Pulses - A Versatile, Sustainable Superfood

Pulses – peas, beans, chick peas and lentils – are healthy, versatile, gluten-free and environmentally friendly, proof that great things come in small packages.

By David Feder

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The first Pulse Food Symposium, (bean, pea, chickpea/lentil symposium) held in Toronto Jan 30-31, by Pulse Canada (www.pulsecanada.com), Winnipeg, Manitoba, showed a major global food crop at a tipping point. Pulses are the agricultural term for peas, beans and lentils – most, but not all of the leguminous crops (peanuts and soy are usually not included, nor are legumes such as green beans which are eaten pod and all).

Though pulses are one of the world’s most ancient cultivated crops, beans, peas and lentils have never been much of a Western Hemisphere food. In spite of USDA data showing a steady increase of consumption of beans, peas and lentils in the U.S., we’re still way behind the rest of the world in taking full advantage of the spectrum of benefits afforded by beans, peas and lentils.

In a 1999 study of food intake patterns and 25-year mortality from heart disease, results from multiple cultures throughout seven countries showed consumption of legumes to be highly correlated with reduced risk of heart disease.

Multiple studies show pulse consumption can also help reduce risks of obesity, diabetes, diseases of digestion and cancer. In fact, beans are one of the top “superfoods” currently being studied, and in the top 20 for antioxidant sources, according to Julianne Curran, Ph.D., manager of market innovation for Pulse Canada. Red beans, kidney beans and pinto beans have more antioxidants than blueberries or cranberries.

These studies tie in with pulses being high in fiber (including prebiotics), low in fat, high in complex carbohydrates and high in protein. They also are rich in antioxidants (including anthocyanins), vitamins (including folate) and minerals (including selenium).

Beans and peas show evidence of providing high levels of satiety for minimal calories, which puts them in the class of high-energy foods.

For processors, other big advantages come from the low costs of pulses and pulse ingredients and the versatility and positive marketing possibilities derived from using proteins or flours from beans and peas in manufacturing. Pea flours can be substituted in some formulations by as much as 30 percent or more, depending on the product.

Product development research bears out the ability of pulse flours to act as extenders. Major ingredient providers, such as Decatur, Ill.-based ADM (www.admworld.com), already are proving the versatility of such flours in snack and cereal formulations requiring baking, extruding and forming without compromising taste and texture when compared to grain-based products.

Moreover, pulse flours are gluten-free. The gluten-free trend continues to show phenomenal growth (see “Going Gluten-Free.”). The ability to use pulse flours in gluten-free formulations provides access to multiple health points in marketing the end product.

Some processors – those with obviously vested interest – have moved to the forefront of communicating to consumers the high value of beans. “Our ‘Beans. The vegetable with more’ campaign was phenomenally successful,” says Sara Rose of Bush Brothers & Co. (www.bushbeans.com), Knoxville, Tenn. In a presentation at the Pulse Canada symposium, she noted the growing consumer interest in vegetables and that consumers equate beans with vegetables. Bush’s research shows, she noted, “Vegetables are the gold standard for food sentiment and ‘buzz.’ “

Aside from their significant advantages in health marketing, pulses have a distinct “green” advantage. With the green trends of sustainability and ecological soundness gold, beans, peas and lentils are in the right place at the right time. Unlike most grain crops, beans, peas and lentils leave a much smaller carbon footprint. Rather than rely on nitrogen fertilizers, they actually fix nitrogen into the soil. They’re also lower maintenance, requiring less pesticide use. For the thousands of years before massive, single-crop corporate farming, farmers knew to rotate crops with legumes

The series of disconnects between outdated assumptions about attitudes toward pulses and other legumes; focus-group trend messages; and processing and marketing are fading. As consumer tastes become more global yet more demanding, pulses comprise a formidable class of ingredients allowing food companies to deliver on multiple levels of consumer demand within a single product.

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