Fava bean (scientific name Vicia faba) is a plant from the Fabaceae family, which also includes the pea and the vetch. It is a very old cultivated legume, so ancient that its origin has been lost. We can't be sure of its original area but it has been grown in Mesopotamia and the Middle East for at least 8000 years and then it slowly made its way into Europe. It is speculated that it was native from the Middle East and domesticated for the first time during the Stone Age, since remains of the plant have been discovered by archeologists in the oldest human villages. In the Bronze Age it was already found in Italy, as well as the area of the big Swiss lakes and even in Glastonbury in the UK.
These beans were a staple food in ancient times and were cultivated by all of the classical cultures like the Romans, Greeks and Egyptians. It has been found in ancient Egyptian tombs, where it seems to have been a poor man's food, avoided by the higher classes of society.
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However, it was a very important ritual plant for the Greeks and Romans. It seems to have been related to favism, a severe genetic disease. Favism usually affects only people with a Mediterranean heritage, the area where the plant was grown and consumed. This is believed to be the reason why all priests of the Orphic, Samothrace and Eleusinian mysteries were not allowed to eat fava beans and even looking or talking about them was forbidden. Greeks considered fava beans to be connected with the dead and even worshipped a fava beans demigod named Kyamites. People initiated in the Eleusinian mysteries were ingesting the kykeon in order to enter a coma-like state during which they met this divine being, which was said to be a near-death experience. Greek philosopher Pythagoras also asked his adepts not to eat or mention fava beans, apparently he believed they housed the souls of the deceased. This idea later passed into Roman religion, where the beans were used during funerals.
Despite their religious significance, the beans were widely eaten by the Greeks and Romans, being one of the oldest cultivated plants in the world. Even today, they are a staple of Mediterranean food. Fava beans are popular because of their creamy texture, versatility and special flavour, and can be added in numerous recipes. Mediterranean cuisine uses fava both as a summer food, when the beans are fresh, but also as a winter dish after they are dried.
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Due to its Middle Eastern roots, fava bean likes warm weather, however it is not a tropical plant and it will not survive in very hot climates. To avoid the hottest temperatures, it is best cultivated away from direct sunlight. It can grow in cooler areas as well. It forms large-sized bushes in greenhouses, so it has to be spaced at least 20 cm apart, or even more, in order to have enough room. The seeds can also be planted directly outside, initially at a depth of around 7 cm. The sprout happens in 1-2 weeks, the plants have to be thinned afterwards. It takes about 4 to 6 months for them to become fully mature and ready for the harvest.
Normally, cultivators aim for harvesting to happen during the month of July. To achieve this, the seeds must be planted in February or March, depending on the climate. The mature plants have the shape of a large bush. It has twin leaves and good productivity, yielding anywhere from 25 to 50 seed pods per bush. These are very similar to the ones of common pea but are covered with a white coating for protection and are much larger in size.
The fava beans have a very vigorous growth, with a dense and rich foliage. For this reason, the plant is a great choice for the fixing and protection of unstable soils. At the same time, it can enrich poor grounds, being a nitrogen fixer like most legume types. This allows it to restore the level of nitrogen in the ground. It is commonly used as mulch, after harvesting and plowing.
The peel of the beans is edible but has a strong woody texture. It is normally shelled before cooking, since the peel can ruin the delicate taste and soft texture of the seeds. It should never be eaten raw due to the danger of favism. This genetic disease was known and feared since ancient times and it can still be found among people with Mediterranean roots, whose ancestors consumed the plant. In addition, raw beans are known to trigger allergies in some people. Cooked beans don't seem to cause any problems.
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All around the Mediterranean, the beans are steamed, adding lemon and olive oil at the end. They are especially popular in Arab and Italian cuisine. There are numerous ways to cook fava beans: soups, purees, grills or salads. Italians add them to pastas and risotto, especially with artichoke. In Italy, the peak season is from May until August, when they are very common in markets.
The long history of this plant as a human food choice is due to its nutritional value. It is a very healthy option, since it contains no cholesterol or other saturated fats at all. However, they are a very cheap and plentiful source of vegetal proteins. It is also very rich in iron, manganese, fibers and folate, all of them having strong health benefits. Other vitamins and essential minerals found in sizeable quantities in fava beans are vitamin B6, vitamin K, copper, selenium, zinc, magnesium, potassium and thiamine.
The beans are very rich in a chemical compound named Levodopa (or L-dopa), which is used in modern medicine as a treatment for Parkinson's disease. However, the effectiveness of eating the beans as a treatment is disputed, since studies have not produced conclusive results yet. According to some of them, the progress and symptoms of the disease are reduced by constant consumption of fava beans. However, other researchers, as well as some clinical evidence, have found no real effects.
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In any case, fava beans are an excellent food choice because they are full of useful nutrients. They contain no cholesterol at all and are low in calories and fat, being both healthy and helpful in diets that aim to reduce weight. This is partly caused by the high content of fibers, which help digestive transit and allow the body more time to extract nutrients from food. The beans are an excellent resource of thiamine, a bioactive compound that is critical to the health of the nervous system and also boosts the usage of vitamins inside the body. As for the content of vitamins, they are rich in vitamin A (good for a healthy skin and vision) and vitamin C (a powerful antioxidant that boosts the immune system).
All legumes are rich in fibers and good for human health, fava beans also provide in addition to that a sizeable amount of vegetal proteins. They are also rich in essential minerals, in particular potassium, iron, phosphorus and magnesium. Potassium is needed by the body in high doses in order to have a healthy heart and normal blood pressure. Magnesium is important for the nerves, while phosphorus has a key role in the strength of teeth and bones.
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The dietary fiber content of fava beans is especially valuable, a quarter of a cup supplies no less than 9 grams of pure fibers. Combined with the other nutrients, this is excellent for both cardiovascular health and the digestive system. The fava beans provide both types of fibers, soluble and insoluble. The soluble fibers are more abundant and the most important for a healthy heart, since they reduce the levels of cholesterol and sugar in the blood. The ability of soluble fibers to decrease the level of low-density lipoprotein (also known as the bad cholesterol) has been validated by researchers.
Fava beans are generally a very healthy food choice but there are still a few possible side effects that have to be noted. The most important is favism, a genetic disease thought to only affect people with Mediterranean heritage. This is a latent condition that can cause severe allergies after eating fava beans, sometimes it is enough to smell the pollen for the symptoms to kick in. These can be severe and consist of jaundice, diarrhea, vomiting, confusion or even blood in the urine. Favism is actually caused by the lack of glucose-6-phosphate dehydrogenase (G6PD). It is actually a very rare disease but one must go see a doctor immediately after any allergic reaction to fava beans. It is triggered by a genetic issue but it can be treated by modern medicine, if reported in time.
Since fava beans have a high content of tyramine, people who are prescribed monoamine oxidase (MAOI) inhibitors should avoid consuming it. They can also cause digestive problems and stomach pain if large quantities are eaten, this is because of the very high dose of complex carbohydrates that are difficult to process.
Finally, the fava beans are very rich in levodopa, which can also be a cause of concern. This is because this compound is known to inhibit the absorption of vitamin B6, so eating too many beans can significantly reduce its level. Among other roles, vitamin B6 is important in the production of serotonin and norepinephrine, which are used to combat depression. As a result, excessive fava beans consumption can indirectly cause depressive symptoms.