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. A food guide serving of lentils (¾ cup/175 ml) delivers 13 grams of protein - more than most other legumes.
Lentils also contain slow burning, low glycemic carbohydrate that's gradually released as sugar in the bloodstream, keeping your energy level sustained longer after eating.
Lentils are very high in fibre: a ¾ cup has 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 LDL (bad) blood cholesterol. Lentils also serve up plenty magnesium and potassium, two minerals needed for healthy blood pressure.
But it's their folate content that makes lentils really shine: 3/4 cup provides more than half a day's worth of this B vitamin. 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:
|Saturated fat||0 g|
Source: Canadian Nutrient File, 2007b
Lentils come in a variety of shapes, sizes and colours.
Three of the most common varieties of lentils 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.
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. 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; smaller red lentils need about 15 to 20 minutes. One 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.
Their quick cooking time and nutty flavour means lentils are an easy and tasty addition to a variety of dishes. Add them to soups, salads, casseroles, chili, even baked goods!
Healthy ways to enjoy
- When baking muffins and quick breads, add pureed lentils to the batter for a fibre boost. Replace half of the butter or oil in the recipe with pureed cooked lentils. Red lentils work especially well thanks to their soft texture and mild taste.
- Serve a warm homemade lentil spread on toasted rye bread.
- Top a green salad with cooked lentils instead of croutons for extra fibre and protein.
- Toss lentils with chopped bell peppers, green onion and diced cucumber for a quick and healthy mid-day meal. Click here for a recipe.
- Enjoy a bowl of homemade red lentil soup. Click here for a recipe.
- Substitute pureed lentils for some of the ground beef in meatloaf to help lower the saturated fat and increase the fibre.
- Enjoy a homemade heart-healthy lentil burger. Click here for a recipe.
- Make a homemade rice and lentil casserole to serve alongside grilled chicken or baked fish. Click here for a recipe.
Did you know?
- Canada is a major producer of lentils; they are grown in Alberta, Manitoba and Saskatchewan.
- Lentils are thought to have originated in India and Pakistan.