Fava beans: The legume with multiple names and functions


Fava beans are one of four high-potential crops that the Smart Protein Project is focusing on. These wonder beans are rich in protein, highly nutritious, and a healthy addition to every diet. Nearly forgotten by most consumers, they will soon regain their former strength on the food market thanks to Smart Protein. Fasten your seat belts and enjoy this journey through the world of fava beans.

By Basti Rückert


Fava beans: The polynym pulse

Fava beans are the edible seeds of the legume crop Vicia faba, otherwise known as faba beans, horse beans, or broad beans.1)http://www.theplantlist.org/tpl1.1/record/ild-34133 The seeds are around 2 to 3 cm long and occur in various colours, including yellow, green, brown, black, and even violet.2)Duc, 1997 Regardless of the name and colour, these pulses are consumed by humans worldwide, although the majority of fava crops are a key source of livestock feed.3)Muehlbauer et al., 19974)Metayer, 2004 The size of fava beans determines their purpose – large seeds are normally used for human food, while small and medium-sized seeds are mostly used for animal feed5)Crépon et al., 2010 (although even the small ones can be consumed by humans). The Smart Protein project will help to create a shift from these beans being used for animal feed to being directly used for human consumption, so that we can benefit from their healthy nutrients and their delicious, creamy taste.


A natural medicine

Fava beans are highly nutritious. The dry seeds’ protein content is up to 35% and they contain important nutrients such as zinc, calcium, magnesium, potassium, and iron. They are also a valuable source of essential amino acids such as arginine, lysine, and leucine,6)Koivunen et al., 20167)Lizarazo et al., 2014 as well as levodopa, a dopamine-replacement agent, which, when synthetically produced, is used for the treatment of Parkinson’s disease. There have also been studies showing that including fava beans in the diet of patients with Parkinson’s disease substantial improves their motor skills,8)Rabey et al., 19939)Brauckmann and Latté, 2010 Even though fava beans, like other pulses, contain anti‐nutritional factors, it is super easy to completely reduce their amounts and harmful consequences – simply by soaking and cooking them.10)Luo et al., 2009 Unlike garden beans, they are not poisonous when eaten raw, but should nonetheless be cooked, for better digestibility.11)Julius Kühn-Institut, 2011 So why don’t we have these wonder beans in our European dishes? Or do we actually?

Coming home for Christmas beans

Although they are not as well known as chickpeas or lentils, the fava bean is thought to be one of the earliest domesticated crops.12)Duc et al., 2015 China, Ethiopia, Australia, France, and Morocco are currently the largest producers of fava beans.13)IMARC Group 2019 However, overall usage and production has declined by more than 50% in the last 60 years, a period in which traditional cropping systems have been increasingly replaced by industrialised cereal-based systems.14)Jensen et al., 2010 Even though the human consumption of fava beans in Europe is not that high,15)Metayer 2004 there are two national culinary occasions which involve this pulse: Christmas or ‘King’s’ cakes in Portugal (where they are known as bolo Rei) and Spain (roscón de reyes). Tradition states that whoever gets the slice with the bean is obligated to buy next year’s cake.16)Recipe1

Survival of the fittest/favest

Vicia faba is one of the most important winter crops for human consumption, especially in the Middle East.17)Duke, 1983 It actually requires a cool winter for optimal growth. The growing plant can survive frost and grow in high altitudes and in a wide range of soils.18)Matthews et al., 200319)CropTrust, 20)Ecocrop, 2014 Additionally, it tolerates temporary flooding better than lentils, peas, or other beans.21)Plūduma-Pauniņa et al., 2019

Fava beans are best planted in early spring and need 80 to 100 days to reach harvest. In countries where the winters are milder than in temperate climates, it is possible to plant them in early autumn for winter/early spring harvest.22)LfL23)Etemadi, 2015 During the first stage of the Smart Protein Project, there will be an experimental cultivar trial in Northern and Southern Europe in order to determine the area with the best cropping-system conditions. The seven sites where the experiment will be performed are in Poland, the Netherlands, Denmark, Ireland, Portugal, Spain, and Italy.

As soon as the perfect harvesting spot is found, the sowing time and regional origin will determine when you find fava beans at your local market. At the moment, you can find them in stores between late spring and early summer and sometimes even in autumn.24)FoodPrint, 2020 It’s also possible to buy them dried, canned, or in frozen packs, so you can enjoy your culinary journey all year round.

Travel by bean

In a time where travelling to distant places is not sustainable, the fava bean is your ticket to another world. Just roast the beans and eat them like peanuts, a traditional way of consuming fava beans in India.25)Duke, 1983 In many other countries, fava beans are an indispensable part of a delicious meal, especially for breakfast. The most popular fava bean dishes are falafel26)Recipe2 and medames27)Recipe3, which is a stewed bean dip. Non-chickpea Falafel and Medames are both national dishes in Egypt.28)Albala, 2007 They are not only easy to make, but cheap, plant-based, high in protein, the ingredients are easy to find, and the taste is delicious. See here for the recipes for fava bean falafel and medames.

Last but not least: Why are they smart?

Like other legumes, fava beans form a symbiotic relationship with rhizobia, a bacteria which allows them to use volatile nitrogen from the air, allowing the plant to grow independent of the nitrate occurrence in the soil. Which means that fava plants are able to grow in soils that are very poor in nutrients and will additionally enrich the soil for subsequent plants. This means less need for fertiliser, which protects the soil and groundwater and reduces CO2 emissions.29)Jensen et al., 2012

But fava beans are not only naturally smart – they can also be used in very smart ways. A neutral-colored concentrate with a protein content of around 65% can be made from fava beans via air separation, which then can be used in the production of plant-based meat alternatives. In addition, it is possible to naturally simulate the bleaching of baked goods with fava bean flour, without using any other additives. For example, adding 1% fava bean flour can significantly lighten the crumb of toasted bread. This is an important part of making French baguettes, for example, since the fava flour gives the bread its traditional splintering crust and pleasing crust color.

In summary, fava beans are not only a good alternative to animal-based protein, but also have benefits for human health and agriculture. They can be planted all over Europe and easily implemented in crop rotation, providing nitrogen for other plants.They represent a big opportunity on many levels: individually, in personal health; economically, with regard to finding solutions for our growing agricultural challenges; and, globally, to fight climate change. So many promising possibilities in one small bean!