Pulses, those highly nutritious powerhouses of protein, are being promoted from the sidelines to the main playing field. Overlooked and under appreciated, they have not been getting the attention they deserve. In an effort to right that wrong, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations named 2016 the International Year of Pulses. Why? Because pulses have a positive impact on health, the environment and world economies.
So, what’s a pulse, anyway?
The pulse family includes a variety of dried beans, lentils, and peas, including:
- kidney beans
- lima beans
- butter beans
- broad beans
- black-eyed peas
- pigeon peas
Green peas and green beans are not part of the pulse family. Because they’re harvested, they’re considered vegetable crops. Crops used for oil extraction, such as groundnuts and soybeans, or purposes of sowing, such as seeds of clover and alfalfa, aren’t pulses either.
Pulses are super healthy
“Pulses are a good source of iron, zinc, phosphorous, fiber and B-vitamins, which many people are deficient in,” certified nutrition specialist and licensed dietitian/nutritionist Dr. Scott Schreiber told Care2. “Pulses have shown to benefit individuals that suffer from high cholesterol, constipation and celiac disease. They have also been shown to help with weight management.”
Culinary nutritionist Jessica Fishman Levinson, MS, RDN, CDN, and founder of Nutritioulicious.com, adds that pulses are excellent sources of protein and folate, and are high in antioxidants, potassium and magnesium. They’re also low-calorie, sodium-free, and gluten-free.
“One of my favorite things about pulses is how versatile they are,” said Levinson. “You can use them in every meal of the day from breakfast through dinner and even in desserts!” Here are some of Levinson’s favorite ways to include them in meal planning:
- Add black beans to quesadillas like in her Sweet potato Black Bean Quesadillas
- Add lentils to tomato sauce in place of meat for a vegetarian bolognese
- Add chickpeas to smoothies or in a smoothie bowl
- Puree beans to make hummus as a spread for your lunch sandwich or a dip with fresh vegetable sticks
- Roasted chickpeas or other beans as a snack
- Black bean brownies for dessert
- And of course chilis and soups are common uses for lentils and beans
Pulses are good for the environment
“One of the other reasons pulses have taken center stage this year is because they are a sustainable food — they have a lower carbon footprint than almost any other food group, they’re water efficient and they are affordable,” said Levinson.
According to FAO, pulses are good for animals. The crop residue can be used as animal fodder to increase nitrogen concentration in the diet, which is good for animal health. They’re also good for the environment. The nitrogen-fixing properties improve soil fertility, making farmland more productive and making synthetic fertilizers unnecessary. The improved soil also promotes biodiversity below the surface.
Farmers can adjust pulse production to suit changing climate conditions. Pulses can also be used between other crops to reduce soil erosion and help with pest and disease control.
Pulses have a positive impact on economies
“Pulses are important food crops for the food security of large proportions of populations, particularly in Latin America, Africa and Asia, where pulses are part of traditional diets and often grown by small farmers,” FAO Director-General José Graziano da Silva said in a press release last year.
The statement noted that, “Pulses also offer a great potential to lift farmers out of rural poverty, as they can yield two to three time higher prices than cereals, and their processing provides additional economic opportunities, especially for women.”
Pulses are less expensive than animal-based protein or protein from milk, which could help improve nutrition in developing countries, according to FAO.
Take the Pulse Pledge
Still not sure how to make pulses a regular part of your diet? Try the Pulse Pledge, a 10-week challenge to commit to eating pulses at least once a week. Sign up to take the pledge at PulsePledge.com and get a weekly newsletter with tips and recipes for how to use pulses.