Some food items are simply hard to place because they exist between categories or do not seem to fit into the category they actually belong to. Tomatoes are, botanically speaking, fruit, but everybody treats them as vegetables. Strawberries are nuts, but peanuts are not!
And everybody knows that potatoes are vegetables, but when it comes to the place they occupy in meals, they are usually treated as some kind of pasta or grain.
Lentils are another one of those kinds of food that are difficult to categorize. What are they? Is a lentil a grain, or are lentils a vegetable?
Are Lentils A Vegetable?
Lentils are not vegetables, but they are legumes. The difference between legumes and vegetables is that vegetables can come from very different parts of a plant, like its roots, stems, fruits, or shoots, but legumes are always the seeds of a plant. Many people consider legumes to be a subgroup of vegetables, though.
Legumes are the seeds of plants, and those seeds can be eaten in their immature forms like in green peas and green beans, or in the mature form, like beans, chickpeas, and also lentils.
If we want to be even more technical, a legume refers to any plant from the Fabaceae family that would include its leaves, stems, and pods. A pulse is an edible seed from a legume plant and examples of that would include beans, lentils, and peas.
RELATED: Is Onion A Vegetable?
How Many Different Kinds Of Lentils Are There?
There are a lot of varieties of lentils. The four main categories that make sense to be able to tell apart are brown, green, red/yellow, and specialty lentils.
The color of brown lentils, which have a rich, earthy taste, can range from khaki to almost black, and they are the most common type of lentils.
When you come across a bag of lentils in the grocery store that simply says “lentils” without any further specification, these are likely brown lentils.
Because brown lentils hold their shape during cooking, they are often used in warm salads, casseroles, and soups, as well as vegetarian meatloaf or veggie burgers.
Green lentils come in a greater variety of sizes than brown lentils. Like brown lentils, they retain their shape, so they can be used for the same kinds of dishes. They have a stronger and slightly peppery flavor, though.
Red or yellow lentils come in a variety of colors from golden yellow to orange and red. They are sometimes sold “split” which means that the lentils have been processed into smaller lentil parts.
Split red lentils have the shortest cooking time of all lentils, which is why they are well-loved for quick, everyday meals
RELATED: Is Barley a Legume?
They have a mild and slightly sweet flavor and are a staple of Indian and Middle Eastern cuisine. Since they do not retain their shape when cooking, disintegrate, and become a rather mushy mass, they are often used as a thickener. Classic recipes with red lentils are also Indian curries or dals.
The Black Beluga and the Puy lentils are the most popular of specialty lentils. Black Beluga lentils are tiny, shiny, and black and kind of look like caviar, which explains the name.
Puy lentils are grown in a region of France called Le Puy. They grow in volcanic soil and are of a dark, bluish-green color.
They are very high quality and usually are at the center of the meal they are a part of. Cheap lentils are often used as a cheaper alternative to Puy lentils.
What Are the Benefits of Eating Lentils?
Lentils are a very inexpensive food staple that is full of nutrients. They are full of magnesium, which is good for the bones; zinc, which supports the immune system; and potassium, which is good for muscles and nerves.
Additionally, they contain folates, which are necessary for making red blood cells, iron, which helps against fatigue, as well as lots of B vitamins.
Since lentils are low in calories and have over 25 percent of protein, which is a necessary building block of bones and muscles, they are often used as a meat alternative in a vegetarian or vegan diet or when someone simply wants to reduce their meat consumption.
Replacing red meat with lentils every once in a while is good for the heart’s health, for example. Lentils are also rich in fiber and, as such, are very beneficial for intestinal health and the growth of healthy gut bacteria. Fiber lowers cholesterol and can prevent colon cancer.
Some of the phytochemicals that lentils contain also have anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidant effects.
MORE RELATED INFORMATION
Lentils don’t need to be soaked before cooking like many other legumes. They can be cooked straight away, but it is worth knowing that soaking lentils will reduce cooking time, especially if you are in a hurry.
Lentils can be soaked in cold or hot water from everywhere between 15 minutes to 24 hours. The process will be dramatically faster if you use hot water.
Lentils shouldn’t be eaten raw as they contain a lectin. Lectin is a type of protein that binds to your digestive tract making it difficult to digest and when consumed in large quantities it can cause vomiting and diarrhea. As lectin is sensitive to heat, it is always recommended to cook lentils.
Alicia is the senior content editor and writer here at Food FAQ. She has extensive experience with acid reflux, heartburn, GERD, and various supplements. When not eating food for “research”, she’s watching “Friends” for the 100th time.