2016 International Year of Pulses
The United Nations General Assembly has declared 2016 the International Year of Pulses. The UN intends to raise public awareness of the nutritional benefits of pulses, particularly as part of sustainable food production.
Pulses, which are centre staged throughout 2016, have been cultivated for thousands of years. The term ‘pulse’ refers to a family of plants whose fruit is a pod. There are almost 700 genera and over 18 000 species. According to the United Nations’ Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), the term ‘pulse’ refers only to crops harvested solely for their dry grain seeds. This therefore excludes green peas and beans harvested as vegetable crops (such as French beans and haricot beans) as well as crops that are used mainly for oil extraction. Pulses are divided into three main groups: lentils, dry beans and dry peas.
Their health benefits
Pulses are rich in fibre, carbohydrates, minerals and vegetable proteins. As part of a varied diet, they can replace a portion of meat or other protein-rich food. The nutritional value of pulse proteins is not as high as that of animal proteins (they are notably lacking in methionine, an essential amino acid), but this can easily be compensated by combining pulses in the same meal with cereals or with food of animal origin (milk, cheese etc.).
The pulse/cereal combination is particularly beneficial to vegetarians and especially to vegans.
The dietary fibre found in pulses favours digestive transit. They can however cause flatulence and bloating in some such sensitive people. To avoid this inconvenience, it is advisable to introduce them gradually into the diet.
Pulses are rich in mineral salts such as magnesium, calcium, potassium and iron. The body absorbs the iron contained in pulses better if vitamin C-rich food is eaten during the same meal (citrus fruits, berries, vegetables from the cabbage family, peppers, etc.).
A crop which is clearly eco-friendly
Planting pulses as intercrops favours agricultural biodiversity and offers animals and insects a more diversified environment. They also aid soil conservation, as their nitrogen fixation capacity improves soil fertility and, as such, farmland productivity. They are also a source of protein which requires relatively little water; it takes just 50 litres of water to produce 1 kg of lentils, while 1 kg of poultry requires 4 000 litres and 1 kg of lamb more than 5 000 litres. Meanwhile it takes up to 13 000 litres of water to produce just 1 kg of beef. Pulses adapt easily to climate change and the new varieties available on the market are able to withstand even higher temperatures. Also, as they have a lower carbon footprint, their impact on greenhouse gas emissions is lower.
Popular in all regions of the world
Widely used in traditional oriental cuisine, pulses are served daily in India in the form of dal (spiced pulse mash) and even pancakes or crackers (the famous poppadoms). In Lebanon, they are found in mujadara (rice cooked in a lentil soup and garnished with fried onions). From North Africa to Southern Asia, passing through the Balkans and Eastern Europe, pulses are often eaten in soups, with or without meat. Hummus, a blend of chickpeas and sesame seed paste, is frequently found on oriental tables. With the re-emergence of local cooking and thanks to the increased awareness of the ecological and nutritional benefits of pulses, they are making something of a comeback in the European diet.
Regions of the World
In the tropical regions of West Africa, the main pulse grown is cowpea. This species from the Fabaceae family was, however, apparently first planted in Ethiopia. In humid tropical zones, the lima bean is favoured.
In the humid regions of the Far East (Indonesia, Thailand, Southern China and Japan), soya beans dominate but cowpeas are also commonly grown. In many Asian countries, dried beans, broad beans, lentils and chickpeas form part of the daily diet.
In India, pulses are included in almost every daily meal, thereby providing most of the protein requirements of the largely vegetarian population. The most common varieties are the urad (a small black bean), the mung bean, chickpeas, the masoor (red lentil), toor (yellow split lentil), the cowpea and the adzuki bean.
The kidney bean, an ingredient of Mexican chilli con carne, reigns supreme in this region. In some rural areas, the kidney bean represents 75% of energy intake. It is less common in places where meat is cheap. The lima bean is, unsurprisingly, widely consumed in Peru. Brazil, the second biggest producer of pulses in the world after India, grows and exports all sorts of dried beans. The most well known include carioca beans, black beans, rajado beans and jalo beans.
Haricot beans are historically linked to the conquest of the West. Pioneers transported whole cartloads of them. While they are less-widely consumed today, having been replaced by meat, they are found in traditional dishes such as the famous baked beans. Numerous varieties of lentils, dried beans and peas are grown in the west of Canada. Did you know that Canada is one of the world’s biggest exporters of pulses?
In Europe, the intensification of farming which started in the 1950s led to a decline in pulse cultivation. Today it represents less than 3% of crops. The main cause is the variability of their yield. Chickpeas, borlotti and other cannellini are very popular in Italy. The French are fond of cassoulet, made from dried beans, as well as the petit salé aux lentilles (pieces of pork conserved in salt, served with Puy lentils, a variety of green lentil).
Tips for cooking pulses
Allow 50 g to 60 g of pulses (dry weight) per person for a main meal.
Do not add salt to the cooking water. Also avoid acidic condiments (lemon juice, vinegar, tomato) which harden the outer membrane of the dried vegetables and prevent the inside from becoming tender.
Recipe ideas for pulses