Food: the many virtues of legumes

This article comes from the magazine Sciences et Avenir – Les Indispensables n ° 205 dated April / June 2021.

The beans will save the world! The legume family is indeed considered by agronomic organizations, from FAO to INRAE, as the main weapon for reducing meat consumption. “Although they do not have all the proteins contained in meat products, beans, peas and lentils nevertheless contain a wide range, which makes it possible to compensate for any deficiencies” , confirms Stéphane Walrand, researcher at the Human Nutrition Unit at INRAE. And they are “good for the climate”! On the roots of these plants live bacteria capable of fixing nitrogen in the air and enriching the soil, thus reducing the need for chemical fertilizers. What virtues! And yet their consumption continues to decrease. In 1920, each Frenchman swallowed 7 kg per year. A century later, their great-grandchildren quibble only 1.7 kg.

Foods considered difficult to prepare

A real disaffection. “It is partly explained by their image, comments Stéphanie Chambaron, researcher at the Center for Taste and Food Sciences at INRAE ​​Dijon. That of a food formerly intended for the poor, when the rich ate meat. ” The reduction in the time spent in the kitchen has probably contributed to taking them away from our plates.

“With the exception of lentils, legumes are considered difficult to prepare, in particular because they have to be soaked the day before, which forces you to anticipate the menu” , adds Gaëlle Arvisenet, professor of sensory evaluation and consumer science at AgroSup Dijon. However, these plants are present on tables around the world, usually associated with cereals – which allows to cover the whole range of proteins necessary for a balanced meal. Latin Americans combine red beans and corn, Indians lentils and rice, Africans semolina and chickpeas.

In rich countries, meat consumption has stagnated for two decades … without legumes returning to the plate. “We have only been interested in this question since 2016, admits Stéphanie Chambaron. Our experiences show that consumption patterns are firmly embedded in people’s minds. ” Legumes are neither spontaneously associated with notions of pleasure and well-being, nor considered as “good for the environment” foods. In addition, buying a product that does not correspond to its tastes requires an effort. “Changing your consumption means changing your preferences and habits, recalls Vincent Réquillart, economist at the Toulouse School of Economics. Food provides suddenly less satisfaction, and that represents a brake that must be taken into account. “ For festive meals, meat is overwhelmingly popular. A good point however: the digestibility of the beans is not questioned. Flatulence would therefore not be prohibitive.

Towards the development of products containing legumes

How to go up the slope? Public health messages and information on the dietary and environmental benefits of legumes quickly reach their limits. “Distributors have a great deal of responsibility for bringing pulses up to date, considers Gaëlle Arvisenet. Beans and lentils should be grouped together, well marked and be the subject of promotional messages. “ Another track – technical – explored: the development of products containing legumes … without this being visible. Pea dumplings and pasta are emerging on the market. Researchers from SupAgro Montpellier have developed durum wheat pasta – very low in protein – enriched by incorporating 65% of legumes, capable of providing all of the amino acids essential to the body. This team has even managed to develop “100% legume” pasta that could be of interest to people with gluten intolerance.

But salvation may come from the younger generations. These again favor beans and lentils. For a significant part of the under 40s, the demand for a healthier diet is linked to climate concerns. A new certainty is colonizing brains: yes, beans can fill stomachs… and even help save the planet.

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