The lowly lentil, long overshadowed by sexier beans like adzuki, garbanzo and black turtle beans, is undergoing a glam campaign to elevate it into the pantheon of superfoods.
Columbia Grain International, a global leader in the origination, processing, logistics and distribution of high-quality pulses and edible beans in the U.S. and worldwide, is set to launch its new Balanced Bushel line of lentils and other pulse products available in March through Amazon and other retail outlets.
“We’re doing seven different products in this line,” said Tony Roelofs, vice president of pulses for Columbia Grain International, which is based in Portland, Ore.
“These products are extremely high quality” and are grown, processed and packaged in the U.S., Roelofs said. It’s the first time the company has marketed its own small-package brand of pulses directly to consumers.
Columbia Grain International is the largest lentil handler in the U.S. and expert on the importance of lentils in a farmer’s crop portfolio, environmental sustainability and dietary health benefits.
The company is even branching out into the pet food market, opening up new avenues for pulse farmers and replacing grain-based pet foods.
“We’ve seen a change over the past eight to 10 years, a dramatic shift, and seen a huge rise of grain-free pet food,” Roelofs said. Manufacturers are looking at replacing traditional soy- or cornmeal-based pet foods with peas, chickpeas and lentils.
“They have a good amino acid content, they’re high in protein and fiber and they don’t (cause pet) allergies,” he explained.
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Even within the latest spin, lentils have a long history of fame beginning in the Bible. Lentils were first mentioned in Genesis, chapter 25, when Jacob swindled his brother, Esau, out of his inheritance:
“Once when Jacob was cooking some stew, Esau came in from the open country, famished. He said to Jacob, ‘Quick, let me have some of that red stew! I’m famished!’ Jacob replied, ‘First sell me your birthright.’
“ ‘Look, I am about to die,’ Esau said. ‘What good is the birthright to me?’
“But Jacob said, ‘Swear to me first.’ So he swore an oath to him, selling his birthright to Jacob. Then Jacob gave Esau some bread and some lentil stew. He ate and drank, and then got up and left. So Esau despised his birthright.”
Later, in the book of Second Samuel, there is a reference to three farmers who brought lentils and other gifts to David and his men when they were hungry.
Also, Second Samuel tells of the Philistines who were gathered together at a field of lentils, where Eleazar defeated them (2 Samuel 23:11). Lastly, in Ezekiel 4:9, special long-lasting bread had to be made for the “siege” with wheat, barley, beans, lentils and millet.
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Lentils (Lens esculenta) are a type of vetch, and are one of the earliest crops grown. The name Lens was given because the lentils are shaped like miniature convex lenses.
The health and dietary benefits of lentils are well documented. Lentils are made up of more than 25% protein, making them a valuable meat alternative.
They’re also a great source of iron — a mineral that is sometimes lacking in vegetarian diets. Though different types of lentils may vary slightly in their nutrient content, 1 cup (198 grams) of cooked lentils generally provides 230 calories; 39.9 grams of carbohydrates; 17.9 grams of protein; 0.8 grams of fat; 21% of the daily recommended allowance of Vitamin B6 and 90% of the recommended allowance of folate — an important element for pregnant women.
And while this may verge on the TMI (too much information) scale, lentils are high in fiber, which supports regular bowel movements and the growth of healthy gut bacteria. Eating lentils can increase your stool weight and improve your overall gut function, according to healthline.com.
World Pulses Day that was observed Friday is a designated United National global event to recognize the importance of pulses as a global food. It has been proclaimed on Feb. 10 of each year since 2019 by the General Assembly of the United Nations.
This celebration is a recognition of the decisive role that pulses can play in achieving the comprehensive, far-reaching and people-centered set of universal and transformative goals and targets of the United Nations’ 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, a plan of action that seeks to strengthen universal peace.
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But while lentils are superstars in the food and nutrition gallery, they still lack the consumer appeal of, say, burgers and fries. That’s even the case on the Palouse, one of the most robust lentil-producing areas in the world and home to the National Lentil Festival each August in Pullman.
“Our kitchen and deli have not been using lentils for a little while,” said Alex Bramwell, center store manager for the Moscow Food Coop.
“They just started incorporating lentils in the food they make but it has not really taken off yet,” Bramwell added.
People do buy bulk lentils at the store, however. Bramwell said in 2022 the Moscow Food Coop sold more than 2,900 pounds of all-bulk lentils. That was an increase over 2021 when 2,700 pounds of bulk lentils were sold.
And at Mikey’s Greek Gyros at 527 S. Main St. in Moscow, even Esau could probably find a lentil dish nearly any day of the week.
“We have lentil soup on the menu, fresh soup daily, and it’s a pretty regular occurrence here once a week or every other week,” said Mina Ashkannejhad, who works at Mikey’s.
The restaurant also serves other lentil dishes, although Ashkannejhad said chickpeas that are made into falafel — sort of a bean meatball — are the most popular with customers.
“We’ve definitely in the past year or two seen an uptick on falafel purchases,” she said. “It’s a lot more popular. I don’t know if it’s because they’re not eating meat or health reasons.”
But if you’re hankering for a bowl of lentil soup and can’t find a supplier, here’s a recipe from the 1979 Silver Palate cookbook by Julee Rosso and Sheila Lukins:
1/4 pound slab bacon
2 cups finely chopped yellow onions
2 carrots, peeled and finely chopped
3 large garlic cloves, peeled and chopped
7 cups chicken or beef stock
1 teaspoon dried thyme
1/4 teaspoon celery seeds
2 bay leaves
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1 1/2 cups brown lentils
Salt to taste
Finely cube the bacon and saute in a soup pot over medium heat until crisp. Remove the bacon with a slotted spoon and reserve.
Add the onions, carrots and garlic and saute in the bacon fat over low heat, covered, until tender and golden, about 25 minutes.
Add the chicken or beef stock, thyme, celery seeds, bay leaves, a grinding of fresh pepper and the lentils. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat and cover. Simmer until the lentils are very tender, about 40 minutes.
Discard the bay leaves and puree half of the soup in a food processor or a food mill fitted with a medium disc. Return the pureed soup to the pot.
Taste and correct the seasoning, adding salt if necessary. Stir in the reserved crisp bacon and simmer briefly before serving.
Makes 6 to 8 portions.
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