“Innovations from the field to the cooking pot” What does the second FSN forum on pulses tell us about consumer education for better diets?

This blogpost was written by Jane Sherman, food education consultant.

From the field to the cooking pot … The forum title was right. The shaping questions in this second FNS forum on pulses did indeed have an eye on consumers and consumption as well as on production. They brought the two ends of the food system together and closed the circle. This is joy to food educators. [1]

We know from both research and experience that consumers’ practices and attitudes, the influences on their food choices, and the interaction between their environments and their outlooks are generally crucial in impacting diet. But we are also very aware that until recently the international focus has been far more on supply and access than on consumer behaviour, expectations and attitudes: they have concentrated on field and market and not on the path to the cooking pot. [2]

The Year of Pulses is a unique phenomenon in many ways, perhaps unprecedented. It integrates nutrition and agriculture; it takes a step towards sustainable diets; it confronts a problem common to many societies, yet different in all of them; it has the single (though complex) task of promoting just one food group with a rich nutrition profile; it brings together a diverse body of professionals (economists, agronomists, nutritionists, extension workers, policy-makers, not educators unfortunately), and it aims to improve food consumption in the general public, not only in one needy segment. For food educators, a special feature is that it has the explicit purpose of improving consumption as well as access.

The forum opened up the question of how this is done. With its consumption-oriented questions and its call for responses grounded in experience, it opened a window on dietary promotion where contributors involved in the program across the sectors were drawn to analyse the situation on the ground empirically and call on their working experience to propose strategies which they saw as necessary and appropriate. The resulting picture was complex but coherent.

What influences people’s consumption of pulses?

Several posts discussed this basic question. Influences were seen as culture and habit, knowledge and understanding, time and convenience, but above all food status and taste. Existing food cultures determine what people are ready to accept – for example red “silk” beans are popular in El Salvador, while in Nigeria the only pulses seen as normal food are cowpeas. Hence simple lack of familiarity with the foods available may be a barrier, as may “inadequate information on the advantages of pulses”, i.e. ignorance of nutritional value or value for money.

More frequently mentioned, however, was the move away from consuming traditional pulses, sometimes because of time-consuming preparation, but more often because of their perceived status as “the protein of the poor” or “desperation food”. Lupines in rural areas of Ecuador, for example, were seen as the food of rural poverty. City dwellers or the educated middle class would not “stoop so low” as to eat dishes made with pulses.

If incomes rose, or food choices widened as people moved to cities, these traditional foods tended to be abandoned in favour of more prestigious foreign foods, meats, or highly processed fast foods. Poverty, it seems, also has a taste. Traditional pulse dishes were often unvarying and unvaried. “Being a poor man’s food, there are only a few traditional recipes, which have not evolved over time.”

What strategies are needed?

Ideas for tackling these barriers grew out of these observations. They converged on two strategies: one was to make pulses attractive (delicious, convenient, healthy, modern/trendy, valued); the other was to get a lot of people into the act. A top priority was to update recipes, widen the range, add vegetables and flavourings and develop new products, give value to “heritage foods”, “create excitement around traditional recipes” and promote them on the media.

Contributors proposed ways to make preparation easier and quicker, for example by introducing low-cost pulse processing machines in villages and developing “easy-to-cook high-quality branded products” and ready-to-eat meals. Information would be available on packaging and labeling, and through government campaigns, backed by the media (testimonials from soccer champions and video rap music, to be evaluated for impact). A new image was felt to be essential “to make the humble legumes modern or desirable”: “social media together with gastronomical innovation” could help pulses become “the next quinoa”.

Society, it seemed, had to be taken by storm – but slowly. Many groups would interact with or influence consumers: chefs, restaurants, food services in public institutions; producers, markets and the food industry; policy-makers in agriculture, trade, health and education; and “influencers who are reaching consumers to help change their dietary behavior”, such as nutritionists, dieticians, health professionals, health workers and food industry representatives, who would “make sure that pulses are accepted as a normal household food”.

What does this say about consumer food education?

The ideas about the process of dietary change are not new, but neither are they widespread in food security discussions. What is interesting is that:

  • they all accept that consumers are main actors in the process
  • their coherence springs from confronting the same question in many different contexts and cultures
  • they come from several sectors which do not generally meet to discuss consumer capacity in food.

They therefore carry a certain conviction born of direct observation and experience. Underlying them there is also some consensus on a cluster of guiding principles in food education. They recognize for example that:

  • responses to dietary needs should be shaped by analysing what matters to consumers;
  • attitudes and established habit (as well as poverty and ignorance) are forces to be reckoned with;
  • convenience, appetite and social food status are strong incentives;
  • change often has to contend with competing values (e.g. red meat or junk food);
  • how-to (where to buy, what to cook) is as important as why (good low-cost nutrition);
  • shared food cultures mean that change also has to be socially shared, and at many levels;
  • policy and regulation, quality food supply and consumer behaviour must interact;
  • health and nutrition professionals are key and also need educating;
  • (implicitly) this is a long-term process.

Many of these principles are not recognized in “nutrition-sensitive” initiatives which rely only on improving supply or regulation and do not see the need for consumer capacity to respond to the supply. The Year of Pulses seems to be in a position to blaze the trail to the pot. It should trumpet its conclusions.


[1] In “nutrition education” we include SBCC, health promotion for good diets, nutrition counseling, social marketing and behavioural economics aiming at healthy eating.
[2] Most major International papers on nutrition and food security have focused on the supply side – examples are (see second blog). The latest of these was the GLOPAN brief on food systems and nutrition (link), an exemplary paper except for the total neglect of consumer behaviour. After the launch Lawrence Haddad commented in his blog "Perhaps the most glaring omission in the report is the treatment of consumers as shapers of food systems. It is true that we don’t spend much time in the report on nutrition education and behaviour change of consumers. This is definitely an important area and one where we need more answers."


The views expressed here belong to the speaker and do not necessarily represent FAO’s views, positions, strategies or opinions.


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