Did you know that the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization has named 2016 as the International Year of Pulses? I had never heard of pulses before a few weeks ago when I read this article in the Washington Post, but they turn out to be a subcategory of legumes that the UN is promoting as a hope to feed a growing population.
Ah, legumes! The friend of the human diet for centuries and a staple of nutrition for a plant based diet. And for good reason! I have always enjoyed a great dish of beans and rice, but had never really investigated the powerful nutritional benefits they offer until we move toward a plant based diet (especially when thinking about an alternative to animal products). Consider this summary from the Australian Grains and Legumes Nutrition Council:
“Legumes provide a range of essential nutrients including protein, carbohydrates, dietary fibre, minerals and vitamins. They are:
- An economical dietary source of good quality protein and are higher in protein than most other plant foods. Legumes have about twice the protein content of cereal grains.
- Generally low in fat, virtually free of saturated fats and contain no cholesterol. Soybeans and peanuts are the exception, with significant levels of mostly monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids, including alpha-linolenic acid.
- Rich in energy-giving carbohydrates, with a low glycemic index rating for blood glucose control.
- A good source of B-group vitamins (especially folate), iron, zinc, calcium and magnesium.
- Low in sodium – sodium content of canned legumes can be reduced by up to 41% if the product is drained and rinsed.
- Abundant in fibre, including both insoluble and soluble fibre, plus resistant starch for colonic health benefits.
- Contain phytonutrients (e.g. isoflavones, lignans, protease inhibitors). Soy beans are particularly high in phytoestrogens, with research over the last 20 years linking soy foods and/or phytoestrogens to a reduced risk of certain cancers including breast and and prostate cancer, heart disease, osteoporosis and problems associated with menopause.
- Gluten free – as such, legumes are suitable for people with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity.”
As mentioned above, pulses are a subset of legumes that are dry–peas, lentils, chickpeas and dried beans. They differ from other legumes, such as soybean and peanuts, in that they feature a low oil and fat content. Nutritionists, agriculturalists, and vegetarians often wax poetic about legumes, especially pulses, not only because of the excellent nutritional value described above, but also the low cost, the positive impact on soil fertility and agricultural sustainability, the long shelf life in winter or daught. They can help lift people out of rural poverty because they are a high yield crop that does not require a lot of synthetic fertilizers. They not only serve as a wonderful replacement for meat protein, but also have properties that make them a good replacement for eggs and dairy as well (i.e. properties of binding, coagulation, emulsification). Legumes and pulses will inevitably be an important part of our future for food sustainability.
Some of the most widely consumed types of pulses are:
dried or split peas
several varieties of lentils
Three varieties of legumes are grown in the US–chickpeas, lentils and dried peas–so adding this wonderful product to your diet can also support US farmers. If you would like to find recipes and read more about this important crop check out the USA Dry Pea and Lentil Council, the United Nations FAO International Year of Pulses, Pulse Canada and the Australian Grains & Legumes Nutrition Council
Finally, not to be crude, but because I have always wanted to say this: It IS TRUE that beans are a magical fruit for all the reasons listed above. But it is NOT TRUE that the more you eat, the more you toot! At least not once you get used to them. Not everyone is sensitive to the characteristics of legumes that cause gas, but even for those who are, our bodies (that is, our guts) adjust. It you eat legumes at least 2-3 times per week, these problems will be minimal.