If you’re a big street food fan, chances are you’ve had many late night run-ins with a falafel-stuffed pita, as tahini and hummus dripped down your chin (drool).
Just me? Here’s the fyi on falafel: It’s a Middle Eastern dish made from blended chickpeas, mixed with spices and herbs. The blend is made into balls, then deep-fried or baked. You can eat falafel on its own, but it’s more often than not served with the aforementioned pita bread, plus hummus or tahini, and Israeli salad…because, yum.
And sure, falafel is made with fiber-packed chickpeas…but does it make for a nutritious meal?
Is falafel healthy?
“There is no bad or good food,” says Robin Danowski, RD, assistant professor of nutrition at La Salle University. “It depends on how you cook it and how much of it you eat.”
Amy Shapiro, RD says that falafel is a great dish to encourage people to eat a more plant-based diet, which benefits the body as well as the environment. It’s high in protein and fiber from the chickpeas (one cup has 15 grams of protein and 14 grams of fiber). Plus, chickpeas contain a lot of iron, folate, magnesium, phosphorus, and B vitamins. The various spices in falafel—like cumin, coriander and cardamom—are also full of disease-fighting antioxidants. “It’s a very satisfying meal that will maintain blood sugar levels and prevent excess sugar cravings,” she says.
But even some of the healthiest foods will have a couple pitfalls—or pit(a)falls, if you will— and unfortunately, falafel is no exception. Most falafels are deep-fried in oil. And while Shapiro says the oil is often unsaturated, it still ups your calorie intake considerably. “For some, it may add too much fat to the diet,” she notes. Plus, if a restaurant or vendor heats low-quality oils above their smoke point (think: canola oil), it has the potential to produce carcinogens, says Shapiro.
Generally speaking, though, “the frying doesn’t outweigh the benefits, and it can actually help to lower cholesterol levels,” says Shapiro. “But if it’s made with poor ingredients and cheap oils then I say ‘pass.’”
And then there’s the sodium content. “If you buy a pita with falafel at a restaurant or vendor, sometimes it’ll have up to 1,500 milligrams of sodium, which is a full day’s worth,” says Danowski, adding that you start to see adverse health effects beyond 2,400 milligrams a day. “In a pita with sauces, you’re knocking out your daily minimal amount with that one food.”
As far as calories go, it’s important to remember where the calories come from is way more important than the number. In the case of falafel, most of the calories come from fat, at around 18 grams per half-cup serving, according to Danowski. And while most of these fats are the heart-healthy unsaturated kind, “if you’re concerned about weight loss, you need to keep that in mind when you consume it,” she says.
How can I make falafel healthier?
Most people consume falafel on the go in a pita, and that’s where things can get a little messy—in terms of both getting it all over your clothes and nutrition. “I would recommend baking it when you have the option,” says Shapiro. “If frying is what you prefer, then use a high-quality oil that can sustain high heat, like grapeseed or avocado, to prevent carcinogen production.”
If you want to give falafel a go at home, try one of these nutritious recipes:
Easy Vegan Falafel by Minimalist Baker
Seasoning like parsley and garlic make this already-flavorful dish from Minimalist Baker a true trip to Tel Aviv for the taste buds.
Per serving (one falafel): 91 calories, 6 g (sat 0.5 g) fat, 8 g carbs, 89 mg sodium, 1.6 g fiber, 2 g protein
If you eat it in a pita, Danowski suggests opting for whole wheat, since it contains fiber to help promote healthy digestion. Then, avoid packing on the pickled vegetables (like those pink turnips!), which can be incredibly high in sodium. Opt instead for a ton of fresh crunchy veggies like carrots and cucumber. Hummus is Danowski’s condiment of choice, since it’s a great source of plant-based protein. If possible, ask for it on the side to control your salt intake.
If carbs are a concern, you can always go the platter route. “Ask for it over as many greens as possible without the pita. Pick hummus, babaganoush, or yogurt sauce as add-ons,” says Shapiro. And for a deconstructed, lighter take on a falafel pita, she says you can order cut up raw veggies and hummus for dipping.