Why Americans Should Eat More Lentils

(Illustration by Emily Sabens/The Washington Post; iStock)


Lentils hide their superpowers with a dowdy exterior. Pound for pound, raw lentils have more protein than steak. While once not so high in protein cooked, they pack even more iron than meat, in addition to other vitamins and minerals.

Quick to cook, easy to store, and lofty enough to be buried with the pharaohs of ancient Egypt, these seeds have sustained empires. Roman soldiers subsisted on the vital portable protein during their long campaigns.

Today, the lens is once again at the forefront. This time against climate change. As startups scramble to develop sustainable protein, from lab-grown meat to fake burgers, lentils are a ready-made solution, one with a proven track record.

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The rest of the world has known this for millennia. From the Indian red lentil to the French Le Puy to the black “Beluga” lentils, so named for their resemblance to caviar, the world is growing by about 6 million tons each year. Unlike corn and other grains, lentils can thrive in dry, low-water soil where many other crops wither—while they build up the soil.

When it comes to fighting Climate change, the lentil may be the perfect legume. They are also, as the caviar mention suggests, delicious. So why do Americans eat less lentils than almost everyone else?

Here’s how to put the lens back in its rightful place at the human table.

Lentils are legumes or the edible seed of a legume plant. This category of dry beans, or seeds — as opposed to fresh green beans — includes everything from black beans to chickpeas to pigeon peas. They predate agriculture, as archaeological evidence suggests humans collected wild varieties more than 13,000 years ago.

There’s a good reason. Although not as dense or digestible as meat after cooking, lentils become a complete protein similar to meat when combined with many grains. They also burn slowly and satiate hunger for hours.

And unlike red meat, especially processed meat, lentils don’t contain saturated fats and additives that increase your risk of cancer and heart disease. They also contain iron, zinc, magnesium, potassium and vitamin B as well as most of the essential amino acids.

“That’s one of the beauties of lentils,” says Bruce Maxwell, a plant ecologist at Montana State University. “It’s really high in the precursors to human health.”

Lentils are ready for their big break

However, legumes remain sparse in the American diet, says Tim McGreevy, CEO of the USA Dry Pea and Lentil Council, a trade group. While Indians consume about 40 pounds of legumes per person annually and Spaniards hit nearly 20 pounds per person, Americans remain in the low teens. One study estimates that only 8 percent of the US population eats legumes on any given day.

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That’s changing as Americans expand their knowledge of lentils beyond what most people know: green, brown, and red. Hundreds of cultivars grown around the world, each with their own terroir or distinctive flavor imparted by the local soil and weather, make their way to the United States, including black “beluga” lentils; mottled, dark green French Puy; and tall, bright green laird are gaining popularity.

McGreevy is just waiting for lentils to have their “hummus moment.”

For anyone not involved in the legume industry, the impact of hummus on American legume consumption is difficult to understand. While the general profile of legumes has risen alongside the popularity of plant-based foods, particularly the Mediterranean diet, it was hummus that sparked Americans’ love for chickpeas and the broader legume family, says McGreevy. The chickpea acreage in the US increased from virtually nothing in 1995 to around 1,200 square miles, more than twice the size of Los Angeles, by 2017, although it has declined somewhat since then.

“Humus was a paradigm shift. It was amazing,” says McGreevy. “Hummus is the Gateway Pulse.”

In March 2020, momentum received another boost when much of the United States shut down. They’ve been flying off grocery shelves during the coronavirus pandemic, and lentils have been particularly in demand. Sara Mader, CEO of Palouse Brand, one of the largest online legume retailers, says the lentil sales era can be divided into pre-pandemic and post-pandemic periods.

Annual sales of its Pardina brown lens rose 860 percent year-on-year following the March 2020 closures. They haven’t slowed down much since then. Lenses are now one of Palouse Brand’s top three sellers, says Mader.

What is good for you is also good for the country. America’s favorite crops, like wheat and corn, often degrade soil over time. Legumes like lentils rebuild it.

This happened on Mader’s family farm growing crops under the Palouse brand name. For 125 years, the family has been cultivating the fertile soil on the eastern flank of Washington state, on which sediment was deposited after the last ice age. But after a century of cultivation, the region’s fertility quickly declined. So Mader’s family tried something different in the 1930s. They planted chickpeas, peas and lentils in their wheat fields. They also adopted no-till in the 1980s, leaving organic matter on the surface instead of plowing it.

Though unusual at the time, the Mader family’s turn to pulses in Palouse, Washington, was prophetic. Today, about a third of the farm is always planted with legumes. And farms like Mader’s now in North America produce more than half of the world’s lentil crop in fields extending from the Pacific Northwest to inland Canada.

This rebuilds the region’s soil and lowers CO2 emissions. Lentils, like almost all legumes, take nitrogen from the air and, thanks to bacteria, store it at their roots in the soil. This not only fertilizes the legumes, but allows the soil to store more nutrients and water for the next crop, replacing carbon-intensive nitrogen fertilizers. Even better, lentils generally don’t need watering and only survive on rain.

Farmers across the region are now growing lentils in their former wheat monocultures. Mader says soil health on her family’s farm is better than ever. And we need more farms like theirs.

In 2019, the EAT Lancet Commission, A collaboration of dozens of leading scientists has developed a diet that can feed 10 billion people and the planet by 2050. The results were peer-reviewed by the UK’s prestigious medical journal lancetrecommended doubling the amount of legumes in our diet, which roughly equals the amount of animal protein.

“Food is the most powerful lever for optimizing human health and environmental sustainability on Earth,” the scientists write.

If there’s a challenge for lentils in the United States, it’s that their biggest fans don’t live here. According to McGreevy, North American farmers still ship about 55 percent of their crops overseas, often to India and Europe.

In order to spread lentils in the United States and Canada, farmers need a stable domestic market.

Rancho Gordo founder Steve Sando proves it can be done. The founder of the heirloom bean purveyor has transformed the humble bean into a coveted crop. Growing up in California’s wine country, he wondered why legumes weren’t given the same appreciation. So he founded Rancho Gordo, sourcing and selling delicious beans from around the world. His “Bean Club” began as a joke inspired by Napa’s expensive wine clubs. It now claims 20,000 members, with even more people on the waiting list.

But as a child, even Sando was despised Lenses. “I grew up in the food co-op on old barrels of brown lentils,” he said. “I hated her. That echoes many first impressions of the Pulse: mushy, tasteless, and bland. But new varieties and exciting preparations are also available.

There’s the lentil-rich burger at Burger Stand in Taos, NM, topped with feta and roasted pepper sauce. Refried lenses are a crowd favorite at Viva, a Mexican restaurant in Las Vegas. Grill lentils. Chocolate Lentil Brownies. Old world classics like lentil and carrot salad with mustard vinaigrette and lentil and mushroom ragout.

Sando is a convert. Not only does Rancho Gordo sell several types of lentils, Sando eats them regularly for pleasure—never as a sacrifice. “I’m an omnivore, but I love them so much that I just eat less meat,” says Sando. “Food should bring joy, not repentance.”

Could they ever get as American as apple pie? McGreevy says it’s only a matter of time.

Not a day goes by that he doesn’t have a bowl. “I really eat lentils for breakfast every morning,” says McGreevy, who cooks a pot every Sunday, enough for the whole week. “It sounds crazy, but my wife and I put a little butter and salt and pepper on top with an egg. I can go well past lunchtime before needing a snack. They just carry you far.”


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