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What are Pulses?

Updated on 27. Dec. 2018

You may not be familiar with the term pulses to describe a food group, but you have likely eaten them. Pulses refers to the dried, edible seed of legume plants and includes 12 different crops. These plants have been grown specifically for their dried seeds, included in this group are dried peas, dried beans, lentils, and chickpeas. Pulses are such an important and impactful food group that the United Nations designated 2016 as the International Year of Pulses.

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This designation has brought pulses to the center of the food conversation. Not only are pulses a great source of many vitamins and nutrients, they are also a sustainable and environmentally friendly crop.


Pulses have long been a staple food in many developing nations because they are low-cost and provide many nutritional benefits. Now, with people becoming more focused on plant-based diets and the importance of environmentally-friendly farming practices, pulses are starting to appear in more kitchens across the globe. Lentils cost $.10 per serving, while beef costs $1.49 per serving.1


In terms of nutrition, pulses offer protein, fiber, zinc, iron, potassium, and magnesium. They offer double the protein of quinoa per serving, they are a source of soluble and insoluble fiber, and they offer more iron per serving than steak. In addition, they are a great source of folate. Folate is an essential B vitamin and is especially important for pregnant women as it helps prevent neural tube birth defects.1


Pulses are gluten-free, are low in fat and cholesterol free. They also offer more antioxidants than pomegranate or blueberry juice. All of these factors are part of what is making pulses the new superfood, and a hugely important part of nutrition and nourishment for the world as a whole.1


In addition to all the nutrition benefits pulses provide, they are also effective in preventing a number of non-communicable diseases such as heart disease, certain types of cancer, obesity, and diabetes. This is mostly due to the fact that they contain so much fiber, which is an important part of not just a healthily functioning body but also helps with disease prevention. Due to many of these health benefits, pulses are often referred to as both a protein and a vegetable.


Along with being such a nutritional powerhouse, pulses are also a great crop for the environment. They require a small fraction of the water that most other crops need to grow. Growing one pound of pulses requires just under 20% of the amount of water needed to grow one pound of soybeans and just over 2% of the water needed to raise one pound of beef. 2 Because of this, pulses are able to grow in climates that are in a drought.


In addition to using less water, pulses also take their water from more shallow soil levels. This benefits the crops that are planted in the following years because they have access to more water and helps with crop rotation and the overall efficiency of the land.


Many of the farmers in developing countries who grow pulses benefit from them in more ways than one. They are able to eat the pulses they grow, sell the additional harvest not needed to feed their family, and they are able to better the soil they rely on to grow their food. This last benefit is due to the fact that pulses are a nitrogen-fixing crop, which means they are able to pull the nitrogen from the air and pull it down into the soil. Not only does this make the soil more fertile, it also reduces the farmers’ reliance on fertilizers. These fertilizers are one of the largest causes of pollution in our air. In fact, pulses are one of the lowest carbon-footprint emitting crops currently growing on earth.


All of these factors make pulses a great crop that benefits not only the communities where they are grown and eaten but also the environment. The environmental impacts help to make the farms more fertile and efficient, helping to cut down on the cost of things like fertilizers and irrigation.


Pulses are a great way to add more nutrients to your diet and make meals more filling. They have long been an important part of vegan and vegetarian diets due to their high protein levels, but they should be a part of everyone’s diets. They are an easy and filling addition to soups and salads.


Pulses are extremely versatile, in India lentils and split peas are used to make dal soup. In the Middle East, cooked chickpeas are blended into hummus, and beans are used all over the world to make filling and nutritious meals. You can even use flour made from pulses to make gluten-free baked goods and have an extra kick of protein and nutrients.


It is typically best to purchase pulses in their dried form, so you can control the sodium content when cooking them. However, if you are tight on time they can also be purchased in cans, or in some cases cooked and frozen. When purchasing cooked pulses, be sure to choose the variety with no- or low-salt added.


When cooking pulses from dry, you can soak them overnight to cut down on cooking time. This is especially helpful when cooking beans and chickpeas. Soaking them overnights also helps with that side-effect so many people associate with beans, excess gas. The gas is caused by a carbohydrate found in pulses that is not easily digested. Another good tactic for limited gas caused by pulses is to add a piece of kombu seaweed to the water while the cook.


Pulses are an important part of the diet of people around the world and for good reason. They are packed with vitamins, minerals, and nutrients important for a healthy body. With so many ways to prepare pulses and a number of different varieties, it is easy to add them to your everyday diet.


Try some of our EAT SMARTER favorites using pulses:


Red Lentil Soup with Croutons


Spicy Bean Dip


Spicy Lamb Curry with Chickpeas


1. “Year of Pulses.” Pulse Pledge. American Pulse Association, USA Dry Pea & Lentil Council, Pulse Canada, n.d. Web.

2. “Pulses & Sustainable Food.” Pulses. Global Pulse Confederation, n.d. Web.


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