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Monday, October 8, 2007

LEGUMES -- THEIR IMPORTANCE AS FOOD

LEGUMES -- THEIR IMPORTANCE AS FOOD

Many are not aware of the wide variety of foods in the Legume Family. Why is this family of foods so important? I believe that they have two very important characteristics: one is their ability to fix nitrogen in the soil and two because they are a source of important protein, especially to a vegetarian.

NITROGEN FIXATION

Agriculturists, botanists, and anyone who deals with plants know that there are three very important elements plants require for growth: Nitrogen, Phosphorus, and Potassium and these are usually depicted as three numbers, such as 10/20/10, in a fertilizer mixture.

1. The first number in a fertilizer formula is the Nitrogen content, used by plants for producing leaf growth and greener, more lush leaves.
2. The second number in a fertilizer formula is the Phosphorus content, used by plant to increase fruit development and to produce a strong root system.
3. The third number in a fertilizer formula is the Potassium (potash) content, used by plants for flower color and size. It is also important to the strength of the plant.

Our discussion here is with nitrogen which we all know is a gas component of air which contains 80% nitrogen and 20% oxygen, both very important for life on Planet Earth. But plants cannot use the nitrogen in the air. It must first be transformed in nitrogen salts before plants can utilize it for their metabolism and growth.

This important function of transformation is done by a group of plants called “legumes.” In the older days of agriculture before the widespread use of chemical fertilizers farmers would plant so-called “cover crops,” such as alfalfa (Medicago), clover (Trifolium), Lupin (Lupinus) or rape (Brassica napus) and its somewhat related canola – a plant in the broccoli family – in the Fall and either plow them under in the Spring after they did their work or harvest them as important food for animals. Sometimes they would alternate the cover crops one year and cultivate other plants in the subsequent year. Now there is more use of artificial fertilizers, or more accurately concentrated sources of the three elements required for plant growth. I do believe the plant does not distinguish between the nitrogen salts created by the process on nitrogen fixation and the concentrated fertilizers spread in the fields before planting.


The legumes employed to fix nitrogen are usually clover, alfalfa, and rape. The clover and alfalfa can be harvested the following spring and used as a very important source of protein for cattle. Rape is usually plowed under, although rapini is a well appreciated vegetable employed in Italian cuisine. It has a savory, sometimes pungent, taste.

In the Southern US, peanuts, a legume which fixes nitrogen, is frequently rotated with cotton – peanuts providing the natural fertilizer nitrogen for the growth of cotton in the alternate year.

Some Herbaceous Legumes

These are those legumes grown for use as leafy and more solid components:

1. Broccoli (Brassica oleracea), cauliflower (B. oleracea, var botrytis), and Brussels sprouts (B. Oleracea, var gemmifera).

2 Rapini (Rape), alfalfa ( used more in animal nutrition), and clover (used sometimes in animal nutrition and as sprouts in salads). Many in this class are used to make oils as with rape seed oil, and Canola, a variant of rapeseed, oil and as medicinals.

The Bean Legumes: Legume Family Fabaceae

1 The Phaseolus Genus: Kidney beans (P. Vulgaris); Scarlet runner bean (P. Coccineus) – native to S. America; Northern, pinto, black eye, baby lima, green pea, small white, small red, yellow pea, lentil, navy, white kidney, black bean, pearl barley.

2. The Pisum Genus: Sugar snap peas & Snow peas (Pisum sativum).

3. The Faba Genus: Fava bean (Faba vulgaris).

4. The Cicer Genus: Garbanzos ( Chick peas) (Cicer arietinum).

5. The Vigna Genus: Mung bean (Vigna radiata).


6. The Glycine Genus: Soybeans (Glycine max).

7. The Arachis Genus: Peanut (Arachis hypogaea L.).


An important thing must be said of the importance of beans to the vegetarian. The grains (corn, rice, wheat, barley, oats, etc) do not contain all the essential amino acids required for human life. Neither do most of the beans. But when beans and grains are combined all of the essential amino acids are present. Grains have what beans do not and vice versa. This is he reason why in those countries where rice is eaten as a major starch source it is combined with a legume such as beans or lentils. But this is only true if brown rice is used. Living in a country where rice is grown abundantly and is the major staple starch it is remarkable to me that most, even in the countryside, polish the rice and remove the most important protein coat.

The single exception to this rule is soybeans for they contain all the amino acids. And when soybeans are fermented the amino acids within these products are further enhanced because of the effect of the yeast and bacterial fermentation, processes which increase and diversify the amino acid content.

Sulfur-Containing Foods:

The element sulfur and sulfur gasses are both smelly and toxic. One can readily appreciate this by observing the smelly nature of the inorganic sulfur dioxide (SO2) and of the organic compound, normal butyl mercaptan – the essence of skunk. If I remember correctly from Prep School organic chemistry, we were told that the human nose can detect this compound when the concentration in the air is one to ten million. Now that is sensitivity!

But, organic sulfur contained in some foods is beneficial to ones health. Some of the essential amino acids (L- cysteine, L-lysine, L-cystine, and L-methionine) required for human life contain sulfur.

Some sources of organic sulfur are: Asparagus, garlic, onions and green leafy vegetables, especially water cress and Swiss chard. Other sulfur containing foods include brussels sprouts, dried beans, cabbage, eggs, fish, kale, meats, soybeans, turnips, wheat germ. Herbal Sources are Alfalfa, burdock, cayenne, coltsfoot, eyebright, fennel, garlic, Irish moss, kelp, mullein, nettle, parsley, plantain, raspberry, sage, shepherd's purse, thyme. Looking at this list, one can readily see that many of the sulfur-containing vegetables are legumes.

There are many individuals who do not like some of the foods mentioned, probably because of the odorous taste imparted by the sulfur, others actually enjoy the taste, such as in onions and garlic. As mentioned above, if one is deficient in stomach acid, the incomplete digestion of the proteins and carbohydrates in the stomach result in intestinal bacteria further down in the intestines to ferment these components and produce gas. In my opinion, the odorous nature of the gas
is related to the presence of sulfur-containing amino acids.

nicola michael c. Tauraso, M.D.
Director, Tauraso Medical Clinic
www.drtauraso.com

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