Food and beverage formulators should have their collective fingers on the pulse of pulses. Those starchy morsels of vitamin-packed health benefits, a subcategory of the legume family, are generally considered superfoods. High in protein and fiber, with antioxidants and carbohydrates but low in fat, they're more popular than ever for their filling, texture-giving, free-from advantages.
First, some definitions. Legumes are the plants whose fruit is enclosed in a pod. They include alfalfa, clover, fresh peas, lupins, mesquite, soy and peanuts. Pulses are the dried seeds of legumes, actually just several varieties within the legume family, according to Pulse Canada (www.pulsecanada.com). Dried peas, edible beans, lentils and chickpeas are the most common varieties of pulses.
Research not only suggests they have positive effects on obesity, but their high nutrient levels and earth-friendly nature are winning over vegans, vegetarians, flexitarians and meat eaters. Legumes or beans, such as adzuki, soybeans, garbanzo (chickpeas), lima, fava, lupini and kidney, as well as peas and pulses have high levels of soluble fiber with health benefits ranging from guarding against diabetes to reducing blood cholesterol levels and helping prevent heart disease.
Pulses are rather slowly digested, so they help control blood glucose levels after eating a meal. They're gluten-free, which remains an attractive market for manufacturers seeking to keep their labels clean. And a bonus for food formulators, they're inexpensive.
According to Dubai's Global Pulse Confederation (www.pulses.org), an international confederation with more than 600 private-sector members, the pulse industry is worth more than $100 billion at the retail level and 60 million tons are in production and distribution in at least 55 countries.
Pulses are incorporated into many food products as functional ingredients, as ground flour or fractionated into fiber for bakery products and pasta, breakfast cereal, chips and snack bars. They can be extruded and used in salty snacks and meat substitutes.
Archer Daniels Midland (www.adm.com), Chicago, offers a selection of VegeFull cooked whole-bean ingredients that can be added to many health-conscious formulations, affording nutrition, texture and bulk, says Janice Rueda, director of research and business development, edible bean specialties. The beans are gently dehydrated, milled, pre-cooked and can be reconstituted in minutes. "They give snacks a huge boost in nutrition without changing the taste and sensory attributes," she says.
Qiang Liu, a researcher at Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada and the Guelph Research and Development Centre (GRDC), found that adding pulse ingredients to whole wheat bread can improve gut health and stabilize blood sugar levels. Examining the interactions between the starch and other ingredients in the bread, Liu and his team are also experimenting with pulse ingredients in muffins, cookies and pasta using pea, chickpea and red split lentil flour. Altering the starch structure of the pulse flours could lead to new commercial applications, such as those for gluten sensitivities and other food intolerances.
Liu is also looking to improve the nutritional properties of pulse ingredients by manipulating the types of starch found in pulses. "We are looking at how processing can enhance the nutritional properties, such as more resistant starch," he says. Slowly digestible starch and resistant starch can slow the absorption of glucose into the bloodstream, he says, and help stabilize blood sugar levels. "We found quick-digestible starch can be reduced, and slowly digestible starch and resistant starch can be increased."
Meals based on pulses are more satiating than meals with pork or veal in the center of the plate, which can help with weight loss, says a recent report from the University of Copenhagen's Dept. of Nutrition, Exercise and Sports, Copenhagen. The study also noted that legumes' ability to add nitrogen to the soil makes them more environmentally friendly than livestock-raising.
Minding your peas
U.S. manufacturers are increasingly using pea protein and other plant-based proteins in items like snack bars. Plant-based protein consumption, in foods from hummus and baba ganoush to bean-based chips, is rising. Mintel's Global New Products Database (www.mintel.com) confirms that global food product introductions containing plant protein leaped by more than 80 percent between 2013 and 2015.
Pea protein is also featured in Ripple milk, a rather disruptive dairy alternative setting the pace for plant-based dairy options. Ripple Foods' (www.ripplefoods.com) "milk" is made from yellow peas. Available in Original, Original Unsweetened, Vanilla and Chocolate, the nondairy beverage landed in the market early last year, scoring high marks in environmentalism -- although most folks drink "alternative milks" for health or weight reasons, a taste preference, allergies to nuts and dairy or to avoid hormones.
Ripple Milk contains 8g of protein, half the sugar of cow's milk, 50 percent more calcium and a third of the saturated fat, and has more potassium and vitamin D. The company succeeded at processing yellow peas to achieve a good taste and texture; next they may launch a dairy-free yogurt, cheese or ice cream, although it's not immediately clear if those will contain pulses. These dairy alternatives are expected to hit the market some time this year.