This year the United Nations declared 2016 International Year of Pulses as a way to grow awareness about the benefits of pulses as a part of an affordable, sustainable and healthy diet.
That sounds great, but what is a pulse?
Pulses: Not just a sign of life in your wrist
Pulses are part of the legume family. According to the UN’s definition , pulses only include crops harvested solely for their dried seeds; fresh peas and beans don’t count and neither do oilseeds like soybeans and peanuts.
(Credit: Pulse Canada)
As pulses are dried seeds, they can be stored for long periods without losing their nutritional value and are easily transported. Farmers who grow pulses have the option to both eat as well as sell their harvest.
Pulses are powerhouses that improve soil fertility by fixing nitrogen which extends the productivity of farmland. While they are growing, they also create a more diverse landscape for animals and insects and indirectly reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Additionally, some pulses can be cultivated in very poor-quality soils and semi-arid environments where other crops cannot be grown.
Like other legumes, pulses are packed with protein, fiber and nutrients such as iron, folate and potassium. They are also low in fat and cholesterol-free; they can even help lower cholesterol. A 2014 study published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal showed that pulses can help reduce LDL-cholesterol levels, lowering the risk of heart attacks and strokes.
Pulses are an incredibly environmentally-friendly source of protein. For example, it takes 4,275 kilograms more water to produce one kilogram of chicken than it does to produce one kilogram of lentils or split peas.
(credit: G. Clement – National Post)
Recently, Canadian consumers have been dealing with shockingly high food costs in the face of a struggling economy (Hello, $7 cauliflower). If you’re looking to cut down on your food budget, integrating pulses into your diet might be a good option. They are an incredibly affordable source of low-fat protein. Next time you are in the grocery store, compare the costs of beans, chickpeas or lentils per gram to the cost of chicken.
(Data: Food & Agriculture Organization of the United Nations)
Pulses are also grown in Canada—and a lot of them too! In Alberta one in every twenty acres of cropped land grows pulses.
With all these pulses, Canada is by far the largest exporter of pulses on the planet, exporting 3.65 times more pulses than the next largest nation. With the bulk of the pulses being grown in the Prairies, they are quite local and accessible for Albertans.
Pulses are such an important crop in Canada that there’s even a national food development competition for students, Mission ImPULSEible, where competitors must create a tasty and healthy food product using pulses in an innovative way. This year, a team of UAlberta students represented Alberta in the national competition with their product BiotaGelata, which uses Alberta-grown pulses to make a non-dairy, vegan gelato. This summer they will be going to Chicago for the Institute of Food Technologists Annual Meeting and Food Expo.
When they looked into making a pulse-based frozen dessert, they realized there was a market for it.
“We did a lot of research into the dairy-free market, and a lot of the products use soy or coconut milk,” said Nicolle Mah, one of the BiotaGelata team members. “With a lot of soy allergies, or many people who don’t like the flavor of coconut, we thought this would be innovative and would catch on with the market.”
With a bit of culinary know-how from teammate Austen Neil (who worked at Fiasco Gelato in Calgary and has experience as a pastry chef), the team created their own Maple Walnut gelato recipe. The dessert took first place in the provincial Mission ImPULSEible competition earlier this year.
The BiotaGelata team hopes International Year of Pulses and competitions like Mission ImPULSEible gives these crops their due.
“A lot of people don’t realize what a pulse is,” said Chandre Van De Merwe. “They also don’t realize that they are cheap and you can do a lot with a pulse.”
Want to try eating more pulses? Check back for Part Two to check out five creative pulse recipes!
About The Author
Kateryna Barnes is the Communications Assistant for the Office of Sustainability. She’s trying to eat more pulses in her diet to be healthier and more sustainable.