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In Praise of Pulses

-Photo by Adam Jones via Flikr

I’m a bit behind as usual but it was World Pulse Day on February 10. Why celebrate pulses I wondered? Apparently it is to showcase their remarkable variety and versatility and their many benefits. 

Pulses are the dried seed of legumes such as peas, beans and lentils. Crops grown for pasture such as clover and alfalfa, although legumes, aren’t counted nor are those such as soybeans or peanuts which are grown for oils.  Pulses have been cultivated for at least 10000 years and are a staple food in places such as India, the Middle East and the Americas. To them we owe delicious foods such as dahl, hummus and burritos. Those dried peas, beans and lentils do have a lot going for them, but don't take my word for it. Here's what the UN says about them. 


There are three main reasons for celebrating pulses. The first is their many health benefits, the second is that they are good for farmers and the third is that they are very good for the environment. We’ll briefly discuss each of them in turn.


Thirteen reasons why pulses are good for you

Most of these are from the UN Food and Agriculture Organisations’s List and others as indicated. 

1.       Pulses have  2 to four times more protein than the same quantity of cereal does. They contain 25g of protein per hundred grams (80g after adding water in cooking) and this can be further enhanced by eating with grains such as corn or rice

2.    Pulses are low in fat and cholesterol thereby reducing the risk of heart disease. Populations which consume more lentils generally have lower rates of other diseases such as breast, colorectal and prostate cancer too

3.       Low in sodium – reduces hypertension

4.       A good source of iron, especially when combined with Vitamin C  e.g. lemon juice

5.       Pulses also contain a number of other minerals such as zinc and magnesium and are especially high in potassium -they have more than bananas, which is also good for the heart. It also builds muscle and aids the digestive system.

6.       High in fibre. Again good for the digestive system as well as the heart

7.       Pulses are rich in B vitamins including thiamine and niacin and especially folate –which is good for  the nervous system and protects against specific birth defects.

8.       Because they can be stored for long periods, allows for greater diversity in the diet, especially in  poor seasons and in developing countries

9.       Low on the glycaemic Index, which means they stabilise blood sugar and insulin levels, making  them good for diabetics

10.   Pulses are naturally gluten – free and are thus good for coeliacs. They also provide a satisfying substitute for those who can’t consume grains for other reasons or want to reduce their meat consumption for environmental or ethical reasons

11.    Generally cheaper and more affordable than meat

12.   Can help in preventing obesity and maintaining healthy weight. Three quarters of a cup of pulses a day led to small but significant weight -loss in 640 test subjects and also in those who were not trying to lose weight. Pulses give a more lasting sense of fullness which reduces the need to overeat.

13.   The best reason of all is that they taste delicious.

Pick up some great recipes here to get more of the good things into your life.

Why Pulses are good for Farmers


1.       Pulses improve soil fertility and keep land productive much longer. It also means that fields don’t have to be kept fallow to restore productivity. See Canada for example. 

2.       Because they fix nitrogen in the soil, they reduce the need for artificial fertilisers  

3.       They increase biodiversity and minimise weeds, pests and diseases

4.      Pulses provide other trace elements such as phosphorus so that when intercropped with other plants, it not only enables two crops to be grown at once but they can positively benefit one another. Nitrogen hungry corn for example, does much better when grown with beans

5.       Pulses are more resistant to flood and drought

6.       Pulses can be stored for long periods, thereby providing both farmers and whole countries  with greater food security. Read more here.


Why Pulses are good for the Environment


1.       Low Water Use. Growing pulses uses little water compared to other sources of protein. For example, while it takes 1250 Litres of water to grow a Kg of lentils, it 13,000 Litres to grow one Kg of beef. Meat processing also consumer vast quantities of water


2.      Pulses  need less Land and cause less Deforestation. Pulses need less land than meat production. Livestock production currently takes up 70% of the world’s agricultural land for grazing and to produce stockfeed. As populations increase and demand for high protein food increases, more and more land is pressed into service, leading to the destruction of forests and deterioration of land due to overgrazing and erosion. According to the FAO report  “Livestock’s Long Shadow (2016), 70% percent of the cleared land in the Amazon is already  being used for pasture and consumption of meat is set to double as people in Asia and elsewhere become more affluent. 

          Furthermore, only around 5% of the protein fed to animals becomes useable protein in the form of meat and even milk, which has the highest conversion rate of all animal products, only represents 40% of the protein fed to cows

3.      Pulses have a much lower carbon footprint than meat production. This is especially true when it comes to Nitrogen Oxides which have 296 times more impact on greenhouse gas production than CO2 

By leaving residue in the ground, pulses also act as a carbon sink as well as reducing moisture loss and erosion and improving soils. 

4.      Pulses need and produce less Nitrogen. They not only reduce dependence on artificial nitrogen which can be harmful to the environment when overused, but run -off from animal husbandry means high nutrient loads which can degrade rivers and groundwater 


 Overcoming the Downsides of Pulses

 Among the reasons why there hasn’t been greater uptake of pulses in the West, is that they take a long time to cook and in some people they cause flatulence, especially in the early stages of switching to plant – based foods. 

As far as cooking time goes, any amount of soaking will reduce it. It is also worthwhile doing bigger batches at once. For lunch in a hurry, there is now a great variety of canned beans available in our supermarkets, including organic ones, so that  you just need to rinse and drain them for a quick lunch or to add to a stew. There are also a number of ready-made products such as lentil burgers, felaffel, assorted pastas made from pulses and variety of flour which can easily be added to baked goods, fritters, smoothies or even icecream to get your pulse fix without the fuss.

As to that other problem, the South East Asian Indians have some advice. They should know. They are after all the biggest consumers of pulses.

1.       After soaking, discard the water and replace with fresh water

2.       When the water first comes to the boil, remove the froth that rises to the top

3.       Cook long and slow

4.       Add cumin, ginger, fennel or Kombu seaweed to the meal

5.      Avoid adding other gas inducing foods such as onions, garlic or members of the cabbage   family such as cauliflower or broccoli

6.       If the problem persists, get a natural enzyme supplement to take before a meal



Special thoughts to the people of Türkiye and Syria this week after their devastating earthquake, not that we have forgotten Iran or Ukraine