Pass Those Peas, Please

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Peas have never been a favorite vegetable for most kids, especially if the peas come from a can. But now that you’re older, hopefully you’ve cultivated a taste for this powerhouse food. And with spring finally here, it’s time to lighten up your palate and enjoy a vegetable that has plenty to offer in the way of nutrition.

A bit of pea history…
The peas that we eat today are thought to originate from Central Asia and the Middle East and may have been one of the first crops grown by humans. Peas were probably originally consumed in their dry form; it wasn’t until about the 16th century that they were eaten fresh. Canada is the largest producer and exporter of peas, but the United States, France, China, Russia, and India are big producers, as well.

Peas belong to the legume family, which means that they’re close cousins of black beans, lentils, and chickpeas. However, green peas are one of the few legumes that are eaten fresh as well as dried.

Nutrition facts
If you have diabetes, you’ve probably been taught that peas belong to the “starchy vegetable” category, unlike, say, green beans or broccoli, which are considered “nonstarchy vegetables.” Peas do contain more carbohydrate than some other vegetables, and therefore are generally counted as a carb choice per serving at a meal. Here’s the nutrition breakdown of a half-cup serving of peas:

• 62 calories
• 11 grams of carb
• 4 grams of protein
• 0 grams of fat
• 4 grams of fiber

Although peas have more carbohydrate than some other vegetables, don’t let that discourage you from eating them. Read on to learn how peas can give your health a boost.

Health benefits of peas
Once thought of as a lowly vegetable, peas have come into their own lately. Here are some of the benefits that peas have to offer.

Antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. Green peas are loaded with antioxidants, including catechin and epicatechin (also found in green tea), thought to protect against heart disease and skin cancer. Peas also contain omega-3 fatty acids in the form of alpha-linolenic acid, which can fight inflammation. Reducing inflammation is an important part of disease prevention, especially for chronic diseases such as heart disease and Type 2 diabetes.

Diabetes control. Yes, peas contain carbohydrate, but they can still be part of a diabetes eating plan. The fiber and protein content of peas is thought to help slow digestion, which, in turn, can help smooth out blood sugar levels after eating. Peas also rank low on the glycemic index scale, with a glycemic index of 22. (The glycemic index is a ranking of how carbohydrate foods affect blood sugar.)

Weight control. Peas are relatively low in calories and fat, and high in protein and fiber, making them a good choice for any weight-control plan.

Cancer prevention. Peas contain a substance called coumestrol, which is a type of polyphenol. A study out of Mexico has shown that just 2 milligrams of coumestrol may help fight stomach cancer. One cup of green peas has 10 milligrams of this polyphenol.

Pea protein
Studies have shown that the protein found in peas is a “high-quality” protein, containing both essential and nonessential amino acids (similar to the protein found in eggs and soy). As a result, pea protein has been popping up lately in food products and protein supplements. One reason for this is that pea protein contains an amino acid called arginine, which is needed to build muscle and may help enhance sports performance. Pea protein also contains the amino acids lysine, glutamine, leucine, isoleucine, and valine, which are thought to promote a healthy digestive tract. And a study in rats fed pea protein showed that it helped to lower blood pressure levels.

Pea protein is vegan, which means that it contains no animal products. It’s also a good choice for people who may be allergic to egg, soy, or milk protein. This protein can be used in place of eggs in baking.

Expect to see pea protein in snack or energy bars, cereals, frozen desserts and even meat and poultry products. It also is available in powder form. A word of caution: Before jumping on the pea protein bandwagon, it’s best to check with your health-care provider before using this or any type of protein supplement, especially if you have kidney or liver disease.

Enjoying peas
Spring is the best time to enjoy freshly grown peas. The season for fresh peas is short, so snap them up when you can. Choose fresh peas that have shiny, firm, and bright green pods. It’s best to eat fresh peas right away, but if you can’t, they’ll keep in the fridge for a few days as long as they’re tightly wrapped. Peas are great as is (after being lightly steamed), but you can add them to garden salads and pasta dishes, too. Also, mix a handful in to your chicken or tuna salad for a pop of color.

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