If you’re trying to shift your diet toward more nutritious foods — and, especially this time of year, who isn’t? — you need to make friends with dried beans, chickpeas and lentils, if you haven’t already. Their nutritional benefits are legendary. Just one example: Studies of the world’s longest-living people (in the so-called “blue zones”) find that such beans are the one specific food they all eat in common.
But health is just one focus of a new United Nations campaign around these wonders. Using a term for this category of foods that’s much more widely known in other parts of the world than in the United States, the U.N. declared 2016 the International Year of Pulses, a global marketing effort promoting their promise in feeding a growing population. (Such declarations only occasionally involve edible crops, by the way: The last two such designations were quinoa in 2013 and potatoes in 2008. In 2015 the two subjects were soil and light/light-based technologies.) Among other things, the campaign asked member nations to submit recipes for signature dishes using pulses. It also inspired U.S. and Canadian growers to launch the Pulse Pledge, a website where eaters can vow to eat more pulses and get access to recipes, cooking tips and more.
I spoke to Tim McGreevy, a pulse farmer in Washington state and chief executive of the American Pulse Association, about the campaign and about growing, cooking and eating pulses (which are sometimes referred to as “grain legumes”). Edited excerpts of our conversation follow.
Let me start with the obvious question: What exactly defines pulses, and how is the term different from other categories we use for legumes and beans?
They’re a legume. The legume category is broad. It includes soybeans, it includes peanuts. The category of pulse crops actually is a United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization definition. There are 11 types, but in the United States the primary pulse crops are dry beans, peas, lentils and chickpeas, a little bit of fava beans as well. They’re in their dry form; they’re not fresh. We’re not fresh peas, we’re not fresh green beans, which are terrific products but not pulse products. Pulses are really defined because they have a low oil content compared with the other legumes in the family.
So that’s what makes them unlike peanuts.
Yes. Soybeans have a very high oil content, and so do peanuts. Pulses really are in their own category in the legume matrix.
Legume plants are unique in the plant kingdom because they fix much of their own nitrogen in the soil from the air. The pulse crops in particular are very good at fixing nitrogen. They require none to very little fertilizer to produce a good crop, which is absolutely critical.
Why else are they considered such an important food from a global perspective?
For the developed world like the United States, where we have problems with weight management, these crops offer super high protein and an excellent source of dietary fiber. These foods will keep you full longer and will help with weight management. From the U.N.’s perspective, these are absolutely critical to food security. People don’t need as much dietary fiber in the developing countries, but they need the protein. In combination with a cereal grain like wheat or rice or corn, these crops are a complete vegetable plant protein, and they’re environmentally sustainable.
In the Green Revolution, a lot of research efforts were focused on cereal grains. We tripled the yields of these crops, these cereal grain crops, and put calories around the world. We have enough calories to feed everybody. But what was left behind in that huge research effort were pulse crops. And I think they’re just critical to food security.
When it comes to food waste, surely it helps that these are dry products and so easy to store.
Yes. The word “pulse” is from a Latin word, puls, that means thick soup. One reason the Romans were able to conquer the world is because they had lentils and pulse crops that they carried with them in their knapsacks. They’d have some rice and they’d have some pulses in some form, a lot of lentils in particular, and dry beans. They would cook up their own vegetable protein, and they could go long distances, which they did, without having to kill animals and without all that spoilage.
What do you hope the U.N. campaign can do for pulses?
I hope we can raise awareness of the importance of these crops to human health and to food security around the world. In our family we eat quinoa, and it’s a great product. But it’s also a terrifically expensive crop because it’s grown in a limited area. Pulses, though, are grown around the world. There’s a pulse in every single culture.
I hope we will increase consumption of these crops for our own health here in the United States. Then farmers will further diversify their crop rotation. These are really important crops in a crop rotation. We’d have more crop diversity and more biodiversity in our agricultural system. These are low-input crops and low water-use crops.
Water is a particularly timely concern.
It’s a huge concern. Of course, the Californians are the first in line right now in our country, but around the world it’s about water. It’s about having the water resources to produce food. These crops use a tenth of the water of other protein sources. They’re just a critical component as we increase our population around the world heading toward 9 billion people. We’ve got to have these crops. We’ve got to have better science. We have to make these crops more productive.
Why don’t we eat as many pulses in America as in other parts of the world?
When the Europeans descended upon the Americas, they brought pulses with them, because they are portable, they are storable and they were a staple in our diet. But we are a meat culture, a meat protein culture. We are not under-proteined in this country. We are over-proteined. That’s a great thing. But people are starting to look more and more at plant proteins because of a lot of different factors. Health is one, and sustainability is certainly another.
Do people have misconceptions about pulses and how to cook them?
Absolutely. Our consumer research has shown that people don’t know how to use them, and they’re intimidated by them, especially in their dry form — for dry beans, for example, they have to soak them overnight. However, of course, there are canned products. There also is now flash-frozen that’s coming on the scene. You literally rip the bag open and heat it up a little bit and it’s ready to go.
With millennials, we have seen that they are actually willing to cook more, way more than my generation was, and they have way more ethnic diversity in their cooking, which is a terrific thing. Indian foods are riding a wave. There’s some terrific Indian foods, and of course it’s all about pulses.
Indian food happens to showcase the pulses that don’t need soaking at all, the ones that cook the quickest.
Split peas and lentils are as fast to cook as pasta, quinoa and rice. If you’re willing to cook rice, then lentils and split peas, you can cook those as well. But people don’t know. That’s the beauty of having this designation. It gives us an opportunity to tell people how versatile these products are, how to cook them, how they really assume the flavors, the spices, that you put in them. That’s what we’re hoping, that we can get that message out: Don’t be intimidated.
As a pulse grower, what are some of your personal favorite ways to eat them?
With the chickpeas that I raise, of course we make our own hummus. Hummus has taken center stage, and it’s tremendous. And roasted chickpeas are just terrific.
Another thing, with lentils, they cook really quickly, so in our house, since my wife, Christine, is into green drinks, we are actually now including lentils as a puree right in with our smoothie. I’m telling you, getting that good protein hit early in the morning is a game-changer.