They may not be on your food radar yet, but pulses have been an important part of human agricultural and culinary history since beans and chickpeas were first mentioned in Homer’s Iliad during the eighth century B.C. If pulses aren’t a regular part of your diet, you aren’t alone. A large percentage of the pulses grown in North America are used for livestock feed or are exported to other countries. But pulses are slowly making their way into average North American pantries thanks to an aggressive marketing campaign by the United Nations in 2016 (which they declared the International Year of Pulses) with the hopes of creating new interest in this versatile superfood. It appears that the pulse campaign was a massive success, as domestic consumption of pulses in the U.S. more than doubled in 2016 and 2017 when compared to stats from 2015. This renewed interest in pulses is beneficial for our own health and for the health of the planet, so we’ve looked into some of the most commonly asked questions about pulses. Here’s why you should aim to make pulses part of your regular diet.
What are pulses?
The Global Pulse Confederation formally defines the term pulses as “crops harvested solely as dry grains, which differentiates them from other vegetable crops that are harvested while still green.” These dried crops include chickpeas, lentils, beans, and peas and are considered important staple ingredients in cuisines all over the world (especially in Pakistan, India, the Middle East, and the Mediterranean). The difference between pulses and legumes lies in their specific classification: Pulses are a member of the legume family, but not all legumes are pulses. Soybeans and peanuts are too high in fat to be considered pulses, and fresh peas and beans are picked before they mature and dry out.
What are the nutritional benefits of pulses?
Pulses are an excellent source of plant-based protein (often containing two times the amount of protein found in whole grain cereals). As with almost all plant-based sources of protein, pulses are incomplete proteins, meaning they don’t provide all nine essential amino acids our bodies need to function. [pullquote align=”center”]“I don’t think people realize how amazing and versatile pulses are. Because of their high fiber content, they can help with maintaining a healthy weight, digestive system, cardiovascular health, and to control our blood sugar levels.” —Gabrielle Gott, certified holistic nutritionist[/pullquote] There is still the common misconception that plant-based sources of protein must be combined in specific ways to ensure all amino acids are consumed in one meal. (The myth of complementary proteins has long been debunked; as long as you’re eating a varied diet you should have no issues meeting all your amino acid requirements.)
Pulses are an incredible plant-based source of fiber (both soluble and insoluble), and Gabrielle Gott, healthy food blogger and certified holistic nutritionist at eyecandypopper, is a huge fan of pulses for this reason. She says:
On top of being an excellent source of plant-based protein and fiber, I don’t think people realize how amazing and versatile pulses are. Because of their high fiber content, they can help with maintaining a healthy weight, digestive system, cardiovascular health, and to control our blood sugar levels.
Pulses are such a good source of fiber that a detailed analysis of fiber content in various dried chickpea, lentil, bean, and pea crops for the journal Nutrients concluded that “pulse crop consumption should be emphasized in efforts to close the dietary fiber gap.” Fiber is beneficial to your health for many reasons, and a happy digestive system is just one perk of eating pulses regularly. A 2016 study published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that “the inclusion of dietary pulses in a diet may be a beneficial weight-loss strategy because it leads to a modest weight-loss effect even when diets are not intended to be calorically restricted.” Plant-based sources of fiber (including pulses) have also been associated with a lower risk of cardiovascular disease, a reduction in LDL “bad” cholesterol, and lowered blood pressure. It’s important to note that for people who suffer from irritable bowel syndrome, Crohn’s disease, or ulcerative colitis, suddenly introducing pulses into your diet may cause diarrhea and cramping. Talk to your doctor or a registered dietitian before making any significant dietary changes.
Other Nutritional Benefits of Pulses
Naturally cholesterol free and very low in fat, pulses are also high in iron, a good source of folate and potassium, and gluten free. Pulses are also very low on the glycemic index; this means your body digests and metabolizes them at a slower speed, which results in a smaller change in blood sugar levels. (This is especially important to anyone who has diabetes.)
Types of Pulses
What we call beans are actually dried seeds from a flowering plant family called Fabaceae. If you think of beans in terms of simple baked beans or the non-meat part of chili, Gott wants to inspire you: “They can easily be added to soups, salads, and stews for added nutrition. They can be roasted with spices. They can be blended into hummus-like dips. They can be transformed into burgers or fritters. They can be hidden in brownies.” All beans are delicious, but which beans are best?
Navy beans contain the highest amount of fiber when compared to all other beans. Despite their name, navy beans are mild tasting white beans that can be used in a salade Niçoise, mashed in with tuna for a high-fiber sandwich filling, stirred into vegetable soups, and piled high on toast with greens.
Deep red in color, kidney beans are a popular addition to chili con carne and Italian soups. Kidney beans contain phytohemagglutinin, a toxin that can cause potential stomach upset if the beans are undercooked or raw, so it’s important to make sure they’re fully cooked before serving. Use kidney beans for Tex-Mex dips, as a sweet potato topping, or the next time you make homemade sloppy Joes in place of all or half the ground beef.
Black beans (also known as black turtle beans)
Black beans are an especially good source of phytonutrients, including powerful antioxidants and antiproliferative compounds (nutrients that help slow the growth of tumors). Use black beans as the base for vegan tacos, blend them into Cuban black bean soup, or try Gott’s recipe for healthy black bean brownies.
Chickpeas (also known as garbanzo beans) are the seeds of the plant family Faboideae and are widely used in Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cuisines. Chickpeas are a hardy pulse and will hold their shape in soup, curried dishes, and salads. Chickpeas require longer cooking times than other pulses if they’re cooked from scratch, so use canned chickpeas if you’re short on time. Gott says, “I love to add sautéed chickpeas to my salads (usually just a quick roast in a pan with olive oil or coconut oil and some spices like paprika, turmeric, black pepper, cinnamon).” Puree chickpeas with tahini, olive oil, and garlic for a super simple riff on homemade hummus, roast them in your favorite spices, or try Gott’s recipes for healthy chickpea fritters with warm vegetable salad and roasted sweet potato, garlic, and chickpea salad with orange dill dressing.
Lentils are small, lens-shaped pulses that can be used in a wide variety of recipes and are a staple of many global cuisines. Lentils are a particularly excellent source of folate and an important B vitamin used by our bodies to make DNA, and they have the highest insoluble dietary fiber content of all pulses. The following types of lentils are easily found in most grocery and natural foods stores.
Green lentils are also known as Puy or French green lentils. (Puy lentils must come from Le Puy, France, and they hold a Protected Designation of Origin certification from the European Union.) Mildly peppery in flavor with mottled dark skins, green lentils hold their shape well and are best suited for salads, as a warm side dish, or in place of sturdy grains.
Red and yellow lentils
Red and yellow lentils cook relatively quickly, collapsing into a soft mush that’s perfect for soups, stews, and dips. Sweet and creamy once cooked, red and yellow lentils are well known for being the main ingredient in dal, a comforting Indian soup that can be scooped up with chapati or roti. To thicken soups, stews, and sauces, add a small handful of uncooked lentils and let them cook in the liquid until they’ve completely broken down (or try Gott’s warming recipe for Thai sweet potato and red lentil soup).
Brown lentils are a great pulse to have on hand for meals that are dependent on your leftover situation the day before your weekly shopping trip. With their gentle, earthy flavor and sturdy shape, brown lentils are the perfect backdrop for hearty salad ingredients and a serving of protein. For a quick-yet-tasty side dish, sauté cooked brown lentils in olive oil and your favorite spices and serve while still warm with a sprinkling of chopped fresh parsley.
Dried green peas come from regular green peas that have been allowed to dry out in their pods. The peas split when their casing is removed, and the peas continue to dry out. With their high protein and fiber content, dried green peas are right at home in many Indian and Pakistani recipes, where they are used to thicken stews and soups. Combine warm, cooked dried peas with Greek yogurt, cumin, coriander, and a drizzle of olive oil for an easy, crowd-pleasing dip for pita bread or crudités.
A Note on Pulses and Flatulence
Pulses have a well-deserved reputation for causing flatulence (we’ve all heard the song) because they contain sugars that our bodies are unable to fully break down. Once these sugars arrive in the colon they begin to ferment, which leads to flatulence. There are many tricks of the trade when it comes to eating pulses and reducing the gas that follows, some more useful than others. To begin with, increase the amount of pulses you eat gradually; this will help your digestive system build up a tolerance. Soaking dried pulses before cooking and chewing slowly should also help clear up the gas situation. (It’s also important to remember that having a healthy amount of gas is a sign you’re on the right track in terms of the foods you’re eating.)
Buying and Storing Pulses
According to Pulse Canada, the three most important characteristics to look for when buying pulses are brightly colored seeds, uniform size, and smooth skins without chips or shriveled seed coats. Pulses should be stored in covered containers in a cool, dark area away from any sources of direct or indirect heat (heat can cause pulses to become rancid). For freshest quality, buy pulses from online pulse catalogues or from Middle Eastern, Indian, or Mediterranean grocery stores whenever possible (or any other store with a high pulse turnover rate). Cook dried pulses within a year of purchasing, and use canned dried pulses before their expiration date. Cooked pulses can be portioned out into resealable containers or freezer bags and frozen for up to 6 months.
The Future of Food: Pulses and Environmental Stability
The world is full of people who need affordable, easy-to-grow, and nutrient-dense food. And if current global population projections are accurate, there will be far more people in the future with this exact need. [pullquote align=”center”]Pulses are essentially self-fertilizing thanks to their ability to absorb nitrogen from the air, which in turn eliminates the need to add traditional fertilizer.[/pullquote] Fortunately, pulses fulfill all of those requirements while also being beneficial to the environment in which they’re growing. Pulses are essentially self-fertilizing thanks to their ability to absorb nitrogen from the air, which in turn eliminates the need to add traditional fertilizer. This self-fertilization technique means that pulses use half the energy to grow as other crops. Pulses have a much lower water footprint than other sources of protein (both animal- and plant-based) and are able to thrive in low-quality soil. If you’d like to increase your fiber intake, up your plant-based protein options, lower your grocery bill, and help save the planet, a diet rich in pulses can assist you in achieving all of those goals. The examples mentioned in this article are just a starting point if you’re new to the world of pulses. Heirloom varietals are making their way to farmers markets near you and will continue to do so as long as there is interest from the general public.