Fad or Future

Bambara: the African legume that keeps cropping up

Sustainability researchers are hugely keen on this groundnut, which is nutritious and can help improve soil fertility.

13 March 2019
image credit: Getty Images

Sustainable, nutritious and a bit of a novelty, the bambara groundnut has seen a surge in attention over the past month or two.

While unknown in Europe, it is the third most important crop in Africa behind peanuts and cowpeas. Grown within the earth, its pods contain edible seeds that vary in colour from black and brown to white and cream.

The World Wildlife Fund recently released a report with food brand Knorr that listed bambara as one of 50 foods for the future, citing it as an eco-friendly alternative to wheat, rice, maize and soybeans that could improve food security.

Global research centre Crops for the Future is also promoting it, in a bid to push diversity in the human diet.

So what makes bambara so special?

Good for eaters and the earth

First off, the legume is drought resistant and can grow in highly acidic soils, making it easy to cultivate in difficult environments. As an added bonus, its roots can fix nitrogen from the air, essentially allowing the plant to produce its own fertiliser as well as improving soil for future use.

Aside from being farmed in sub-Saharan Africa, it can also be found in Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia.

Nutrition-wise, bambara is a bit of a powerhouse. According to the WWF report, “the Bambara groundnut is considered ‘complete food’ because of the balance of macronutrients accompanied by the amino acid [methionine] and fatty acid content,” noting that fibre, vitamins and minerals are present in beneficial quantities.

Believe in Bambara, a company that specialises in products made from the bean, sums up its composition as 63% carbohydrate, 19% protein and 6.5% fat. The business, which generated significant interest at the Winter Fancy Food Show in San Francisco at the end of January, sells bambara-based protein isolates for plant-based meat and dairy alternatives, as well as gluten-free flours.

The Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations also suggests turning the groundnut into a flour, in particular to make dumplings. Traditionally, it is consumed as a stew in Ghana and as a kind of cake called okpa in Nigeria, though they can also just be eaten as a seasoned snack.

So what do you think Sparkie, is bambara a bullseye?


Sparkie says:

On paper, the groundnut is great – but sadly that might be where its potential ends.

The University of Nottingham have done extensive work into bambara, trying to make it work for various things. I believe they did get as far as testing it within some food products but with very mixed reception. They have tried to feed it to animals too without much success.

At the very least, it seems like it’s going to take a lot more work to get it ready for the general public, but the academics think it’s a worthwhile investment, so maybe we will end up getting there eventually.

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