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What Is Falafel? Pros & Cons of This Vegetarian Treat

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Falafel - Dr. Axe

Crispy on the outside yet soft and fluffy on the inside, falafel has transformed from a Middle Eastern specialty to a favorite of food lovers around the globe.

Although falafels don’t exactly have a reputation for being healthy or nutritious, making a few simple swaps in your recipe can instantly bump up the health benefits and nutrition profile of this delicious delicacy.

So is falafel vegan? What is a falafel sandwich, and is it healthy?

Keep reading for everything you need to know about this flavor-packed fritter.

What Is Falafel? What Is It Made Of?

So what exactly is in your falafel sandwich, and what is falafel made of? Falafel is a common Middle Eastern dish that is made from chickpeas or fava beans that have been ground up, shaped into a ball-like patty and deep-fried or baked.

Other falafel ingredients include herbs and spices like cumin, coriander and garlic.

Even though falafels are thought to have originated in Egypt, the fritters have become a staple in Middle Eastern and Mediterranean cuisine and are found in a variety of vegetarian dishes.

They can be served alone, as part of an assortment of small dishes or appetizers known as a meze, or tucked into a pita, sandwich or wrap. They are also used as a plant-based protein source in many vegetarian recipes and can be enjoyed in plant-based pasta dishes, pizzas, waffles and even tacos.

Is It Healthy? Pros and Cons

Although traditional falafels are made using a variety of healthy falafel ingredients like beans, herbs and spices, they are also deep-fried in oil, which significantly increases the content of fat and calories in the final product.

According to a recent 2019 study published in BMJ, regular consumption of fried foods may be associated with a higher risk of dying from heart disease for women. Other research shows that eating fried foods could also be tied to a higher risk of developing chronic conditions, such as diabetes, high blood pressure and heart problems.

Not only that, but another study conducted by University of Navarra in Pamplona, Spain found that frequent consumption of fried foods was linked to a higher risk of weight gain and obesity.

Fortunately, there are plenty of ways to make falafels a bit healthier, and they can even be baked instead of fried to significantly slash their content of calories and fat.

Baked falafels are a great source of protein and fiber, both of which can help ramp up weight loss by keeping you feeling fuller for longer between meals and reducing levels of ghrelin, the hormone responsible for stimulating feelings of hunger. Falafels also supply a range of other key vitamins and minerals as well, including manganese, copper and folate.

They’re also super versatile and a great meat substitute for those looking to transition to a more plant-based diet, promote sustainability and reduce their environmental impact.

Nutrition Facts

This tasty fritter is typically deep-fried, meaning that each serving contains a high amount of falafel calories and fat. However, it’s also rich in a number of important nutrients, including manganese, copper, folate, iron and magnesium.

A 3.5-ounce serving of falafel (or approximately six small patties) contains the following nutrients:

  • 333 calories
  • 32 grams carbohydrates
  • 13.5 grams protein
  • 18 grams fat
  • 0.7 milligrams manganese (30 percent DV)
  • 0.26 milligrams copper (29 percent DV)
  • 93 micrograms folate (23 percent DV)
  • 3.4 milligrams iron (19 percent DV)
  • 82 milligrams magnesium (19 percent DV)
  • 192 milligrams phosphorus (15 percent DV)
  • 1.5 milligrams zinc (14 percent DV)
  • 0.16 milligrams riboflavin (13 percent DV)
  • 294 milligrams sodium (13 percent DV)
  • 0.15 milligrams thiamine (12 percent DV)
  • 585 milligrams potassium (12 percent DV)
  • 0.13 milligrams vitamin B6 (7 percent DV)
  • 1 milligram niacin (6 percent DV)
  • 0.3 milligrams pantothenic acid (6 percent DV)

In addition to the nutrients listed above, the falafel nutrition profile also contains a small amount of vitamin C, calcium and selenium.

How to Make Your Own (and How to Make It Healthier)

There are plenty of authentic falafel recipe ideas out there, many of which involve deep-frying your patty in highly processed vegetable oil and piling on the salt. Fortunately, there are also plenty of strategies you can use for how make falafel a bit healthier, without skimping on taste or flavor.

For example, this Gluten-Free Falafel Recipe uses a combination of black-eyed peas and chickpeas, along with other ingredients like red onions, garlic, parsley and cilantro. Instead of using canola oil or vegetable oil for frying, it uses avocado oil, which can withstand very high temperatures without breaking down or oxidizing.

Alternatively, try making your falafel recipe baked instead of fried to give it a healthy twist and cut down on the fat content of your fritters. This typically involves placing spoonfuls of patties on a sheet and baking for 20–25 minutes at 375 degrees Fahrenheit.

You can also try swapping other veggies into your falafel recipes, like in this Zucchini Falafel Recipe. Kale, lentils, green peas, sweet potatoes and spinach can all be excellent additions to any spicy falafel recipe as well.

Enjoy your homemade fritters in a healthy falafel wrap by opting for a whole wheat pita and loading up on the veggies. If you’re cutting back on carbs, collard greens also make a great substitute for wraps and can help squeeze a few extra nutrients into your meal.

For a flavorful falafel sauce, try out this Creamy Avocado Cilantro Lime Dressing, which features goat yogurt, garlic and avocado. Or, try whipping up this homemade Tzatziki Sauce, which contains fresh dill and cucumber, to give your wrap a refreshing zing of flavor.

Risks and Side Effects

Although falafels can generally be enjoyed safely as part of a healthy diet, there are several downsides that need to be considered as well.

For starters, it’s important to exercise caution if you have an allergy to any of the ingredients found in falafel, especially when dining out. Serious allergic reactions have been reported to ingredients like sesame seeds, which are often used in the sauce that accompanies falafel burgers and wraps.

If you do have any food allergies, be sure to inform the staff when dining out and check the ingredients label carefully when purchasing pre-made products.

Additionally, keep in mind that not all falafels are created equal, and some varieties may be much more healthy than others. Baked falafel made with whole food ingredients like chickpeas, herbs and spices, for example, boasts a much better nutrient profile than falafels that are deep-fried, highly processed and pumped full of unhealthy ingredients.

Making your own falafels at home can help put you in control of what’s going on your plate while also optimizing the potential health benefits of your meal.

Conclusion

  • What is falafel, and what is falafel made of? Falafel is a type of patty made from chickpeas and/or fava beans that have been ground up, pressed into a ball-like shape, and fried or baked. Other common falafel ingredients include garlic, parsley, cumin and coriander.
  • Is falafel healthy? Traditional falafels are often deep-fried, which significantly increases the fat and calorie content of the final product.
  • Baked falafels are a much better choice and are high in protein, fiber and a range of important micronutrients to support overall health.
  • Aside from baking your falafels, you can also try mixing in other veggies, using avocado or coconut oil in place of refined vegetable oil and making a few simple switches to your wrap to help boost the potential health benefits.
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