By Erin Marissa Russell
Most gardeners (and people in general) know what vegetables are, and most of us also know that beans are legumes, but what is the difference between vegetables and legumes? Aren’t beans vegetables, too? What makes a vegetable a vegetable and a legume a legume, anyway? We’ve got the answers for you right here. The short answer is that vegetables can be any edible part of the plant in general, but legumes are the edible seed portion only of a plant, either dried or fresh, such as peas or lentils. Keep reading for a more detailed explanation!
Vegetables Versus Legumes: Definitions
Before we can really get into the similarities and differences between vegetables and legumes, we need to know exactly what these two words mean. When it comes down to it, the definitions of these two categories and the difference between them are pretty simple.
- The foods we call vegetables come from various parts of the plant. The veggies we eat may consist of a plant’s leaves, roots, stems, shoots, tubers, or even flowers (as in the case of squash blossoms).
- In contrast, the legumes we eat come from one specific part of the plant: the seeds. Sometimes we eat the immature seeds. Examples of legumes in this category are beans or green peas, which are sometimes called English peas. In other cases, we eat mature seeds after they’ve been dried. This is true for chickpeas, lentils, and dry beans and peas. Some legumes may be eaten either fresh or dried. For instance, you may have seen fresh black-eyed peas in the produce section of the grocery store, but you’ll also find black-eyed peas in their dried form on the shelf.
- “Vegetables” is a broad category that can further be broken down into various vegetable types. We’ve listed these vegetable types below and provided examples. There is some overlap with the terms—as with potatoes, which are both root vegetables and nightshades, or collard greens, which are both brassicas and leafy greens. Also, some of the foods we call vegetables from a culinary or dietary standpoint may botanically be fruits, as with tomatoes.
- Cruciferous veggies (also called brassicas): Arugula, bok choy, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, collard greens, horseradish, kale, kohlrabi, kohlrabi, Napa cabbage, radish, rutabaga, turnip, watercress
- Cucurbit vegetables: Cucumber, pumpkin, squash, watermelon, zucchini
- Leafy greens: Arugula, collard greens, kale, lettuce, mustard greens, spinach, Swiss chard
- Nightshade vegetables: Bell peppers, eggplants, potatoes, tomatoes
- Root vegetables (sometimes called tubular or bulb vegetables): Beets, carrots, garlic, onions, potatoes, shallots, sweet potatoes, rutabagas, turnips
- Other vegetables: Celery, mushrooms, okra, squash, zucchini
Legumes in a nutshell
There are over 20,000 species of legumes, making them the the third largest family of flowering plant. A legume refers to any plant from the family fabaceae. Beans are all legumes, but not all legumes are beans. There are 5 types of legumes: soybeans, pulses, fresh peas, beans, and peanuts.
Here is a rundown of the most common legumes used in cooking or for eating raw:
- Black beans. This is one of the most popular legume varieties and is popular in Mexican cuisine.
- Chick peas also known as Garbanzo Beans. These are used to make hummus but can also be added to salads or roasted for a crunchy snack.
- Black eyed peas. These are popular in Southern and Mediterranean cuisine.
- Pinto Beans. Another favorite in Mexican dishes
- Green Beans.
- Soybeans. This is one of the most popular sources of plant-based high-protein and are found in several varieties, from soy milk to edamame, to tofu and tempeh.
- Lentils. They come in several varieties, black lentils, green lentils, and red lentils
- Peas and snow peas. Eaten in the fresh and dried forms
- Peanuts. Believe it or not, these are legumes not nuts. They grow underground as opposed to on trees like other nuts.
Legumes have high nutritional quality and consumption of legumes brings with it many health benefits. Pound for pound their nutritional value is unrivaled and they are an essential part of a healthy diet. They are a mainstay in any plant-based diet and are often used as a meat replacement in vegan diets. They are an inexpensive source of vitamins, protein and complex carbohydrates and have a high fiber content. As a matter of fact, some legumes such as soybeans are complete proteins, meaning they have all the essential amino acids, which is a rare find in the plant world. Fava beans have the highest protein content with 26.1 grams of protein. Legumes, especially red beans and kidney beans have beneficial antioxidant properties.
Legumes are low in fat and have no sodium or cholesterol. They also have a low glycemic index meaning they have little effect on blood sugar. Legume consumption as part of a balanced diet can help decrease the risk of cardiovascular disease, but In clinical trials it has been shown that eating one cup of legumes every day can help with weight loss, decrease cholesterol levels, and lower blood pressure.
One more thing gardeners should know about legumes is that they deposit nitrogen in the soil, making it more fertile (which is what makes them such an excellent companion plant for many vegetables).
It does get confusing trying to break the vegetable category down into all the different types, with the substantial amount of overlap between groups and foods that are vegetables on the plate but are botanically considered fruits. When it comes to vegetables versus legumes, however, the difference is clear: while veggies can consist of any portion of the plant, legumes are always seeds.