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Don't let their small size fool you - lentils are a powerhouse of plant protein, fibre, vitamins and minerals. With so much to offer, it's a wonder we don't eat lentils more often.
Lentils are part of the legume family, which also includes chickpeas, black beans, kidney beans and navy beans. Lentils, like other legumes, are low in fat and an excellent source of protein. In fact, a food guide serving of lentils (¾ cup/175 ml) delivers 13 grams of protein - more than most other legumes. Thanks to their high protein content, legumes are considered a meat alternative in Canada's Food Guide.
Lentils also contain slow burning, low glycemic carbohydrate that's gradually released as sugar in the bloodstream which helps keeps your energy level sustained longer after eating.
Lentils are very high in fibre: a ¾ cup serving of lentils contains 12 grams of fibre - half a day's worth for women and one-third of a day's worth for men! And they're a great source of soluble fibre, the type that lowers elevated LDL blood cholesterol in check. Lentils also provide magnesium and potassium, two minerals needed for healthy blood pressure.
But it's their folate content that makes lentils really shine. Folate is critical for making DNA - the genetic material of your cells - and preventing harmful changes to DNA. Think of folate as the guardian of your genetic material - it maintains the health and stability of your DNA as you age.
Nutrient information per ¾ cup (175 ml) cooked lentils:
Source: Canadian Nutrient File, 2007b
Lentils come in a variety of shapes, sizes and colours.
Three of the most common varieties of lentils available in Canada include large green lentils, brown lentils and split red lentils. Other varieties include black lentils (also called beluga lentils) and crimson lentils. Despite their size or colour, most lentils have one thing in common - a wonderful nutty flavour.
According to Canada Lentils, the term "split lentil" refers to a lentil that has had its outer coat removed, and the inner part of the lentil has been split in half. Due to their smaller size, split lentils cook faster than whole lentils, and don't retain their shape quite as well.
Trying to eat more locally grown food? Then lentils are a must! Did you know that Canada is the largest international producer of lentils in the world?
Lentils are available canned or dried. Canned lentils are pre-cooked; they are more convenient but can contain high amounts of sodium. (See "preparing" below.)
Dried lentils are also a great choice - and extremely affordable. Look for dried lentils in packages, or buy them in bulk. If purchasing bulk lentils, be sure the container holding the lentils is free of moisture and that there is a high product turnover to ensure you are purchasing a fresh product.
Store dried lentils in a cool, dark place for up to one year. Because lentils tend to dry out over time, avoid storing old lentils with new lentils, as they will have slightly different cooking times.
Cooked lentils (or canned once opened) will keep in the refrigerator for up to three days.
Unlike other legumes, such as dried chickpeas or black beans, dried lentils do not need to be soaked before cooking, reducing their cooking time.
Before cooking dried lentils, quickly pick over them and remove any dirt, debris, pebbles or damaged lentils.
To cook dried lentils, use three cups (750 ml) of liquid (water or sodium-reduced vegetable or chicken stock) for each cup (250 ml) of lentils. Bring liquid to a boil in a saucepan and add lentils; cover and simmer over low heat until lentils are cooked through, and can easily be crushed with the back of a spoon.
Large green lentils usually take about 30 minutes to cook, while smaller red lentils require about 15 to 20 minutes. 1 cup (250 ml) of dried lentils will yield 2 to 3 cups (500 to 750 ml) cooked lentils.
Canned lentils do not require any preparation - but they do require a thorough rinsing under cool running water to help remove sodium and gas-producing carbohydrates.
Lentils may be small in size, but they're mighty when it comes to health and nutrition. This member of the legume family is packed with fibre, and a range of vitamins and minerals, including folate, iron and magnesium. Whether you add them to soups and stews or salads and baked goods, there's no shortage of ways to add lentils to your diet. This month we're giving a shout-out to one of our all-time favourite foods - lentils!
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