11 March 2024

Exploring the health-promoting properties of legumes

Protein research

A new research project led by the Department of Food Science at University of Copenhagen aims to investigate the immune-regulating potential of legumes, especially in regard to their potential to prevent intestinal diseases.

Ærter på bord
Immune SEEDstem will be testing several different legumes, inclduing pea, lupine, and faba beans, for their content of trypsin inhibitors.

It is difficult to overestimate the benefits of eating legumes. They are nutritious, environmentally friendly, and climate friendly. And at the same time, research suggests that selected proteins in legumes can have an anti-inflammatory effect in the digestive system which could be an important tool against several intestinal diseases that are on the rise globally.

That is why the immune-regulating effects of legumes will be investigated in the new project, Immune SEEDstem, led by Iben Lykke Petersen, Associate Professor at the Department of Food Science, University of Copenhagen.

“First, we will investigate if the research that has shown health-promoting effect in legumes holds true. From there, we need to develop new ways to best utilize the proteins in legumes that hopefully prove to be health-promoting. Pre-states to colon cancer are among the diseases that it could help to prevent, so it’s some quite significant health challenges where legumes might have preventive potential,” says Iben Lykke Petersen.

The project has been awarded nearly 7 million Danish kroner by Plant2Food, an Open Innovation in Science platform supported by the Novo Nordisk Foundation. It is a partnership between two departments at the University of Copenhagen, Wageningen University & Research in the Netherlands, and the companies SEGES Innovation, Bioptimate, and Contempehrary. The project will run from March 1, 2024, to August 31, 2027.

Food as medicine

It is the so-called trypsin inhibitors found in legumes that the project will investigate the health-promoting potential of. They are found in many foods, such as wheat, but legumes especially have a high concentration of them.

Their health-promoting effect will first be tested 'in vitro' - in a laboratory digestive system. Here, researchers will examine both what happens to the trypsin inhibitors on their journey through the gastrointestinal tract and the different interactions that the trypsin inhibitors have on the system in the various stages of digestion.

"It's particularly exciting to see what happens when they reach the end of the small intestine. This is where there are indications that they have an inhibitory effect on certain substances known to contribute to pre-states of cancer in the intestine. If that's the case, then it becomes really exciting, because then legumes could potentially, in addition to all the other good things, be recommended for boosting one's health against cancer," says Iben Lykke Petersen.

Multifaceted examination of legumes

The project will test several different legumes, including lupine, pea, and faba beans for their content of trypsin inhibitors. In addition, it will characterize the different types of these inhibitors found in the selected legumes.

"Research suggests that it is one specific type of these inhibitors that is primarily responsible for the possible health-promoting effects, so it's important to investigate. In addition, we will try fermenting the legumes, as there are results suggesting that fermentation helps promote the anti-inflammatory effect in the intestine," says Iben Lykke Petersen.

Finally, the project will also examine how, for example, cultivation conditions affect the level of trypsin inhibitors from year to year and how they vary between different varieties of legumes.


Iben Lykke Petersen
Associate Professor, Department of Food Science, University of Copenhagen

Thomas Sten Pedersen
Communications Officer, Department of Food Science, University of Copenhagen