This week we celebrate green peas, a favorite spring vegetable now in the peak of its season. It is the time when they have the best flavor and are usually the least expensive.. Green peas are a great addition to your menu because in addition to their concentration of vitamins and minerals, they also provide the carotenoid phytonutrients, lutein and zeaxanthin, which are known to promote vision and eye health.
Many public health organizations—including the American Diabetes Association, the American Heart Association, and the American Cancer Society—recommend legumes as a key food group for preventing disease and optimizing health. The 2005 Dietary Guidelines for Americans developed by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (USDHHS) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) recommends 3 cups of legumes per week (based on a daily intake of approximately 2,000 calories). Because 1 serving of legumes was defined as 1/2 cup (cooked), the Dietary Guidelines for Americans come very close to recommending of 1/2 cup of cooked legumes on a daily basis. Based on our own research review, we believe that 3 cups of legumes per week is a very reasonable goal for support of good health. However, we also believe that optimal health benefits from legumes may require consumption of legumes in greater amounts. These greater amounts are based on studies in which legumes have been consumed at least 4 days per week and in amounts falling into a 1-2 cup range per day. These studies suggest a higher optimal health benefit level than the 2005 Dietary Guidelines: instead of 3 cups of weekly legumes, 4-8 cups would become the goal range. Remember that any amount of legumes is going to make a helpful addition to your diet. And whatever weekly level of legumes you decide to target, we definitely recommend inclusion of green peas among your legume choices.
Given their exceptionally strong nutrient composition, we've been surprised at the relatively small amount of research specifically focused on green peas as a health-supporting food. Green peas have been largely overlooked in research studies on legumes, which have tended to concentrate only on beans. In studies where the health benefits of green peas have been directly examined, it's usually been in their dried versus fresh form. These research trends are ones that we would really like to see reversed! Due to the lack of wide-scale health research on green peas, many of the connections that we would expect to see need further research substantiation. Despite the lack of studies directly linking green pea intake to improved health, we believe that the outstanding nutrient composition of green peas will eventually be shown to have far-reaching health benefits, extending well beyond the ones presented in this Health Benefits section.
If you have traditionally thought about green peas as a "starchy vegetable" that cannot provide you with very much in the way of phytonutrients or body systems support, it's time that you change your thinking. Green peas are loaded with antioxidants and anti-inflammatory nutrients, and these health-supportive nutrients are provided in a wide range of nutrient categories. For example, in the flavonoid category, green peas provide us with the antioxidants catechin and epicatechin. In the carotenoid category, they offer alpha-carotene and beta-carotene. Their phenolic acids include ferulic and caffeic acid. Their polyphenols include coumestrol. Pisumsaponins I and II and pisomosides A and B are anti-inflammatory phytonutrients found almost exclusively in peas. Antioxidant vitamins provided by green peas include vitamin C and vitamin E, and a good amount of the antioxidant mineral zinc is also found in this amazing food. Yet another key anti-inflammatory nutrient needs to be added to this list, and that nutrient is omega-3 fat. Recent research has shown that green peas are a reliable source of omega-3 fat in the form of alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). In one cup of green peas, you can expect to find about 30 milligrams of ALA.
Ordinarily, we would expect this extraordinary list of antioxidant and anti-inflammatory nutrients to be associated with lower risk of most inflammatory diseases, including heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and arthritis. Although large-scale studies on green pea intake and these chronic health problems remain unavailable, researchers have already begun to suggest connections in this area, particularly with respect to type 2 diabetes. We know that chronic, unwanted inflammation and chronic, unwanted oxidative stress increase our risk of type 2 diabetes. We also know that intake of green peas is associated with lowered risk of type 2 diabetes, even though this association has traditionally been understood to involve the strong fiber and protein content of green peas. Researchers now believe that the antioxidant and anti-inflammatory nutrients in greens peas play an equally important role in lowering our risk of this chronic health problem.
As mentioned in the previous section, blood sugar regulation has been an area of special interest with respect to green peas and its fellow legumes. Few foods provide us with such substantial amounts of protein or fiber (about 8-10 grams per cup for each of these macronutrients) as green peas. These outstanding fiber and protein amounts directly regulate the pace at which we digest our food. By helping to regulate the pace of digestion, protein and fiber also help regulate the break down of starches into sugars and the general passage of carbs through out digestive tract. With better regulation of carbs, our blood sugar levels can stay steadier.
Recent research has greatly expanded our understanding of these health benefits. What we now know is that green peas and other pulses can help us lower our fasting blood sugar as well as our fasting insulin levels. Our long-term control of blood sugar (as measured by lab testing of glycosylated hemoblobin and fructosamine) is also improved by intake of green peas. When combined with an overall high-fiber diet, these benefits are increased. They are also increased when green peas are consumed as part of an overall diet that is low in glycemic index.
The outstanding antioxidant and anti-inflammatory nutrient composition of green peas are very likely to play a role in these blood sugar benefits. Regular consumption of antioxidant nutrients can help us prevent chronic, unwanted oxidative stress, while regular consumption of anti-inflammatory nutrients can help us prevent chronic, unwanted inflammation. Chronic inflammation and chronic oxidative stress are well-established risk factors for type 2 diabetes. Lowering our risk in these two areas is very likely to be one of the mechanisms involved with the diabetes-preventing benefits of green peas.
An area we expected to find well-documented health benefits from green peas is the area of cardiovascular disease. While we did not find specific research documentation in this area, we are confident that future research will confirm key health benefits from green peas in relationship to cardiovascular protection. Our reasoning here is simple. First, we know that strong antioxidant and anti-inflammatory protection is needed for healthy functioning of our blood vessels. The formation of plaque along our blood vessel walls starts with chronic, excessive oxidative stress and inflammation. Few foods are better equipped to provide us with antioxidant and anti-inflammatory nutrients than green peas. Second, we know that intake of omega-3 fat lowers our risk of cardiovascular problems. Green peas are a reliable source of omega-3 fat in the form of alpha-linolenic acid, or ALA. One cup of green peas provides us with ALA in an amount of approximately 30 milligrams. Third, we know that high levels of homocysteine raise our risk of cardiovascular disease, and that ample amounts of B vitamins are required to help keep our homocysteine levels in check. Green peas provide us with very good amounts of vitamin B1 and folate, and good amounts of vitamins B2, B3, and B6. The critical cardioprotective B vitamin, choline, is also provided by green peas in amounts of approximately 40 per cup. In combination, these nutrient features of green peas point to a likely standout role for this food in protection of our cardiovascular health.
Excessive inflammation and oxidative stress are risk factors not only for the development of chronic diseases like type 2 diabetes, but also for the development of cancers. A recent research study has begun to examine the benefits of green peas with respect to one particular type of cancer—stomach cancer. Stomach cancer (also called gastric cancer) is a disease that occurs more commonly in persons who have very low intake of antioxidant and anti-inflammatory nutrients, including key nutrients called polyphenols. A recent study based in Mexico City has shown that daily consumption of green peas along with other legumes is associated with decreased risk of stomach cancer. In particular, decreased risk of stomach cancer in this study was associated with average daily intake of a polyphenol called coumestrol at a level of 2 milligrams or higher. Pulses (including green peas) were determined to be a key food contributor to coumestrol in this Mexico-based study. Since one cup of green peas contains at least 10 milligrams of coumestrol, green peas are very likely to provide some unique health benefits in this cancer-prevention area. Of course, coumestrol is not the only cancer-protective nutrient present in green peas! The wide variety of antioxidants and anti-inflammatory phytonutrients in green peas is very likely to play a primary role in the cancer-preventive benefits of this food.
Legumes are plants that bear fruit in the form of pods enclosing the fleshy seeds we know as beans. Peas are one of the few members of the legume family that are commonly sold and cooked as fresh vegetables. Other members of the legume family, including lentils, chickpeas, and beans of all colors are most often sold in dried form. There are generally three types of peas that are commonly eaten: garden or green peas (Pisum sativum), snow peas (Pisum sativum var. macrocarpon) and snap peas (Pisum sativum var. macrocarpon ser. cv.). Garden peas have rounded pods that are usually slightly curved in shape with a smooth texture and vibrant green color. Inside of them are green rounded pea seeds that are sweet and starchy in taste. Snow peas are flatter than garden peas, and since they are not fully opaque, you can usually see the shadows of the flat peas seeds within. Snap peas, a cross between the garden and snow pea, have plump pods with a crisp, snappy texture. The pods of both snow peas and snap peas are edible, and both feature a slightly sweeter and cooler taste than the garden pea. Peas and other legumes belong to the plant family known as the Fabaceae, which is also commonly called the bean family or the pulse family. In fact, commercial production of peas is commonly placed within the category of pulse production, and like its fellow legumes, peas are often referred to as "pulses."
The modern-day garden pea is thought to have originated from the field pea that was native to central Asia and the Middle East. Because its cultivation dates back thousands and thousands of years, the green pea is widely recognized as one of the first food crops to be cultivated by humans. Peas were apparently consumed in dry form throughout much of their early history, and did not become widely popular as a fresh food until changes in cultivation techniques that took place in Europe in the 16th century. Peas are now grown throughout the world in nearly every climatic zone, and are widely consumed in both fresh and dried form.
While growing approximately 3 million tons of peas per year, Canada is currently the largest world producer and exporter of peas. France, China, Russia, and India are also large-scale producers of this legume. Despite being a large-scale producer of peas, India is also the world's largest importer of this food due to its great popularity in that country.
Only about 5% of the peas grown are sold fresh; the rest are either frozen or canned. When trying to decide between frozen and canned green peas, the following information may be helpful:
Overall, we recommend the selection of frozen peas over canned peas and recognize the convenience of frozen over fresh. However, we also encourage you to consider fresh peas whenever possible, and to choose them according to the following guidelines.
When purchasing fresh garden peas, look for ones whose pods are firm, velvety and smooth. Their color should be a lively medium green. Those whose green color is especially light or dark, or those that are yellow, whitish or are speckled with gray, should be avoided. Additionally, do not choose pods that are puffy, water soaked or have mildew residue. The pods should contain peas of sufficient number and size that there is not much empty room in the pod. You can tell this by gently shaking the pod and noticing whether there is a slight rattling sound. All varieties of fresh peas should be displayed in a refrigerated case since heat will hasten the conversion of their sugar content into starch.
Unlike the rounded pods of garden peas, the pods of snow peas are flat. You should be able to see the shape of the peas through the non-opaque shiny pod. Choose smaller ones as they tend to be sweeter.
To test the quality of snap peas, snap one open and see whether it is crisp. They should be bright green in color, firm and plump.
Garden peas are generally available from spring through the beginning of winter. Snow peas can usually be found throughout the year in Asian markets and from spring through the beginning of winter in supermarkets. Snap peas are more limited in their availability. They are generally available from late spring through early summer.
At WHFoods, we encourage the purchase of certified organically grown foods, and green peas are no exception. Repeated research studies on organic foods as a group show that your likelihood of exposure to contaminants such as pesticides and heavy metals can be greatly reduced through the purchased of certified organic foods, including green peas. In many cases, you may be able to find a local organic grower who sells green peas but has not applied for formal organic certification either through the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) or through a state agency. (Examples of states offering state-certified organic foods include California, New York, Oregon, Vermont, and Washington.) However, if you are shopping in a large supermarket, your most reliable source of organically grown green peas is very likely to be green peas that display the USDA organic logo.
If you will not be using fresh peas on the day of purchase, which is the best way to enjoy them, you should refrigerate them as quickly as possible in order to preserve their sugar content, preventing it from turning into starch. Unwashed, unshelled peas stored in the refrigerator in a bag or unsealed container will keep for several days.
Here is some background on why we recommend refrigerating green peas. Whenever food is stored, four basic factors affect its nutrient composition:exposure to air, exposure to light, exposure to heat, and length of time in storage. Vitamin C, vitamin B6, and carotenoids are good examples of nutrients highly susceptible to heat, and for this reason, their loss from food is very likely to be slowed down through refrigeration.
Fresh peas can also be blanched for one or two minutes and then frozen. If you decide to blanch and freeze your green peas, we recommend a maximum storage period of 6-12 months.
If you'd like even more recipes and ways to prepare green peas the Nutrient-Rich Way, you may want to explore The World's Healthiest Foods book.
Green Peas, cooked
|vitamin K||35.68 mcg||40||6.2||very good|
|manganese||0.72 mg||36||5.6||very good|
|fiber||7.58 g||30||4.7||very good|
|vitamin B1||0.36 mg||30||4.7||very good|
|copper||0.24 mg||27||4.1||very good|
|vitamin C||19.56 mg||26||4.1||very good|
|phosphorus||161.17 mg||23||3.6||very good|
|folate||86.78 mcg||22||3.4||very good|
|vitamin B6||0.30 mg||18||2.7||good|
|vitamin B3||2.78 mg||17||2.7||good|
|vitamin B2||0.21 mg||16||2.5||good|
Density>=7.6 AND DRI/DV>=10%
Density>=3.4 AND DRI/DV>=5%
Density>=1.5 AND DRI/DV>=2.5%