Five Reasons to Love Lentils

Liz Carlisle
Organic Matters, Spring 2015

They’re not the charismatic megafauna of the supermarket. But while we’ve been focused on kale, chia seeds, coconut water, and the dazzling array of organic produce that’s recently entered common parlance, they’ve been waiting for us over in the bulk section. Organic lentils.

I know what you’re thinking. Lentils are so old school!

Well, you’re right about that. Lentils have been rotated with grains for 10,000 years, and their cultivation dates back to the dawn of agriculture.

And yes, some early vegetarian cookbooks wore us out on uninspiring versions of lentil soup. But there’s so much more to lentils than soup, and there are good reasons these little legumes have stood the test of time. Here are five of them:

LENTILS MAKE FERTILIZER.

As legumes (members of the pea family), lentils have a symbiotic relationship with soil bacteria, allowing them to fix atmospheric nitrogen. Therefore lentils require no nitrogen fertilizer, and even contribute some nitrogen to subsequent crops. Why does this matter? Because synthetic nitrogen fertilizer is one of the biggest environmental problems with our food system. When chemical fertilizer runs off into the watershed, it pollutes the drinking water supply in rural communities and causes marine dead zones downstream. Synthetic nitrogen fertilizer also has a hefty greenhouse gas footprint, mostly associated with the energy required to manufacture it. On a life cycle basis, legume crops and legume-based pastures use 35 to 60 percent less fossil energy than chemically-fertilized grains – and the fossil field savings is even higher for organic lentils.

LENTILS ARE DROUGHT TOLERANT.

Lentils can be grown without irrigation, and they are tolerant of both low and volatile moisture. They pause their growth cycle during dry times, staging their development to fit within the constants of their water resource. When I was researching my book Lentil Underground, which tells the story behind Timeless Natural Food, the 2012 drought hit the grain belt, devastating many farmers’ crops. But even though Timeless growers only got 40% of their typical precipitation, they still realized 80% of normal yields.

LENTILS ARE GOOD FOR YOU.

You probably know that lentils are a great source of protein. But did you know that:

  • Lentils offer more than one third of the recommended intake of fiber in one ½ cup portion.
  • A half cup serving of lentils provides 45% of recommended daily folate, which is necessary for the production of red blood cells and protein metabolism, and is particularly important for women of childbearing age due to its role in the developing embryo.
  • One cup of lentils has potassium comparable to one banana. Potassium is imperative for electrolyte and fluid balance, as well as muscle and cardiac function
  • Blueberries have become popular providers of antioxidant properties, but lentils contain 56% more antioxidant capacity than blueberries.

LENTILS ARE GOOD FOR FARMERS.

When they are used in a crop rotation, organic lentils can improve soil fertility and provide more stable income for producers who might otherwise be reliant on commodity grains. Diversifying crops, markets and risks decreases a producer’s vulnerability, and boosts rural economies.

LENTILS ARE DELICIOUS.

If soup is as far as you’ve ventured, it’s time to get more adventurous with your lentil cooking! Having been cultivated since the dawn of agriculture, all over the world, lentils feature prominently in a number of global cuisines, from Ethiopian messer wot to Indian dal to Lebanese mujadara. For more ideas, check out the teaser slide show for Bozeman Chef Claudia Galofre-Krevat’s forthcoming cookbook, Pulse of the Earth: Local Food Global Flavors.

Montana native Liz Carlisle is the author of Lentil Underground, which tells the story of a group of Montana organic farmers who made their farms more sustainable by sharing knowledge, resources, and inspiration. She holds a Ph.D. in Geography from UC Berkeley, where she is a fellow at the Center for Diversified Farming Systems.

EPSON MFP image