What’s in a pulse?

A key message of the 2016 International Year of Pulses is that pulses are highly nutritious—the little seeds are packed with nutrients, and are a fantastic source of protein. Many scientific articles and national food composition tables and databases contain some compositional data on pulses. However, no global and comprehensive resource on the food composition of pulses currently exists with harmonized and evaluated data according to a common standard. To address this knowledge gap, FAO is working to develop the FAO/INFOODS Global Food Composition Database for Pulses, which will be one of the main outcomes of the International Year. We spoke with Nutrition Officer Ruth Charrondiere to learn more about the database and how it will be used.

What is a food composition database?

A food composition database is tool that catalogues the levels of micronutrients, macronutrients and phytochemicals in foods—in this case, pulses. The FAO/INFOODS Global Food Composition Database for Pulses will have two parts: the first will be a repository of existing analytical data taken from more than 22 000 scientific articles and other sources such as unpublished laboratory reports; the second will be a user-friendly interface showing the complete nutrient profile—including 28 nutrients and amino acids—of different types of pulses. The first part will be published in the FAO/INFOODS Food Composition Database for Biodiversity and the FAO/INFOODS Analytical Food Composition Database.

How is it built?

First, the existing data is identified—this step is complete and resulted in more than 22 000 scientific articles on the food composition of pulses. In addition, unpublished pulses data are expected to be received from unpublished sources. Next, the data is sent through a rigorous quality control check to identify and address gaps and inconsistencies, and to eventually eliminate inaccurate or incomplete data. The data will then be entered into two databases: the FAO/INFOODS Food Composition Database for Biodiversity, and the FAO/INFOODS Analytical Food Composition Database (both can be accessed here). The following step is to select those pulses for which full nutrient profiles will be published as a stand-alone database comparable to the West African Food Composition Table, which will also be made available on the FAO/INFOODS site. For those pulses, the available analytical data will be re-evaluated, aggregated and missing values completed from other sources. In addition, the nutrient composition of cooked pulses and selected recipes will be calculated.

Why is a food composition database needed for pulses?

In order to better promote the production and consumption of pulses, we must first know the nutritional make-up of the crops so we can appreciate their nutritional benefits. Once we have comprehensive data on the different varieties, it will open up a number of opportunities to address micronutrient deficiencies and incorporate pulses into nutrition and agriculture policies and guidelines.

What are the potential future uses for the database and the information it holds?

One of the most important uses of the pulses data will be in nutrition programmes and policies. For example, school feeding programmes can be developed using pulses in combination with other local crops to give children the specific nutrients needed for their health and growth. Similarly, if a micronutrient deficiency is identified within a certain region or population, governments and nutritionists can pinpoint the varieties of pulses that contain the highest levels of the micronutrients, and encourage their production on farms and home gardens in these areas. Governments can also use the data to enrich food based dietary guidelines and national food composition tables. Furthermore, researchers and the private sector can use the food composition data to develop new, nutrient-rich varieties of pulses through cross-breeding and selective breeding, and include these improved varieties in mass production programmes.

When will it be complete?

Due to the large amount of data collected, the food composition database will most likely be completed this summer (2016), and the user interface will come after. Stay tuned for updates on the official International Year of Pulses website.


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