes combined with some form of chicken or pork. They are frequently combined with rice, which has a similar cooking time. A lentil and rice dish is referred to in the Middle East as mujaddara or mejadra. Rice and lentils are also cooked together in khichdi, a popular Indian dish. Lentils are used throughout India, the Mediterranean regions and the Middle East. In rare cases the lentils are mixed with dairy cheese.
A large percentage of Indians are vegetarian and lentils have long been part of the indigenous diet as a common source of protein. Usually, lentils are boiled to a stew-like consistency with vegetables and then seasoned with a mixture of spices to make many side dishes such as sambar, rasam and dal, which are usually served over rice and roti.
When lentils are prepared, they are first inspected for damaged lentils, stones and other foreign matter. Then they are rinsed until the water runs through and comes out clear. Some prefer to soak the lentils for an extended time and discard the water. This removes substances that may cause indigestion. The lentils are then boiled in water or broth. They may be cooked on the stovetop, or in a slow cooker. Pressure cookers are not recommended, since the small lentils may clog the pressure relief valve, and their quick cooking time means there is little benefit from pressure cooking. Cooked lentils often require thinning: adding more hot water or broth to the cooked legumes until the desired final consistency is reached.
Nutritional value and health benefits
Nutritional value per 100 g (3.5 oz)
|Energy 350 kcal 1480 kJ|
|Percentages are relative to US|
recommendations for adults.
Source: USDA Nutrient database
Apart from a high level of proteins, lentils also contain dietary fiber, vitamin B1, and minerals. Red (or pink) lentils contain a lower concentration of fiber than green lentils (11% rather than 31%). Health magazine has selected lentils as one of the five healthiest foods. Lentils are often mixed with grains, such as rice, which results in a complete protein dish.
Lower risk of coronary heart disease
In a study that examined food intake patterns and risk of death from coronary heart disease, researchers followed more than 16,000 middle-aged men in the U.S., Finland, The Netherlands, Italy, former Yugoslavia, Greece and Japan for 25 years. Typical food patterns were: higher consumption of dairy products in Northern Europe; higher consumption of meat in the U.S.; higher consumption of vegetables, legumes, fish, and wine in Southern Europe; and higher consumption of cereals, soy products, and fish in Japan. When researchers analyzed this data in relation to the risk of death from heart disease, they found that legumes were associated with an 82% reduction in risk.
A study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine confirms that eating high fiber foods, such as lentils, helps prevent heart disease. Almost 10,000 American adults participated in this study and were followed for 19 years. People eating the most fiber, 21 grams per day, had 12% less coronary heart disease (CHD) and 11% less cardiovascular disease (CVD) compared to those eating the least, 5 grams daily. Those eating the most water-soluble dietary fiber fared even better with a 15% reduction in risk of CHD and a 10% risk reduction in CVD.
Lentils' contribution to heart health lies not just in their fiber, but in the significant amounts of folate and magnesium they supply. Folate helps lower levels of homocysteine, an amino acid that is an intermediate product in an important metabolic process called the methylation cycle. When folate and vitamin B6 are present, homocysteine is immediately converted into cysteine or methionine, both of which are benign. When these B vitamins are not available, levels of homocysteine increase in the bloodstream—a bad idea since homocysteine damages artery walls and is considered a serious risk factor for heart disease.
Lentils' magnesium is a calcium channel blocker. When the body has enough magnesium, veins and arteries relax, which lessens resistance and improves the flow of blood, oxygen and nutrients throughout the body. Studies show that a deficiency of magnesium is not only associated with heart attack but that immediately following a heart attack, lack of sufficient magnesium promotes free radical injury to the heart.
Stabilizing blood sugar
In addition to its beneficial effects on the digestive system and the heart, soluble fiber helps stabilize blood sugar levels. If you have insulin resistance, hypoglycemia or diabetes, legumes like lentils can help you balance blood sugar levels while providing steady, slow-burning energy. Studies of high fiber diets and blood sugar levels have shown the benefits provided by these high fiber foods. Researchers compared two groups of people with type 2 diabetes who were fed different amounts of high fiber foods. One group ate the standard American Diabetic diet, which contains 24 grams of fiber/day, while the other group ate a diet containing 50 grams of fiber/day. Those who ate the diet higher in fiber had lower levels of both plasma glucose and insulin. The high fiber group also reduced their total cholesterol by nearly 7%, their triglyceride levels by 10.2% and their VLDL (Very Low Density Lipoprotein—the most dangerous form of cholesterol)levels by 12.5%.
In addition to providing slow-burning complex carbohydrates, lentils are one of the best vegetable sources of iron. This makes them an important part of a vegetarian diet, and useful for preventing iron deficiency. Iron is particularly important for adolescents, and menstruating or pregnant women, whose requirements for it are increased.
Lentils are relatively tolerant to drought and are grown throughout the world. About half of the worldwide production of lentils is from India, most of which is consumed in the domestic market. Canada is the largest export producer of lentils in the world and Saskatchewan is the most important producing region in Canada. The Palouse Region of Eastern Washington and the Idaho Panhandle, with its commercial center at Moscow, Idaho, constitutes the most important producing region in the United States. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that world production of lentils totalled 3.2 million metric tons (MT) in 2003. Canada produced 520,000 MT and, according to the market analysis company STAT Communications, will likely export 400,000 MT during the 2003-04 marketing year, which runs from August to July. The FAO estimates world trade in lentils totalled 1.2 million MT in 2002, with Canada exporting 382,000 MT during the calendar year.
Lentils and lenses
- Alan Davidson, The Oxford Companion to Food. ISBN 0-19-211579-0
- USDA nutrient database
- Raymond, Joan (March 2006). "World's Healthiest Foods: Lentils (India)". Health Magazine.
- Dietary Reference Intakes (DRI), Food and Nutrition Board, Institute of Medicine, National Academies, 2004
- Crop Profile for Lentils in Idaho, Department of Plant, Soil and Entomological Science, University of Idaho (web site), 2000
- Chambers Dictionary (10th ed) 2006
- S S Yadav et al. Lentil: An Ancient Crop for Modern Times. (2007). Springer Verlag. ISBN 9781402063121.
- Extrusion method developed for tasty lentil snacks
- All types of lentils & uses
- Information on Cooking Lentils
- Lentils - Country Production, Consumption, Exports, and Imports Statistics
- Alternative Field Crops Manual: Lentil
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