I’m just back from Jordan where we celebrated The Husband’s Big Birthday – rather belatedly, thanks to Covid-19. I always take great interest in how other cultures eat and live, and what they can teach us. The Jordanians (who have much lower rates of dementia and cancer than we do) eat beans for breakfast. Not the ubiquitous baked bean in a sugary red sauce, but a protein-rich fibrous bean which we Brits export or feed to animals. It’s called a fava bean, otherwise known as a type of (dried) broad bean, and it’s well nigh impossible to find in a regular British supermarket. I found mine in a middle-eastern deli but have since discovered a brand called Hodmedods that can be bought online, in health food shops and from Ocado.
The Jordanians mash the cooked beans and serve them warm from a swan-necked vessel using a Harry Potter-ish long-handled ladle. The beans are then drizzled and scattered with various spices, sauces and olive oil. This was breakfast for Daughter and me, every morning. Mopped up with fresh pitta bread.
If you’re regular readers of our blog, you’ll know that Susan and I are big fans of fibre. But we’re also converts to protein. The older we get, the more protein we need. For many of us, breakfast is our least protein-rich meal. Meanwhile the fava bean (sometimes called the faba bean) contains more protein than any other pulse excluding the soya bean – and with none of soy’s genetic modifications.
A 2022 report published in Nutrient Journal described the overlooked fava bean like this:
‘A rich source of bioactive compounds that have reported health-enhancing properties. These include phenolic compounds, resistant starch, dietary fibres, non-protein amino acids (L-DOPA and GABA – which Susan wrote about in her last post), and, foremost, bioactive peptides. The fava bean, due to its richness in health-promoting constituents, has high potential in the development of new nutraceuticals and biofunctional food ingredients.’
Yes, you read it here first: Big Pharma is investigating the common fava bean (amongst other things, a clinical trial showed improved motor skills in Parkinson’s patients after eating fava beans). Much easier to buy a tin, mash the contents, then scatter and drizzle with the simplest of toppings.
The authors of the above report add that ‘Fava bean peptides released after gastrointestinal digestion have shown antioxidant, antidiabetic, antihypertensive, cholesterol-lowering, and anti-inflammatory effects, indicating a strong potential for this legume crop to be used as a functional food to help face the increasing incidences of non-communicable diseases.’
So why don’t we eat fava beans?
Actually, we used to eat fava beans – they were one of the first crops to be grown in Britain, five thousand years ago. But they fell out of favour during the middle ages. The wealthy chose meat over beans, and fava became ‘peasant’ food – maligned and unfashionable. And so fava beans, unlike some pulses, are part of our distant culinary heritage.
Scroll to the end for a recipe for Foul (pronounced Fool), the rather unappetising name given to Jordanian Breakfast beans – also known in Egypt as Ful Medames, and eaten all over the Middle-East in various formations.
Despite Jordan’s widespread poverty and health inequality, its rates of death from dementia, cancer, and Parkinson’s are lower than both those in the UK and the US. Not only do they eat beans for breakfast, but their diet is extremely plant-rich, alcohol-free and they have a fondness for a wild herb tea, made from mountain sage, thyme, mint and verbena. According to American longevity expert, Dr Mark Hyman, the wild sage tea imbibed by Greek islanders contains more catechins (an anti-inflammatory phytochemical that we wrote about here) than green tea. I’ve been drinking Jordanian Dana tea – which is much cheaper than green tea – with great enthusiasm.
Much of Jordan is desert where temperatures plunge at night. But I didn’t worry, because as I shivered away a report dropped into my in-box reminding me that cold is an agent of healthy longevity. But this report went further, shedding light on why and how cold helps us live longer.
You may remember a blog post I wrote on how misfolded proteins might be the long-sought cause of Alzheimer’s. I used the analogy of a linen cupboard to explain the chaos that ensues when bed sheets aren’t properly folded. Our cells are the same. They can’t function if proteins aren’t neatly folded. And so our bodies expend a certain amount of time and energy cleaning out the messed-up sheets/ misfolded proteins.
It appears that a shot of cold prompts our bodies to remove misfolded proteins more efficiently and effectively, returning our cells to order. Much like a cup of tea or coffee might spur us to re-order the linen cupboard after someone (partner? Teenage offspring?) has messed it up by putting ineptly folded sheets on the towel shelf.
As the authors of this study stated, cold ‘could play a role in reducing the prevalence of harmful misfolded proteins, which are thought to play a role in the development of a number of conditions associated with aging, such as Alzheimer’s…. [cold] is one of the most effective mechanisms known to prolong longevity across many different species.’
For over half a century, scientists have known that cold activates longevity. They just didn’t know how or why. In this study (which began with worms), researchers noticed that the lower the temperature, the fewer misfolded proteins in the worms’ cells. They then investigated human cells where they found that reducing the temperature to 36ºC triggered exactly the same cell-clearing mechanism as it had in worms.
Before you make a dash for the freezer, be aware that the benefits disappeared at 35ºC (the temperature at which hypothermia can set in). Which is to say that moderate cold temperatures are optimal for ridding our cells of toxic misfolded proteins. Our normal temperature is 37ºC, so to reap the benefits of ‘cold’ therapy we should feel uncomfortably cool not dangerously frozen. And bear in mind that we all respond differently to cold, so listen to your body and use your common sense. Susan and I take a daily cold shower of between one and two minutes. I wrote about the mood-enhancing and anti-inflammatory benefits of cold water here , and there are chapters on walking in the cold in my book, 52 Ways to Walk.
We’ll be discussing food, cold and so much more on Monday 24 April at our webinar launch of Susan’s new book, The Power Decade. It’s a fascinating read and I can’t wait to take a deep dive into Susan’s many discoveries. Please join us at 7pm (we’ll be starting promptly and finishing at 7.45) to find out how you too can unleash a power decade of your own.
(Not working? Find the Zoom link here.)
FOUL (SERVES 2)
Take one tin of fava beans, mashed with their own liquid and heated until warm.
Serve with small bowls of: cumin; sumac; chili flakes; tahini thinned with hot water and a splash of lemon juice to make a sauce; and a liquidy sauce made by blending two green, de-seeded chillis with 2 cloves of garlic, and the juice of a lemon.
Optional: chopped fresh tomatoes.
Drizzle the mashed, spice-scattered, sauce-strewn beans generously with olive oil and season.
Yup – that’s it! Enjoy…
And if you’ve cooked successfully with fava beans, please share any tips in the Comments box. Thank you!