Skip to main content Skip to Search Box

Definition: lentil from Philip's Encyclopedia

Annual plant of the pea family that grows in the Mediterranean region, SW Asia and N Africa. It has feather-like leaves and is cultivated for its nutritious seeds. Height: to 51cm (20in). Family Fabaceae/Leguminosae; species Lens culinaris.

Summary Article: Lentil
from The Encyclopedia of Seeds: Science, Technology and Uses
1. World importance and distribution

Lentil (Lens culinaris) (a cool-season legume) is an ancient crop that has been grown for more than 8500 years. Production of lentils spread during the Bronze Age from the Near East to the Mediterranean area, Asia, Europe and finally in relatively modern times to the western hemisphere. Around 60% of current world production is from India and Turkey, the former being by far the largest producer. Canada is the world’s third largest producer. Turkey, Canada and the USA are the major exporters of lentils. (See: Crop Atlas Appendix Map 3)

2. Origin

Lentil is probably the earliest of the grain legumes to be domesticated, in the Fertile Crescent (see: Legumes). Archeological evidence, together with morphological and cytogenetic comparisons, suggest that Lens culinaris was derived from L. orientalis, one of the four wild subspecies recognized in the genus Lens. Earliest carbonized remains of lentils are about 10,000 years old. The pottage (lentils) for which Esau sold his birthright (Genesis Ch. 25) is an early reference to the grain legume.

Voysest-Voysest, Oswaldo
3. Seed types

Seeds (Fig. L.2) are lens-shaped, weigh 2-8 g/100, round, biconvex, with dimensions in the range of 4-9 mm × 2.2-3 mm. They are produced in small pods usually containing 1-2 seeds per pod. Testa colours range from pale green to tan to brown and black, with purple and black mottles in some cultivars. Lentil seeds are often divided into two types, macrosperma and microsperma. The large macrosperma (diameter 6-9 mm) is found mainly in the Mediterranean region and the Americas. Cotyledons are normally yellow or green, and flowers or vegetative structures have very little or no pigmentation. Microsperma (seeds 2-6 mm) is found mainly in the Indian subcontinent and the Near East. Cotyledons are red, orange, or yellow. Plants are shorter than the macrosperma, more pigmented with smaller pods, leaves and leaflets.

4. Nutritional quality

Lentil is a highly nutritious food legume. Seed protein content (mainly globulins and some albumins; see: Storage protein) is in the range 22-35% fresh weight (fw). It contains significant concentrations of lysine, arginine, leucine, and sulphur amino acids. Though lentils have the richest content of important amino acids among the cool-season legumes they are nevertheless deficient in methionine and cysteine to meet dietary needs. Seed starch content ranges from 35 to 53% fw with amylose varying from 20.7 to 38.5% of the starch. Lentils are a good source of B vitamins, particularly thiamine, riboflavin, nicotinic acid, folic acid, pantothenic acid, biotin and pyridoxine as well as choline and inositol. Oil (triacylglycerol) content is approx. 1.5% fw: oleic, palmitic and linoleic are the major fatty acids. Total oligosaccharide content (raffinose, stachyose and verbascose) is approx 4.5%.

5. Uses

Seeds are used as food in soups, stews, casseroles and salad dishes. In India, lentil is mostly eaten as dhal (seed that is decorticated and split). Lentil flour can be mixed with cereals to make bread and used as a food for infants. The whole plants can serve as animal feed.

6. Marketing

Lentils for the export market are graded mostly according to sieve size, used to determine the price. In the USA the grades are: for red lentils, 50% of the product should remain on a 4.35 mm round hole-perforated screen and 100% remain on a 3 mm screen, while for yellow lentils, 50% should remain on 7 mm and 100% on the 5 mm screens.

World area planted with lentils in 2002 amounted to 3,653,000 ha with a production of 2,857,000 t. The largest importers in 2001 according to FAO figures were Egypt, Turkey, India, Pakistan and Colombia: main exporters according to the same source were Canada, Australia, Turkey, India and the USA (Table L.9). (See: Lentil-cultivation)

Fig. L.2. Lentil seeds. Macrosperma (left) and microsperma (right) types are shown (image by Mike Amphlett, CABI).

  • Muehlbauer, F.J. and Kaiser, W.J. (eds) (1994) Expanding the Production and Use of Cool-season Food Legumes. Kluwer Academic, Dordrecht, The Netherlands.
  • Summerfield, R.J. (ed.) (1988) World Crops:Cool Season Food Legumes. A Global Perspective of the Problems and Prospects for Crop Improvement in Pea, Lentil, Faba Bean and Chickpea. Kluwer Academic, Dordrecht, The Netherlands.
  • Summerfield, R.J. and Roberts, E.H. (eds) (1985) Grain Legume Crops. William Collins, London, UK.
  • Webb, C. and Hawtin, G.C. (eds) (1981) Lentils. Commonwealth Agricultural Bureau, Farnham Royal, UK.
  • © CAB International 2006.

    Related Articles

    Full text Article Lentil
    The Encyclopedia of Seeds: Science, Technology and Uses

    1. World importance and distribution Lentil ( Lens culinaris ) (a cool-season legume ) is an ancient crop that has been grown for more than...

    Full text Article Lentil
    Compendium of Transgenic Crop Plants

    1. Introduction Lentil is an annual, herbaceous pulse (grain legume) crop and is probably as old as the agriculture itself. Since its domesticati

    Full text Article lentils
    Dictionary of Food: International Food and Cooking Terms from A to Z

    The seeds of the oldest documented leguminous plant, Lens culinaris or L. esculenta , originating in the Middle East but now common...

    See more from Credo