Pickled in a salty brine, fatty and firm like an olive, the unassuming lupin holds promise as a future food. Packed with more protein than any other legume and offering a host of other nutritional benefits, there are plenty of reasons the bean should be better known in Canada, beyond as an Italian bar snack.
As obscure as they are in the West — your best bet is scouring the shelves at Italian grocery stores (I bought a jar at my local cheese shop) — lupins contain roughly 40 per cent protein. This is just one of the reasons that scientists at Edith Cowan University (ECU) in Perth, Western Australia see lupin’s “huge potential” as the next superfood.
“(It has) many other nutritional properties: It can combat heart disease, it can reduce blood glucose levels and reduce inflammation in the body,” says Arineh Tahmasian, ECU PhD candidate and the lead developer of a new testing regime that enabled the researchers to identify more than 2,500 different lupin proteins.
A deeper understanding of the bean’s proteins, the subject of their new research published in the journal Food Chemistry, is an important step towards transitioning the crop from fodder to sought-after food.
Western Australia is the world’s leading producer of lupins; they’re also grown in Eastern Europe, South Africa and the United States, primarily as animal feed or green manure (a crop that improves soil quality). With her PhD project, Tahmasian set out to stimulate the use of lupins in food products, provide information to producers with the goal of developing improved varieties, and help meet the growing demand for plant-based proteins.
Outside of Italian grocery stores, lupins may be better known for their tall spikes of sweet pea-like blossoms, but the legume could play an important role in meeting protein needs. By 2050, the world is projected to face a protein gap of around 46 per cent and will need 70 per cent more food, highlights Michelle Colgrave, future protein mission leader for the CSIRO, professor of food and agricultural proteomics at ECU, and Tahmasian’s supervisor.
Today, the global diet is exceedingly narrow: Just five animals and 12 plants provide 75 per cent of the world’s calories. To produce enough food for the future, says Colgrave, we’ll have to widen our scope.
“We need to really look at what we can grow, what we can utilize on this planet, and how we utilize the biodiversity that’s out there,” she adds. “Arineh and I share the view that lupin could be one of the next superfoods, and it really just hasn’t been explored.”
Another factor making the lupin unique among legumes, writes food historian and University of the Pacific professor Ken Albala in Beans: A History (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2017), is that native varieties exist on both sides of the Atlantic. Southern Europe gave rise to white, yellow, and narrow-leaf or blue lupins (Lupinus albus, luteus and angustifolius); the Andes, tarwi (Lupinus mutabilis).
The Greeks and Romans viewed lupins “as food for animals or only the poorest of people,” Albala writes, which helped push the bean to Europe’s culinary margins. Though in the Mediterranean, lupins were “a relative latecomer to domestication,” tarwi was a staple of the Andean diet, which the pre-Inca population domesticated as early as 2000 BCE.
In present-day Bolivia and Peru, lupins are roasted and milled into flour, added to soups, stews, noodles, custards and breads, according to Albala. In Italy, they’re still enjoyed as a savoury bite at fairs and festivals, which led to how you’re most likely to find them in Canada: labelled lupini beans and offered as a bar snack.
This is how Luke Champion, co-owner and operator of Toronto’s Good Cheese (where I secured my jar of lupini beans), first encountered them years ago: “served in a bowl, salted” at the southern Italian-inspired Bar Volo. “You’d just slide them out of their husk and eat them as is,” says Champion.
They originally ordered them with the same intention, to serve alongside drinks in their seating area, but when Good Cheese shifted to a retail model during the pandemic, they started stocking them. “I wouldn’t say they’re popular, but they do sell,” he adds. “We probably order about a case of six jars every two months or so.”
Varieties such as the white lupin — the one you’re most likely to buy in Canada — need to be boiled and washed not just for a few hours, but about a week while changing the water frequently, Albala writes. It takes effort to overcome the bitter alkaloids and render “the oddest rebel among beans” edible.
In Australia, growers prefer the narrow-leaf variety, which has been bred to be sweeter and doesn’t have the bitter notes associated with other types of lupins, Colgrave explains. The Australian sweet lupin doesn’t require the same sort of intense soak and ferment as white, but it’s just this kind of barrier to adoption that the ECU research seeks to address.
“You have to do a little bit more with them,” Colgrave says of legumes in general. “So we’re looking at, how do we actually overcome some of those hurdles, make them more convenient, so that they can become part of people’s diets.”
Lupin flakes are available in Australia, which Tahmasian likes to use when baking, substituting it for up to 30 per cent of the wheat flour in bread. Due to lupin’s nutritional makeup — high in fibre and protein, low in carbohydrates — eating even small amounts is satiating.
“They really sit in that sweet spot, because fibre is obviously great for gut health,” says Colgrave. “But it does make you feel quite full as well … which is also good, because I think we over-consume anyway. So that feeling of satiation is really important.”
Lupins have been bred since the 1960s, which makes it “the new kid on the block” compared to other crops such as wheat, Colgrave adds. She sees their research as an opportunity to explore its genetic diversity and select lines with the most desirable traits: “We can then bring those into breeding programs and cross them to make a superfood even more super.”
Commonly used to boost protein in plant-based meat products, bakery items, gluten-free products, meats (e.g., sausages) and pasta, the researchers see many other possibilities for lupins — not just in food, but pharmaceuticals and nutraceuticals as well. Tahmasian admits there’s still a long way to go before lupins are as mainstream as soybeans or lentils, “but we have started. And I think if we focus on the research in this area, we will get there.”