You’re probably familiar with some members of the legume family, but there’s more to these plants than just peanuts and soybeans. In fact, we didn’t actually know beans about ‘em until we did some research and put together a thorough guide on the subject. Here’s everything you need to know about the different types of legumes, including their health benefits and what they taste like.
12 Types of Legumes You Should Be Cooking & Eating Year-Round
From peanuts to fava beans
The term legume is something of a catch-all phrase used to describe any edible part of the plant from the Leguminosae or Fabaceae family—including the pods, stems and leaves. As such, it’s a diverse bunch that includes a variety of familiar veggies, including peas and beans, and they’re a great source of plant-based protein. The medical experts at WebMD also tell us that they contain resistant starch, which helps regulate blood sugar, and health-boosting antioxidants (polyphenols) that fight disease.
How Many Types of Legumes Are There?
There are more than 16,000 varieties of legumes, and they run the gamut in terms of color, taste and texture. Naturally, not nearly as many members of the Fabacae family—the third largest family of flowering plants—are likely to appear in your regular meal rotation. Here, a rundown of the most common legumes (plus how to make the most of them on any menu).
You might be surprised to learn that peanuts are not actually nuts but rather legumes. They’re also seriously good for you, boasting more than 30 different vitamins and minerals and an impressive seven grams of protein per serving. In fact, this 2022 study published in Frontiers in Nutrition is one of several to suggest that eating peanuts on the regular can lower your cholesterol and reduce your risk of heart disease. Peanuts are ideal for snacking when roasted and salted, and can shine in a wide variety of cooked dishes, too.
Chickpeas, garbanzo beans…call them what you will, but these creamy, starchy gems are powerhouses of protein and dietary fiber, clocking in at 14.5 and 12.5 grams per cup, according to the USDA’s FoodData Central. They also boast a mild and buttery flavor profile that plays well with other ingredients and spices and make for an extra hearty meal when added to stews and salads alike.
3. Kidney Beans
Kidney beans, named for their resemblance to said organ, have a mild, slightly sweet taste and a meaty texture that holds up well in soups, stews and other recipes that call for long cooking times. This type of bean is also particularly versatile as it tends to absorb the flavors of other ingredients. In terms of nutrition, kidney beans are an excellent source of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and dietary fiber, and provide a whopping 15 grams of protein per cup.
4. Green Peas
The flavor profile of green peas is sweet, fresh and, well, green. Toss ‘em into pasta and rice pilaf, puree them to make spring pea soup or add them to a panzanella salad. Indeed, there are plenty of ways to eat green peas, and a few compelling reasons for doing so—namely that they are high in many antioxidants and nutrients (vitamins A, C, and E, to name a few) and low in calories, to boot.
5. Lima Beans
Lima beans, also called butter beans, are a mild and creamy bean with a flat, slightly curved shape. Like other beans on the list, limas are protein-packed (15 grams per cup) and nutrient dense. When it comes to putting lima beans on your plate, we recommend using them for succotash or preparing them the Southern way for a decadent side dish—just be sure not to overcook them, lest their delicate flavor turn bitter.
6. Black Beans
A staple of Latin American cuisine, black beans are a legume you’re likely to find cozying up to a pile of rice or hiding out in a burrito. You can count on getting a sizable dose of folate and dietary fiber from every serving of black beans you put away and, at the risk of sounding like a broken record, they are a fantastic source of plant-based protein, too.
Native to East Asia, the soybean is full of protein-rich fiber (i.e., digestible energy). Although most commonly used to make soymilk and tofu, this mild bean can be lightly roasted and enjoyed on its own as a snack, or added to curries and stews, where it will lend creamy texture whilst soaking up the surrounding flavors.
Red, green, brown, black, French Puy—there are many varieties of lentils, and each one has its own unique texture and cooking requirements. That said, all the different types boast an impressive nutritional profile. For starters, lentils are an excellent source of B vitamins, iron, magnesium, potassium and folate; additionally, this legume is a go-to for staying regular, as it provides plenty of fiber.
Cooking recommendations for lentils differ depending on the particular variety you’re working with. Red, green and brown lentils are quick-cooking and soft, making them an ideal base for soups, stews and curries; Puy and black lentils, on the other hand, have an al dente texture that’s well-suited for salads and stand-alone side dishes.
9. Pinto Beans
Commonly found in Mexican and Tex-Mex fare, these cholesterol-free and protein-rich beans are high in fiber and folate, which is a winning combination for both digestive and heart health. We enjoy them swimming in broth, mashed and refried (with a side of rice, of course).
10. White Beans
Cannellini beans, Great Northern and (oddly) Navy beans are the most common types of white beans. Cannellini, the largest of the bunch, keep their shape, but cook up quite tender; Great Northern beans are medium-sized with firmer flesh, and navy beans are petite, quick-cooking and extra creamy. These distinctions are important when considering which kind to use in a particular recipe. (Hint: Cannellini can star in everything from salads and pastas to stews, Great Northern are best in soups and stews, and Navy beans are destined to be pureed into a dip.)
Culinary applications aside, all the white bean varieties serve up a serious amount of protein (17 grams per cup, cooked) and a healthy dose of minerals and nutrients, like folate, iron and potassium.
11. Black Eyed Peas
Don’t be fooled by the name—black eyed peas are beans, not peas. They’re also dense and creamy with a mild, earthy flavor that’s downright delicious. Nutrient-rich and packed with both fiber and protein, these beans are a popular choice in the South, where they’re used in summer salads, casseroles, mashes and more.
12. Fava Beans
Fava beans are a sweet and tender springtime gem that should be spread on bruschetta, tossed in pastas and salads and added to pretty much everything else you can think of while they’re in season. Bonus: These guys are chock full of fiber, potassium and (you guessed it) protein, too.
According to a 2015 study published in Clinical Diabetes, regularly consuming legumes can help prevent diseases like type 2 diabetes, hypertension and heart disease. Preliminary research has also indicated that legumes contain various compounds and minerals that may have anti-cancer effects. Experts at the Harvard School of Public Health note that “nutrients in legumes such as zinc have been associated with improved immune function and decreased oxidative stress to cells, and selenium and phytic acid have been found to inhibit the growth of tumors in mice.”
Indeed, a 2017 study published in the International Journal of Molecular Science concludes that beans are rich in polyphenols, a type of antioxidant that helps remove free radicals from the body and mitigate cell damage; this potent antioxidant action has a health-boosting effect that’s associated with preventing the aforementioned diseases, as well as a wide range of inflammatory and metabolic conditions. In other words, start incorporating legumes into your diet and your body will thank you for it.
Yep, we have even more good news about legumes—namely that they are one of the most sustainable crops around. There’s a huge body of evidence attesting to their sustainability, including this 2021 study published in Frontier in Sustainable Food Systems, which describes legumes as “a cornerstone of transitioning to more sustainable food systems,” adding that “legumes have also an important role in protecting nature’s biodiversity.” BRB, whipping up a fava bean salad for lunch.