Pulses: The Heroes of Nutrition & Agricultural Sustainability

This blog post was written by Amy R. Beaudreault, PhD, University of California, Director of Nutrition and Health, World Food Center, and was originally published on SecureNutrition.

As 2016 comes to a close, so does the United Nations’ International Year of Pulses. The term pulses has come to be seen as the “little beans with big opportunities,” thanks to the global events and outreach throughout the year that have promoted the importance of pulses in agriculture and nutrition. Yet, the need to build awareness about the benefits of pulses and pulse research remains high. 

In laymen’s terms, most people refer to pulses as beans, but in fact they are a type of legume. Legumes are plants that have fruit enclosed in a pod and are the third largest family of flowering plants. More than 13,000 species of legumes exist, grouped into three subsets: soybeans and peanuts; pulses; and fresh peas and fresh beans. Pulses are the edible seeds of plants in the legume family and they represent 12 crops of grain legumes, which include dry beans, dry peas, chickpeas and lentils. 

Through a nutritional lens, pulses are high in fiber and protein, low in fat, and contain various vitamins (e.g., zinc, folate, magnesium, and iron) and amino acids. Research suggests that pulse-based supplements can reduce stunting in high-risk children because of the protein and micronutrients they deliver to pregnant and nursing women. In addition, pulses may promote a healthy gut microbiome because of the resistant starches they contain. Enteropathy, or inflammation of the intestinal lining, can decrease nutrient absorption and contribute to stunting. Emerging evidence is looking at whether increased pulse consumption in undernourished children could support the gut microbiome and prevent enteropathy.

Through an agricultural lens, the farming of pulses has many benefits for their ability to fix atmospheric nitrogen in the soil, and to serve as a protein source that is an alternative to livestock. Pulses introduce critical nitrogen into the agricultural system naturally through symbiosis with nitrogen-fixing soil microbes, called rhizobia. Nitrogen can alternatively be provided as synthetic fertilizer. More than 10,000 years ago, pulses and grass were domesticated and used by farmers through rotation; they inter-cropped pulses and grasses to increase grain yields. Pulses also are a low carbon footprint source of protein. 

In today’s world of a growing population—with 1.9 billion overweight or obese adults, 795 million who are underweight, and 2 billion who may consume enough calories but lack the necessary micronutrients—the role of pulses increasing in the human diet has many advantages. Agriculture’s challenge is to provide the needed quantities of nutrient-dense food at an affordable cost.

Yearly, October 16th is observed as World Food Day; a day that commemorates the founding of the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations in 1945. As we observe the importance of global food security yearly, we should also acknowledge the potential role pulses play in increasing food security. 

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


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