Does Your Menu Have a Pulse?

PulsesNo, not that kind of pulse. And don’t worry, we aren’t going to ask you if your refrigerator is running. From chickpeas to lentils to the good ole pea, “pulses” are poised to dominate menus in 2016. Named the International Year of the Pulses by the United Nations, 2016 is sure to showcase the many uses and benefits of pulses.

But what is a pulse?

Although some may categorize a pulse and a legume as the same, that is not the case. Pulses are a subcategory of legume that only includes the dried seed of the plant. The most commonly known pulses are chickpeas, lentils, and peas. Nutritionally speaking, the power of the pulse is often overlooked. Pulses offer a great source of protein, which is especially important in societies where diets do not include animal protein or animal protein is scarce.

Pulses are nutritionally similar to each other in that they have between 120 and 160 calories per 100 grams. They have around 10% of one’s daily value of potassium, 32% of fiber, 18% of iron, and 10 grams of protein. Comparing that to 100g of chicken which has around 170 calories, no fiber, and a high percentage of cholesterol, pulses have the upper hand. However, chicken will provide more protein, 31 grams per 100 grams.

Because pulses offer such a great source of fiber, they are important in diets of those who are looking to maintain a healthy weight. Fiber helps in regulating blood sugar levels and decreasing the “bad” cholesterol levels in someone’s blood. Getting enough fiber in one’s diet has been linked with a reduction in the risk of being diagnosed with type II diabetes and heart disease.

Pulses are not only healthier for the people consuming them, but also the soil that they are growing in. As nitrogen-fixers, pulses replenish the nitrogen in the soil: something that conventional crops deplete out of the soil. Nitrogen-rich soil is crucial in having high yields in the crop rotation in that field. Adding a pulse crop every couple of years would ensure that our soils will remain fertile and able to sustain future crops. A final environmental benefit of pulses is that the carbon and water footprint left by growing pulses is five times less that of animal proteins.

In their natural forms, pulses can appear to be unexciting or boring. However, with new innovations in the food industry, the same peas that grandma puts in her pot pie can be harvested for their protein or fiber. These pea proteins and fibers can be found in powders that consumers or food companies can put into a variety of products or recipes to up the nutritional ante. Additionally, lentils and chickpeas can be ground to form a flour that can be used in many culinary applications, such as snack foods, breads, and cereals. Pulses have a real advantage in bakery applications because they are gluten-free, which is a major concern in today’s society. So instead of using generic all-purpose flour to make bread, lentil or chickpea flour can be partially substituted to increase the nutrient content of the bread.

So what does it all mean? Pulses are commonly overlooked food sources that provide a good source of protein, fiber, iron, and potassium. Pulses can be utilized in their whole forms in soups, salads, and entrees or in their powdered and ground forms in baked good, smoothies, and sauces. Pulses are gluten-free, vegan-friendly, and a great tool for those looking to manage their health. The power of the pulse is being explored in the International Year of the Pulses in 2016, but should continue long into the future.