Food as Medicine: Chickpea (Cicer arietinum, Fabaceae)

Chickpea is an annual crop with a small, bushy form. Its branched stems contain as many as 17 pairs of leaflets.1 Chickpea flowers are white to violet in color, appearing in spring to early summer.2 The edible chickpeas themselves are formed inside hairy, oblong pods which grow up to 1 ½” (38 mm) long, containing one to two seeds per pod.1 The genus name Cicer originates from the Hebrew kirkes, which means round, while the species name arietinum means “ram-like,” alluding to the resemblance of chickpeas to the rounded, curled head of a ram.3 The chickpea has many other names depending on the geographic region, such as garbanzo (Spanish), pois chiche (French), kichar or chicher (German), chana(Hindi), and gram or Bengal gram (English). In terms of its culinary qualities, chickpea has a nutlike taste with a texture that is both buttery and pasty.

There are two types of cultivated chickpeas, with distinctions based on size and color.3 Macrosperma or kabuli chickpea seeds are often large and cream-colored, while microsperma or desi is much smaller with a yellow-brown color.2,3 The kabuli chickpea is grown in temperate regions from Afghanistan through western Asia, as well as North Africa, southern Europe, and America.4 Desi chickpeas are grown predominately in the semi-arid tropics of southern India, Ethiopia, Mexico, and Iran. Currently, the chickpea is grown in more than 50 countries, including Australia.5


Phytochemicals and Constituents

The chickpea is an excellent source of both macro- and micro-nutrients. It is high in protein and contains carbohydrates, fat, and both soluble and insoluble fibers. In addition, chickpeas contain vitamins and minerals, such as vitamin C, riboflavin (vitamin B2), pantothenic acid (vitamin B5), pyridoxine (vitamin B6), calcium, folic acid, manganese, iron, magnesium, copper, zinc, molybdenum, chromium, and also selenium, a hard-to-acquire dietary trace mineral.5,6 Approximately 100g of chickpeas meets the recommended daily value of iron and zinc in a 2,000-calorie diet, and 200g meets daily magnesium requirements.5

Carbohydrate content in the chickpea is higher than that of other pulses.5 (“Pulses,” sometimes called “grain legumes,” are legumes that are harvested for a dried seed, such as kidney beans [Phaseolus vulgaris], garden peas [Pisum sativum var. sativum, Fabaceae], and lentils [Lens culinaris, Fabaceae].) Various types of sugars and carbohydrates — monosaccharides, disaccharides, and oligosaccharides — are all found in the chickpea, although the amount will vary depending on the genotype (desi or kabuli). Carbohydrates serve as a source of energy for the human body. Complex carbohydrates, such as oligosaccharides, benefit the microflora (i.e., the probiotic or beneficial bacteria) in the intestine.

Dietary fiber is important for intestinal health, and consumption of fiber has been associated with lower blood cholesterol levels and improved bowel health. Both soluble and insoluble fibers are found in the chickpea, providing a substrate for healthy intestinal bacteria and promoting bowel regularity. The chickpea contains a total of 18-22g/100g of dietary fiber, which is much higher than other pulses.5

The protein content found in the chickpea differs depending on whether or not the hull, or seed coat, is intact.5 Compared to other pulses, such as lentil, green pea, and kidney bean, chickpea has a higher amount of bioavailable protein. Chickpea also contains a variety of amino acids, including lysine, tyrosine, glutamic acid, and histidine. To complement the incomplete protein of chickpea, it is typically consumed with cereal grains.

Fat content in the chickpea is higher than that of other pulses and cereals. Chickpea is a good source of nutritionally-important polyunsaturated fat, and also contains monounsaturated fat and saturated fat.5Additionally, chickpea is higher in linoleic acid and oleic acid than other pulses. Both polyunsaturated fat and linoleic acid have been known to positively affect serum lipid levels (e.g., cholesterol) and insulin sensitivity and therefore are capable of lowering the risk of cardiovascular disease (CVD).7

The alpha-tocopherol content in chickpea is also higher than other pulses, which contributes to its antioxidant properties.5 Alpha-tocopherol, a form of vitamin E that the body absorbs easily, has been shown to have anti-inflammatory properties and plays a role in lowering cholesterol.8

Several bioactive compounds have been identified in chickpea, contributing to its growing reputation as a “functional food.” These compounds include antioxidant phenolic compounds such as isoflavones; protective carotenoids including beta-carotene, lycopene, lutein, and zeaxanthin; cholesterol-lowering phytosterols; and immune-enhancing and cholesterol-lowering saponins. These compounds are capable of providing health benefits beyond basic macro- and micronutrients.

Isoflavones have been shown to be capable of inhibiting LDL cholesterol oxidation and maintaining the physical properties of smooth muscle cells.5 Saponins have been shown to be capable of binding to dietary cholesterol and therefore reducing overall plasma cholesterol. Lycopene has been associated with a protective role against prostate cancer. Saponins have also been shown to have anti-cancer properties in rats by inhibiting the formation of pre-cancerous lesions.9

The Fabaceae family contains several species which have been associated with allergic reactions in sensitive individuals. The proteins found in these plants in high amounts, albumins, globulins, and prolamines, can trigger allergic reactions.9 Heating and cooking do not de-activate these proteins. Although the allergy to chickpea is less common than that of peanut or soybean, the symptoms can be severe. Symptoms range from hives to severe respiratory distress.

A common attribute of pulses like chickpea is the presence of anti-nutrient factors (ANFs), which limit their biological value and use as a food. ANFs interfere with digestion and absorption of nutrients. Chickpeas contain two kinds of protease inhibitors, and the phytic acid content of chickpea binds iron, zinc, calcium, and magnesium, making them unavailable for absorption in the small intestine.5 However, there are ways of accessing important nutrients from chickpea and other pulses. These ANFs can be reduced or eliminated by soaking, leaching, boiling, or cooking, as traditional practices have demonstrated.


Historical and Commercial Uses

Chickpea is believed to have originated 7,500 years ago from its wild plant ancestor and was domesticated in southeastern Turkey, within the Fertile Crescent of the Middle East.1 Chickpeas then migrated to the Mediterranean region about 4,000 BCE and reached India by 2,000 BCE, where they became a staple food crop. Cicero, the famous Roman philosopher from the first century BCE, gained his family name from “cicer,” the Latin name for chickpea, due to a cleft-like formation on an ancestor’s nose.10

Historically, the leaves, stems, and pods of the chickpea plant were grown for malic and oxalic acids, which were harvested by spreading a thin length of muslin over the crop during the night.11 The cloth was pressed out in the morning to collect the acids. These collected acids were used for various medicinal purposes: as an aphrodisiac, for bronchitis, mucus buildup, cholera, constipation, diarrhea, indigestion, flatulence, snakebite, sunstroke, and warts. Further, the chickpea has been used to expel parasitic worms from the body, as well as to treat blood disorders, and liver- or gallbladder-related issues, such as biliousness.5 A traditional preparation of a cooked chickpea-milk mixture still is used in Chile to control diarrhea in infants.4 For over 2,500 years, Uygur people in western China have used the chickpea as a treatment for hypertension and diabetes.5

Worldwide, the chickpea is prepared in a variety of ways to create culinary dishes that vary by region and culture. In India, the chickpea is ground to make flour known as besan, which forms the base of many dishes.5 In Asia and Africa, the chickpea traditionally is used whole in stews, soups, and salads, prepared by roasting, boiling, salting, or fermenting. In the Middle East and India, chickpeas are used in dishes such as hummus, falafel, and curries. Chickpeas most commonly appear canned or dried, since fresh chickpeas have a higher moisture content and spoil quickly.12

Americans may be most familiar with chickpeas as the main ingredient in hummus. The dish, which is an ancient recipe from the Mediterranean region, is composed of chickpeas, lemon, tahini, garlic, and olive oil, and is growing in popularity outside of its cultural sphere of influence in the near-Eastern countries of Lebanon, Israel, and Egypt. In 2010, an IRI market study reported that American consumption of pre-packaged hummus had increased 35% over 21 months and, by 2013, it had increased 25% more for an estimated market of $530 million in sales.13,14 Growing demand for hummus products has spurred some tobacco farmers to convert their fields to chickpea cultivation instead, and PepsiCo and Kraft Foods, two of the largest food companies in the world, have added their own brands to the line-up: Sabra Dipping Co. and Athenos, respectively.14 Unlike many popular packaged dips, hummus contains protein and fiber without much fat, and marketers are using this to target health-minded consumers, claiming that 2015 could be “the year of hummus.”15


Modern Research

Chickpeas have been consumed for thousands of years, but not until the past few decades has interest grown regarding the beneficial impact the chickpea can have on human health. Chickpeas are an economical source of protein, carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals, dietary fiber, folate, beta-carotene, and a healthy array of fatty acids. As a result, research has shown a number of health benefits from the chickpea.

In a 2008 clinical study conducted on adults with CVD risk factors, poor glucose tolerance, or family members with CVD risk factors, participants consumed chickpeas for 12 weeks.16 Participants showed an increase in polyunsaturated fatty acid and dietary fiber levels, as well as an increase in polyunsaturated to saturated fatty acid ratio that was also associated with a reduction of cholesterol and fasting insulin concentration.

Low-glycemic foods, such as chickpea, also tend to be high in dietary fiber and are digested slowly, qualities which correlate to reduced rates of obesity, coronary artery disease, and type 2 diabetes.17 A study on rats that were fed chickpeas along with a high-fat diet showed a decrease in excess fat accumulation when compared to a high-fat diet including no chickpeas.18 The chickpea diet also improved insulin resistance and prevented hyperglycemia following a meal. Human studies that integrated chickpea into a high-fat diet demonstrated improvements in fasting insulin and total cholesterol levels.5 Additionally, a short-term clinical study showed plasma glucose to be lower following a chickpea meal compared to wheat or white bread.17

The medical field is increasing its understanding regarding the role of the microbiome on health. The microbiota in the human gastrointestinal tract also has been shown to have an important role in health and disease. A human clinical study showed that certain species of beneficial bacteria were more abundant in subjects fed a chickpea diet when compared to a control diet.19 These findings indicate that the chickpea has the potential to modify the intestinal microbial composition and thus enhance the overall health and immune function of most individuals.

Nutrient Profile20

Macronutrient Profile: (Per 100g [approx. 1/2 cup] chickpeas)

378 calories

20.47 g protein

62.95 g carbohydrate

6 g fat

Secondary Metabolites: (Per 100g [approx. 1/2 cup] chickpeas)

Excellent source of:

Folate: 557 mcg (139.3% DV)
Molybdenum: 62 mcg (137.8% DV)
Dietary Fiber: 12.2 g (48.8% DV)
Manganese: 0.85 mg (42.5% DV)
Thiamin: 0.48 mg (32% DV)
Vitamin B6: 0.53 mg (26.5% DV)
Phosphorus: 252 mg (25.2% DV)

Very good source of:

Iron: 4.31 mg (23.9% DV)
Potassium: 718 mg (20.5% DV)
Magnesium: 79 mg (19.8% DV)
Zinc: 2.76 mg (18.4% DV)
Riboflavin: 0.21 mg (12.4% DV)
Vitamin K: 9 mcg (11.3% DV)

Good source of:

Niacin: 1.54 mg (7.7% DV)
Vitamin C: 4 mg (6.7% DV)
Calcium: 57 mg (5.7% DV)

Also provides:

Vitamin E: 0.82 mg (4% DV)
Vitamin A: 67 IU (1.3% DV)

DV = Daily Value as established by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), based on a 2,000-calorie diet.

Recipe: Rosemary-Herb Crackers

Recipe courtesy of CleanGreenSimple21

Ingredients:

  • 1 cup chickpea flour (Besan)
  • 2 tablespoons ground flaxseed
  • 1/8 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/2 teaspoon olive oil
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon dried rosemary
  • 1 teaspoon dried sage
  • 1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1/4 cup water (or more, as needed)

Directions

  1. Heat oven to 350°F. Combine all ingredients in a large bowl and mix until a dough forms. Add a bit more water (if the dough is dry) or chickpea flour (if the dough is loose) as needed to get a workable dough. The dough will be sticky.
  2. Sandwich the dough between two sheets of parchment paper and roll out to 1/8-1/4 inch thick.
  3. Remove the top layer of parchment paper and cut dough into 1″x1″ squares, poking holes in each cracker to prevent them from puffing.
  4. Bake for 15-20 minutes, until the edges, are starting to brown and the crackers are firm.

References

  1. The National Geographic Society. Edible: An Illustrated Guide to the World’s Food Plants. Lane Cove, Australia: Global Book Publishing; Washington, DC: National Geographic Society; 2008.
  2. Van Wyk B-E. Food Plants of the World. Portland, OR: Timber Press; 2006.
  3. Singh F, Diwakar B. Chickpea Botany and Production Practices. International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics: Telangana, India; 1995.
  4. Cicer arietinum (chickpea). Kew Royal Botanic Gardens. Available here. Accessed October 14, 2015.
  5. Jukanti AK, Gaur PM, Gowda CL, Chibbar RN. Nutritional quality and health benefits of chickpea (Cicer arietinum L.): a review. Br J Nutr. 2012;108(S1): S11-26.
  6. Murray M, Pizzorno J, Pizzorno L. The Encyclopedia of Healing Foods. New York, NY: Atria Books; 2005.
  7. Zuilani G, Galvani M, Leitersdorf E, Volpato S, Cavalieri M, Fellin R. The role of polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFA) in the treatment of dyslipidemias. Curr Pharm Des. 2009;15(36):4087-93.
  8. Rigotti A. Absorption, transport, and tissue delivery of vitamin E. Mol Aspects Med. 2007;28(5-6):423-36.
  9. Food Allergy Research and Resource Program. University of Nebraska-Lincoln website. Available here. Accessed October 13, 2015.
  10. Plutarch. Parallel Lives. Perrin B, trans. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press; 1919. Available here. Accessed October 22, 2015.
  11. Cicer arietinum. NewCROP FactSHEET. Purdue University website. February 23, 1998. Available here. Accessed October 15, 2015.
  12. Garbanzo Beans: Garden to Table. The Food Journal and Food, Nutrition, and Science website. May 25, 2008. Available here. Accessed October 22, 2015.
  13. Feretti A. There’s Hummus Among Us. Fox News. April 5, 2010. Available here. Accessed November 9, 2015.
  14. Kesmodel D and Fletcher O. Hummus Is Conquering America. The Wall Street Journal. April 30, 2013. Available here. Accessed November 9, 2015.
  15. Valinsky J. 2015 Will Officially Be the Year of Hummus. Mic.com. December 12, 2014. Available here. Accessed November 10, 2015.
  16. Pittaway JK, Robertson IK, Ball MJ. Chickpeas may influence fatty acid and fiber intake in an ad libitum diet, leading to small improvements in serum lipid profile and glycemic control. J Am Diet Assoc. 2008;108(6):1009-1013.
  17. Nestel P, Cehun M, Chronopoulos A. Effects of long-term consumption and single meals of chickpeas on plasma glucose, insulin, and triacylglycerol concentrations. Am J Clin Nutr. 2004;79(3):390-395.
  18. Yang Y, Zhou L, Gu Y et al. Dietary chickpeas reverse visceral adiposity, dyslipidaemia and insulin resistance in rats induced by a chronic high-fat diet. Br J Nutr. 2007;98(4):720-726.
  19. Fernando WM, Hill JE, Zello GA, Tyler RT, Dahl WJ, Van Kessel AG. Diets supplemented with chickpea or its main oligosaccharide component raffinose modify faecal microbial composition in healthy adults. Benef Microbes. 2010;1(2):197-207.
  20. Basic Report: 16056, Chickpeas, mature seeds, raw. Agricultural Research Service, United States Department of Agriculture website. Available here. Accessed October 8, 2015.
  21. Rustic Rosemary Herb Crackers. CleanGreenSimple website. March 2011. Available here. Accessed October 22, 2015.
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