The Old English nursery rhyme that begins, "Pease porridge hot, pease porridge cold," provides a glimpse of a staple meal in the Middle Ages for peasants who couldn't afford meat and relied instead on a mash of peas and vegetables -- that may indeed have been in the pot for nine days. Peas, one of the earliest cultivated crops, may have originated in the region that extends from the Middle East across to Central Asia. Peas pack powerful nutrients, vibrant color and flavor that pleases healthy palates everywhere.
Green, or garden, peas (Pisum sativum) are considered legumes, as are beans, chickpeas and lentils. The three types of peas -- green peas, snow peas and snap peas -- are among the few legumes that are eaten fresh, as a vegetable, rather than dried (and reconstituted). Interestingly, of all the peas grown, only about five percent are sold as fresh -- most are sold as frozen or canned.
Tiny as they are, green peas are plump with phytonutrients, plant chemicals that have health-protecting properties. One in particular, the polyphenol coumestrol, was found to help reduce risk of stomach cancer when consumed daily, by eating peas and other legumes, for example (International Journal of Cancer, 2009). Legumes are also a great way to bulk up on dietary fiber, which was shown to have potential cholesterol lowering effects in a study in the 2010 British Journal of Nutrition.
Fresh peas are a hard-to-find treat. If you spot them between spring and early winter, choose bright green, unflawed pods -- smaller are sweeter. They're best eaten right away, but will store refrigerated for a few days. Otherwise, choose frozen over canned peas for lower sodium, brighter color, and firmer texture. Consume frozen peas within six months to a year to retain optimal nutrients. Peas bring color and sweetness to any dish -- salads, rice dishes, soups, hummus, casseroles, pastas -- and they also shine on their own or, classically, with carrots, or mushrooms and nuts in a quick sautÃ©.
Peas, green, frozen, cooked (1/2 cup)
Dietary fiber: 4 g (18 percent DV)
Protein: 4 g (8 percent DV)
Vitamin A: 1,680 IU (34 percent DV)
Vitamin C: 8 mg(13 percent DV)
Vitamin K: 19 mcg (24 percent DV)
Thiamin: 0.2 mg (15 percent DV)
Folate: 47 mcg (12 percent DV)
(Environmental Nutrition is the award-winning independent newsletter written by nutrition experts dedicated to providing readers up-to-date, accurate information about health and nutrition in clear, concise English. For more information, visit http://www.environmentalnutrition.com.)