The international year of pulses

I live on the outskirts of an area commonly referred to by its residents as ‘The Lentil Belt’, with the inhabitants often calling each other yoghurt, or sometimes lentil weavers, giving the impression that the residents of Meersbrook, UK, are wholefood obsessives. I’m sure that the Yoghurt Weavers of The Lentil Belt will be pleased to know that finally their obsession has been ratified, by the United Nations no less, who have declared 2016 as the international year of pulses.


The UN claim that the benefits of lentils, beans, peas and chickpeas go beyond mealtime, and can have a positive impact on health, the environment, livelihoods, food security and sustainability, with some varieties even able to withstand severe drought and in doing so increasing agricultural resilience to climate change. FAO Director-Genreal Jose Graziano da Silva outlines the importance of these food crops, particularly in Latin America, Africa and Asia where they are part of traditional diets and livelihoods. Through the lens of international development, pulses could be a food group that benefit the poorest whilst also improving the environment.

What are pulses?

Tinned baked beans, a vital part of The Full English Breakfast are usually made from haricot beans slowly cooked in a tomato sauce, this dish said to originate from indigenous American tribes using ‘new world legumes’, is a staple in many British households with varieties stocked in pantries up and down the Isles. The haricot bean is a common pulse, which are types of legumes solely harvested for their dry seeds, as opposed to fresh seeds like green peas which are classed as vegetables, or some crops harvested only to be sown or for oil extraction. Kidney beans, red lentils, pigeon peas and chickpeas are all types of pulses that regularly feature in recipes from across the globe. Pulses have been prized for their nutritional value for centuries, indeed archaeological remains, found in modern day Turkey, date back to 7000 – 8000 BC.

What’s in a pulse?

Pulses are protein rich, low in fat, high in soluble fibre, aiding digestive health, and contain high levels of micro-nutrients including iron and zinc making them a nutritious food source to tackle anaemia. They offer a viable alternative protein source to meat and contain double the protein in wheat and three times that of rice. Pulses can be five times cheaper than animal-based proteins and also yield two to three times higher prices than cereals, according to the UN this makes them ideal for improving diets in poor areas of the world and a great potential for lifting farmers out of poverty.

Pulses also benefit soil health with their nitrogen-fixing properties and their use in cropping methods can promote root level biodiversity, increase active bacteria, reduce erosion and help control pests and diseases. Their genetic diversity also lends itself to climate adaptation enabling farmers to switch varieties according to climate conditions.

Keep your finger on the pulse: ‘superfoods’

In Peter Jackson’s book Anxious Appetites, he discusses how the “shifting sands of nutritional advice’ have contributed to American anxieties about food, to the point where, Levenstein feels, fear of food is now ‘akin to a permanent condition of middle-class life”. Arguably Western consumer food anxieties are on the up with notion of ‘superfoods’ adding more concern to the mix. As transplant dietitian Lakhani outlines food and diet trends are similar to popular fashions with marketers and the media claiming extra health benefits for food labelled as ‘superfood’, sales of which have significantly increased in the UK. She goes onto describe the “miraculous” characteristics of pulses calling them the real ‘superfood’.

2013 saw the United Nations declare it the international year of quinoa. As outlined in katiebadger123’s blog post, quinoa moved from “the lost crop of the Incas” to the “miracle grain of the Andes” conserving some varieties and gaining the attention of chefs and consumers across the globe. The overseas demand for the grain has grown exponentially with exports clocking up the food miles. Allying with pulses, the nutritional value found in quinoa opens it up to vegans and vegetarians as a nutritious addition to their diet and a valuable source of protein, but the development of the quinoa trade has reportedly had adverse consequences, altering the agricultural landscapes from diversity to monoculture, reducing and displacing the cultivation of heritage varieties whilst appropriating a staple Peruvian grain.

After buying five kilos each of chickpeas and red-spilt lentils just the other day, it’s safe to say that I am already a big fan of pulses, however I hold reservations over the trend of framing nutrient rich foods as ‘superfoods’, and wonder if Western consumerism will have an adverse effect on sovereignty in the international year of pulses.


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