Tag Archives: fava beans

Fava Beans & Favism

pasta shells with fava beans & pecorino cheese

pasta shells with fava beans & pecorino cheese

If you’ve never heard of it, favism, or favismo in Italian, sounds suspiciously like a food legend or superstition. In fact, favism is a real hereditary disease resulting from a defect of the gene that regulates glucose-6-phosphate, defined by Merriam-Webster as ‘a condition especially of males of Mediterranean descent that is marked by the development of hemolytic anemia upon consumption of broad beans or inhalation of broad bean pollen and is caused by a usually inherited deficiency of glucose-6-phosphate.’

Most people live with favism symptom-free, yet when it does manifest, the disease can lead to, among other things, serious kidney problems. The term favism is a bit of a misnomer, since not all people affected with glucose-6-phosphate dehydrogenase deficiency—the technical name, commonly abbreviated as G6PD deficiency—will manifest symptoms after consuming fava beans or being exposed to pollens. Women can carry this genetic defect and pass it to male offspring.

About 400 million people worldwide have G6PD deficiency, predominantly in Africa, Southeast Asia, and the Mediterranean. Rates of favism are high in Sardinia, also known for its high rate of centenarians. Interestingly, a recent study by the University of Sassari suggests a connection between G6PD deficiency and longevity: scientists observed that the lack of the G6PD enzyme was twice as common in Sardinian centenarians, leading them to theorize a relationship between a so-called ‘longevity gene’ and the genetic defect that causes this particular deficiency. (Sardinia is one of the world’s five blue zones—areas with the highest documented rates of longevity—along with Costa Rica; Okinawa, Japan; the Greek island Ikaría; and Loma Linda, California.) So perhaps there’s a silver lining to favism.

For the rest of us, fava beans are a tasty and versatile legume, rich in protein, fiber, vitamins, and minerals*. Some of the many ways to eat fava beans are raw with pecorino cheese, cooked lightly and tossed with pasta and pecorino (pictured above), or processed into a pesto-like paste to spread on crostini with other vegetables, cheese, or grilled prawns, as pictured here:


*Fava beans contain isoflavones, which are considered both good (as antioxidants) and potentially bad (as phytoestrogens). Whether isoflavones should be moderated in the diet is debatable, as some clinical studies have shown these substances to have beneficial therapeutic and disease prevention qualities, while others suggest they should be avoided for the same reasons one would avoid consuming any synthetic hormone. Fava beans are included, for instance, in The New Mayo Clinic Cookbook as a ‘healthy’ food, while the Mayo Clinic website also notes: ‘Studies on phytoestrogens—whether from food or supplements—haven’t shown a convincing and consistent effect on hot flashes or other menopausal symptoms. Some experts speculate that phytoestrogens could increase the risk of breast cancer or interfere with the effectiveness of tamoxifen in women with breast cancer.’ Most current discussions of the potential risks associated with phytoestrogens center on soybeans and derivative products, such as milk and oils.


Saint Joseph’s Fava Beans


Served the Tuscan way

Today is Father’s Day in Italy. Much of the Catholic world honors fathers on this, the feast day of Saint Joseph/San Giuseppe, husband of the Virgin Mary and father (well, technically step-father) of Jesus Christ. Throughout Italy the traditional treats prepared today will be frittelle di riso (rice fritters) or zeppole (small pastries filled with egg cream), recipes that call for fresh eggs and as such mark as well the time of year in which hens return to egg-laying. In southern Italy and Sicily, however, many meals today will feature fava beans, likely in the form of macco di San Giuseppe, a fava-bean-based minestra named for the saint who saved some starving Sicilian farmers via a miraculous crop of favas. Catholics commemorate Joseph by decorating his altars with symbols of abundance and renewal: bread, flowers, fruits and vegetables, and fava beans. 

Fava beans are symbols of good luck, in Italy and other parts of Europe. I’m still trying to figure out why, precisely, but surely it has to do with those Sicilian peasants who averted death thanks to the hitherto lowly fava. If you went to mass today with a fava bean in your hand, or if you know a farmer who carries a fava bean in his pocket to encourage a good crop, then you definitely know more about this tradition than I do (and I’d love to hear from you).

Tuscans love fava beans, but they call them by a different name: baccelli. In the Tuscan dialect, you see, fava is a slang word, and not a very nice one. Depending on context, ‘fava’ can refer to a certain part of the male anatomy, or be a rather mean slur: to call someone a ‘fava’ in Tuscany means to label them slow, or dim-witted; while a fava lessa, a boiled fava, is even dafter—a real idiot. (‘Fava lessa’ is one of the preferred curses of angry Tuscan drivers, by the way.) Come springtime, Tuscans eat baccelli pretty regularly, raw and with a good Pecorino cheese (pictured). They reserve their favas, on the other hand, for special occasions.