The humble chickpea: lots more than aphrodisiac or falafel

Photo of a chickpea salad

CHICKPEAS, BELIEVED centuries ago to be an aphrodisiac, are now the focus of worldwide research for their nutritional qualities.

Chickpea breeder and collector of quirky historical information Ted Knights of Tamworth, NSW, says legend has it that in the 16th century chickpeas were added to the diets of stallions before their services were required. (Ground Cover has it on good authority that some people swear by the same energy-boosting properties of lupins, even today.)

These days scientists are testing chickpeas and other pulses for their potential health benefits to humans, as they are high in protein and high in fibre. Chickpeas also have a low glycaemic index (GI), which means blood sugar levels rise slowly rather than quickly, giving you energy and making you feel satisfied for a longer period. Low GI foods are important to reduce the risk of diabetes.

An international conference on pulses and health in Madrid, Spain, earlier this year heard that pulses wcre important for protection against cancer, cardiovascular disease and even constipation in children. However, Australians have one of the lowest rates of consumption of pulses in the world, with around half of production being exported.

Getting serious with pulse health claims

Nancy Longnecker, from the Cooperative Research Centre for Legumes in Mediterranean Agriculture (CLlMA), is currently coordinating a GRDC-supported suite of projects to clinically investigate the health effects of incorporating chickpeas in the diet.

"We chose to focus on chickpeas because they're already well accepted and widely used in Australia with dishes such as hummus and falafel being popular," Dr Longnecker said.

"It would probably be easier to encourage Australians to incorporate chickpeas in the diet rather than, say, soya beans."

Dr Longnecker said that a review of II studies involving chickpeas, beans, lentils and mixed beans, presented at the Madrid conference, found that regular consumption decreased cholesterol by 7 per cent, thereby lowering the risk of heart disease and stroke.

"This indicates that pulses may have a similar magnitude in elfect to oat bran," she said.

There is also some preliminary evidence that chickpeas are among the best pulses for lowering cholesterol. A collaborative study between rescarchcrs at Melbourne's Baker Medical Research Institute and the University of Tasmania, for the GRDC, should tease out more information on blood fats. Volunteers will be put on a month's diet incorporating chickpeas in salads, dips, breads and other foods, then swapped to a wheat-based diet for the same period.

"We're looking for effects on blood fats, triglycerides, on glucose and insulin, and also on satiety [feeling full] and on bowel habit," said Madeleine Ball, Professor of the School of Human Life Sciences at the University of Tasmania.

"We're looking to see if the higher fibre in the diet, be it from the chickpea or wheat products, gives you more frequent, softer bowel motions which may reduce people's risk of diverticulitis and possibly colon cancer."

Resistant starch for bowel health

Food scientist Stuart Johnson, from Deakin University, is conducting another study for the GRDC to investigate the effect of eating breads with 30 per cent chickpea flour or 'extruded' chickpea flour.

Extrusion is a common manufacturing process which has the effect of changing the structure of the starch to make it more 'resistant', thereby boosting properties important for bowel health.

Dr Johnson's volunteers will breakfast on the bread and also provide blood samples to test effects on glucose and insulin. If there are benelicial effects, the study may add to the weight of knowledge suggesting chickpeas may play a role in special diets for diabetics, he said.

Food manufacturers are following research into pulses with interest, with Edgell planning a major campaign to promote chickpeas. In a news release timed for National Diabetes Week in July this year, Edgell highlighted the use of canned kidney beans and chickpcas for use in stir fries, casseroles, curries, soups or salads to "help lower the GI content of your everyday meals".

While health is a good reason for choosing chickpeas, the challenge for those trying to boost domestic consumption is to meet today's demand for tasty and easy-to-prepare recipes. The GRDC-sponsored book Passion for Pulses (publisher Tuart House and available at many booksellers) includes these:

Chickpea salad with sundried tomatoes

Serves 4-6

Shortcut: Use two cups (300 g) precooked chickpeas to cut preparation time to 15 minutes.

Otherwise, total preparation time: 1.5 hours (plus soak chickpeas overnight)

Hands-on: 15 minutes

Hands-free: 1-1.5 hours

  • 1 cup (200 g) dried chickpeas
  • 120 g sundried tomatoes, slivered
  • 1/2 cup sultanas
  • 1/2 cup pecan nuts, roughly chopped
  • 2 tbsp olive oil
  • juice of 1 lemon
  • 1 tsp fresh dill, chopped
  • salt and pepper

SOAK CHICKPEAS overnight in water. Drain. Put in pot, covered with plenty of fresh water. Bring to the boil; reduce heat and simmer until chickpeas are just tender (about 1 hour). Drain, rinse and cool. Mix all ingredients thoroughly. Serve on bed of lettuce leaves with grilled chicken and chilled white wine.

Spicy chickpeas, beans and mushrooms

Serves 4

Total preparation time: 1 hour (plus soak chickpeas overnight)

Hands-on: 20 minutes

Hands-free: 40 minutes

  • 1/2 cup (100 g) dried chickpeas
  • I tbsp olive oil
  • 1 onion, sliced
  • 2 cloves garlic, crushed
  • 1 tsp ground cumin
  • J tsp ground chilli
  • 4 tomatoes, chopped
  • 2 cups green beans, sliced
  • 3 cups field mushrooms, sliced
  • 1 green capsicum, sliced
  • 2 sprigs fresh parsley, chopped
  • 2 tbsp lemon juice
  • freshly ground black pepper to taste

SOAK CHICKPEAS overnight. Drain; place in large saucepan, covered with plenty of fresh water. Bring to the boil for 15 minutes; gently simmer for about 1 hour or until chickpeas are tender. Drain and rinse.

When chickpeas have been cooking for 45 minutes, heat oil in large frying pan and add onion, garlic, cumin and chilli. Cook for about 5 minutes, stirring often.

Add tomatoes, green beans, mushrooms and capsicum. Cover pan. Cook for about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Add drained chickpeas and cook for a further 5- 10 minutes or until liquid has reduced. Add parsley, lemon juice and pepper. Stir to combine and serve with rice.

Program 6

Contact: Dr Nancy Longnecker 08 9380 2492