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Pulses are Good for You and the Environment

By Nurhan Turgut Dunford, FAPC Oil/Oilseed Specialist - The word “pulse” comes from the Latin “puls,” which means thick gruel, porridge or mush. In English, pulses refer to crops belonging to a subgroup of legume family. According to the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations, the pulses are harvested only for the dry seed. The crops that are harvested green, such as green peas and green beans, are excluded from the pulse category. Soybean and groundnuts, which are mainly used for oil extraction and seeds that are exclusively used for sowing purposes (e.g. clover and alfalfa seeds) are not considered pulses either. The most commonly known and consumed pulses are dried beans, lentils and peas.

By Nurhan Turgut Dunford, FAPC Oil/Oilseed Specialist

The word “pulse” comes from the Latin “puls,” which means thick gruel, porridge or mush. In English, pulses refer to crops belonging to a subgroup of legume family. According to the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations, the pulses are harvested only for the dry seed. The crops that are harvested green, such as green peas and green beans, are excluded from the pulse category. Soybean and groundnuts, which are mainly used for oil extraction and seeds that are exclusively used for sowing purposes (e.g. clover and alfalfa seeds) are not considered pulses either. The most commonly known and consumed pulses are dried beans, lentils and peas.

Agricultural production of pulses is not new. Traces of lentils and chickpeas for domesticated use were found in the archeological excavations in Turkey and Iraq, indicating their cultivation and food use since 8000 BC. The Bible mentions adashim or lentils corroborating that lentils were vital in the Jewish diet.

Historical and cultural importance of pulses also has been highlighted in the literature and media in many forms. For example, the mythical King Priam of Troy had many sacks of dried broad beans among his treasures, alleging that he preferred broad bean stews over other pulses for arousing his warrior spirit in the legendary Trojan War against the Greeks.

I am not an avid gamer, but I read that one of the most famous scenes in the popular video game Super Mario Bros, created by Shigeru Miyamoto for the Japanese company Nintendo, is the Beanbean Kingdom, inhabited by creatures in the form of beans.

Make Hummus Not War, a documentary produced by the Australian filmmaker Trevor Graham, probes the debated beginning of hummus and claims it could even be used to resolve the conflicts between the Lebanese, Israelis and Palestinians, who have disputed the origin of this dish before international courts.

There are many interesting traditional uses of pulses around the globe as well. Throughout North Africa, Trid – a dish made of lentils, chickpeas and beans – is the traditional first meal served to a mother after giving birth. Its high energy-boosting carbohydrate content is considered the best stimulant for a woman to breastfeed her baby.

Lentils are part of the traditional New Year’s Eve feast on the island of Luzon, the largest and most populous island in the Philippines. Superstitious individuals carry lentils in their pocket, believing it will ensure they have enough money to last through the New Year.

Mexico was the first country to be granted UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage status for its cuisine, mainly due to ingredients such as maize, chili and beans. Hummus made with chickpeas in Mediterranean countries, a full English breakfast with baked navy beans and Indian dal with peas or lentils are some of the examples of traditional and staples dishes in cuisines across the world. While growing up in Turkey, one of my favorite snacks was “leblebi,” made from roasted chickpeas, sometimes seasoned with salt, hot spices, dried cloves or candy coated. Some south and eastern African tribal dishes use unique ingredients with pulses. For example, the Masai use cow’s milk or blood, and some tribes use insects sautéed with lima beans.

The book Pulses: Nutrition Seeds for a Sustainable Future (FAO, 2016), is an excellent resource if you are interested in learning more about pulses and find unique recipes to include them in your diet.

Remarkable alterations in dietary patterns witnessed over the decades are usually attributed to the advanced agricultural practices that have increased productivity, variety of foods and reduced dependency on seasonality. The main characteristics of the recent diets can be summarized as the risen caloric content and the changes in the composition to meet the demand for different types of food driven by the higher consumer income, urbanization and globalization. An increasing number of consumers is willing to pay more for foods produced by sustainable means.

The FAO characterizes the sustainable diets as the “low environmental impact diets that contribute to food and nutrition security and to healthy life for present and future generations.” Hence, a sustainable food system must align with both changes in agriculture and the changes in diets.

In recent years, interests in pulses as a sustainable food source have grown notably for various reasons. They are low in fat, packed with nutrients and rich sources of proteins and soluble fiber.  The lack of gluten in pulses makes them suitable in gluten-free diets for individuals with celiac disease and gluten intolerance. During the Great Depression in the U.S., beans were called poor man’s meat and saved many lives thanks to their nutritional value and low price. The high nutritional value of pulses makes them ideal foods, specifically in regions where access to meat and dairy products are challenging for economic, distribution and marketing-related obstacles.

Pulses are vital crops for farmers in developing countries. They are sold and consumed by the farmers and their families ensuring household food security and generating economic stability. The nitrogen-fixing properties of pulses improve soil fertility, which is essential for extending the farmland productivity. Pulses fix atmospheric nitrogen in the soil and sometimes free soil-bound phosphorous, decreasing the need for synthetic fertilizers. As a result, greenhouse gases released during the manufacturing and application of these fertilizers are reduced, mitigating climate change. Pulses also are good for intercropping and as cover crops to foster biodiversity and control harmful pests and plant diseases. Pulses require 20 times less water than animal products to grow, potentially reducing the pressure on scarce freshwater resources.

The 68th UN General Assembly declared 2016 as the International Year of Pulses to raise awareness to the importance of pulses as sustainable food sources. The goals established by the global pulse community for the IYP were (1) to increase pulse production, (2) to increase pulse consumption, and (3) to improve market access to facilitate local, national and international trade. A campaign called Pulse Feast reached 21 million people during IYP. Although thousands of products were developed by students, celebrity chefs and professionals, demonstrating the versatility of pulses for numerous applications in food product formulations and cultural contexts during the IYP, there is still more work needs to be done to capture the full potential of pulses as sustainable agricultural resources. It is hoped the research and economic collaborations initiated around the globe during the IYP will continue and expand benefiting farmers, consumers and local economies.