Here at Food Contact Surfaces, we’re dedicated to bringing you news you can chew on. In – dare we say it – highly digestible articles, we’ve examined the Case for Crickets as a high protein snack as well as the Crisis of the Contaminated Cheeto, and are constantly alert to food analyses that tease out the intriguing and innovative from the merely bizarre. Last year we explored the development of duckweed as a superfood and also the harvesting of jellyfish as a new-old dietary staple. We also reviewed the nascent science of cellular agriculture – even the growing of beef protein in space! But to balance out such quixotic topics we also like to evaluate the development in more ‘down to earth’ food concepts. And so, with this in mind, let’s return to a basic food group – legumes – and delve into news regarding an uncommon bean. And – with apologies to singer Brian Hyland – let’s harmonize together: They were the “Itsy-Bitsy-Teeny-Weenie-Tasty-Snacking-Yellow-Beanie/That we threw in the crockpot today…” Have we lost our minds? No, we’re just excited to share with you the news about 2020’s very first superfood: the lupini bean.
Erm…lupinis? These bite-size, yellow legumes of the genus Lupinus have traditionally been an important component of Mediterranean and Latin American diets, as well as coming to light in in Egyptian tombs from circa the 22nd century BCE. And in addition to being possibly the most popular food you’ve never heard of, they are also incredibly versatile. Why? There are two varieties of lupins: narrow leaf – or Lupinus angustifolius – which has a very high protein yield is used as animal feed; and the broader leaf Lupinus albus which is better suited to human cuisine – and in this realm, it really comes into its own. Tasting a little like soy beans, seasoned lupinis rival the sometimes problematic peanut as a snack or, in a processed form, can be used in place of quinoa or rice. For this reason, they are sometimes referred to as a ‘grain legume’ and, similarly to couscous or bulgar wheat, in ground form will assume the flavor of whatever herbs or spices are added. Need a side for a curry? Add cumin, turmeric, fenugreek, and garam masala. Planning a chili? Just add some chipotle powder, cayenne, garlic, and cumin and you have an easy-to-prepare side dish. Moreover, according to an article in Well + Good, an online wellness portal, ‘unlike rice or quinoa, lupini beans are so low-carb that they even get a keto stamp of approval. That’s something not even chickpeas or lentils can claim.’(1)
And other analysts echo the significant health benefits of the bean. In the same family as garbanzo beans (aka chickpeas), lupinis have more than twice the protein content and substantially more fiber. In fact, they even rival oats and quinoa in terms of their prebiotic soluble fiber content. Moreover in a paper published in PubMed, a resource from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), their impacts on microbiota was found to be well worth considering. In ‘In vitro fermentation of lupin seeds (Lupinus albus) and broad beans (Vicia faba): dynamic modulation of the intestinal microbiota and metabolomic output,’ researcher Beatriz Gullón of the Catholic University of Portugal describes in vitro experiments using lupini beans ‘as carbon sources in anaerobic batch cultures to evaluate their impact on the intestinal microbiota composition and on their metabolic products.’(2) Monitoring decreases in pH levels, the production of short chain fatty acids (SCFA), and in the changes in bacterial colonies, Gullón’s team concluded that ‘impact on the intestinal microbiota suggests that lupin seeds and broad beans may be used in the development of novel functional foods, which can be included in dietary strategies for human health promotion.’(3)
With that said, some consumers may unwittingly be allergic to lupins, especially if they are already sensitive to peanuts.
Additionally, like some other legumes, the beans may be toxic if not prepared correctly. Alkaloids in bitter lupins can be a threat to the nervous system, resulting in dilation of the pupils, disorientation, cognitive confusion, dizziness, tremors, slurring of speech, and stomach pain. The potential for poisoning occurs, however, only when significant amounts of alkaloids are retained by the beans as a result of insufficient soaking and rinsing prior to cooking. The alkaloids are anticholinergic meaning that they block the neurotransmitter acetylcholine from binding to receptors in the nerve cells within the parasympathetic nervous system. As one half of the autonomic nervous system, this system is responsible for slowing the heart rate, relaxing sphincter muscles, increasing glandular activity, and controlling the involuntary movement of smooth muscles. Which explains, of course, why stomach pain and gastrointestinal issues are frequent symptoms of lupini poisoning.
But this is not the only danger. In a one-two punch, potential fungal contamination of lupini beans may also pose a significant threat to health.
The fungus in question, Diaporthe toxica, produces phomopsins, a poison that may result in mycotoxic lupinosis, causing liver damage and/or jaundice. These modified peptides are hepatoxic to numerous animal species (and nephratoxic to others, including pigs and horses) and, in its position paper ‘Scientific Opinion on the risks for animal and public health related to the presence of phomopsins in feed and food,’ the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) recommends that ‘human and livestock exposures [to such contaminants] should be kept as low as possible.’(4)
But allergies and fungal contamination aside, lupins show great promise on many fronts. While we’ve already touched on their health benefits this is not the only reason for their rise in popularity. In a world with increased interest in sustainability and ecology, lupins represent a crop that is actually ecologically beneficial. How so? Let’s take a closer look…
Unlike soy, lupini beans grow readily in temperate climes, which makes the next nugget of information all the more striking: the biggest producer of this staple is actually Australia, a continent not exactly renowned for its milder temperatures.
Cultivation of the beans was first introduced to Western Australia in the 1960s, supported by the country’s Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development and, within fifty years, it came to represent the region’s largest export. Sales of the harvest – mostly to the European Union, Korea, and Japan – have accelerated in the past two decades due to an upsurge in yield due to advances in lupin breeding, according to the Government of Western Australia.(5)
And what’s more, in an era of escalating pressure upon natural resources, the plant is perhaps perfectly positioned to offer a significant environmental benefit. Thanks to a significant adaptation, lupins’ roots feature nodules that partner with Bradyrhizobium – a gram-negative, diazotrophic bacterium – to fix atmospheric nitrogen into the soil. In this way, the partnership between the host plant and the bacterium results in a replenishment of nutrients including nitrogen and in increased soil fertility. This is good news not only for the cultivation of lupini beans but also for other crops which are cultivated in rotation with them. And, of course, in a desert landscape like Australia, the plants’ extensive root systems (often 2.5 meters in length) perform the additional service of binding the soil and slowing erosion.
So let’s review the picture thus far: Unless you are allergic to them and assuming they are free of fungal contamination, lupini beans offer a protein-rich, high fiber, prebiotic, antioxidant-rich food source that’s also gluten-free.
Their cultivation also contributes significantly to the economy of the erstwhile ‘wheat belt’ of Australia which harvests and processes fully 85% – around 700,000 tonnes (approximately 771,000 US tons) – of the annual world production.(6) And a lupini-based agriculture is not only good for the farmers and the consumers, but also for the environment.
But the benefits outlined depend upon one factor: broad consumer acceptance. In a space increasingly crowded with plant-based meats, alternatives to factory farmed animal products, pure plant proteins, and alternative proteins – not to mention recent developments in cellular agriculture – is there room for yet one more plant ‘superfood’?
As we’ve regularly noted, the uptake of plant-based options is on the rise as consumer awareness of the environmental cost of animal-based foods increases and global population growth brings renewed urgency to questions of food security and sustainability. Some of the options to traditional food sources – especially those involving the consumption of insect-based foods (we’re looking at you, crickets, cockroaches, and mealworms) – remain locked in a struggle to surmount the ‘ick factor’ and other technologies – such as the laboratory-engineering of protein from animal cells – are still in their infancy. However, consumables that return to using ingredients lower on the food chain are increasingly popular and more readily accepted by consumers across the spectrum.
Moreover, even though plant-based meat-like fast food is becoming more readily available (think Burger King’s rollout of the Impossible Food Inc’s Impossible Whopper or KFC’s adoption of Beyond Meat’s vegan chicken), the pesky question of cross-contamination of food items persists.
For those with a strict no-contact policy, for example, the fact that Burger King’s Impossible Whoppers are cooked on the same grill as the traditional burgers makes them a no-go, as a proposed class action brought by Phillip Williams (Williams v Burger King Corp, U.S. District Court, Southern District of Florida, No. 19-24755) indicates.(7)
For those seeking to avoid high-tech victuals that rely on scientific endeavor and cleanroom technologies in favor of foods that partner with nature turning to ancient-yet-novel protein sources is a path forward, albeit one that rarely leads to a drive-thru. But for those with more culinary ambition than a trip to the local burger joint who are looking for a new natural food, lupinis may be worth checking out. And for consumers who are also leery of engineered ingredients and potential contamination, and have already tried items made from duckweed, laver, or hemp, well… they just might be the next itsy-bitsy, teeny-weeny Big Thing.
When it comes to beans and lentils, are you an adventurer in the natural foods aisle? Do you have a favorite bean or do you avoid them – and their potentially mephitic intestinal after-effects – like the plague? We’d love to know your thoughts!