August 30, 2016

Protein: Year of the Pulse

Becky Ramsing

Becky Ramsing

Senior Program Officer, Food Communities & Public Health Program

Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future

This post is the second in a series, Protein—Everything You Always Wanted to Know But Were Too Afraid to Ask. Stay tuned for Part 3!

Year of the Pig, Year of the Goat, Year of the Pulse??? Every year, the United Nations initiates special observances to promote international awareness and action on important issues. This year is the Year of the Pulses.

Pulses for sale at a market

Pulses are a subgroup of legumes used mainly as protein sources in the diet. Common pulses include beans, dried peas, chickpeas and lentils. They’re high in protein, fiber and many vitamins. Known as being hearty crops and for their ability to grow easily in a variety of conditions, they’re an excellent part of healthy diets all across the world. (Legumes that are used as vegetables—peas, green beans or soybeans and groundnuts for oils—are not considered pulses.[i])

Pulses deserve a lot more attention than they get. Here are five great reasons to love a pulse:

  1. Nutrition and health
  2. Global and local food security
  3. The environment and climate
  4. Cost and simplicity
  5. Taste and variety

  1. Nutrition and Health

Pulses provide an exceptional nutrition package. They vary greatly in color, shape and size but they are surprisingly consistent nutritionally. They are a valuable source of protein, ranging from 8-10 grams for every 1/2-cup serving. They are virtually fat-free, yet they are high in fiber, iron, folate and B vitamins, potassium, magnesium, zinc—nutrients that tend to lack in highly processed, Western diets. They are high in complex carbohydrates with a low glycemic index, slowing down the blood sugar response after meals. And they provide both soluble and insoluble fiber, which lower blood sugar and cholesterol and aid with digestion.

People who include pulses into their weekly menu appear to have better diets, healthier bodies and even longevity. In a 2009 study looking at National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) data, people who consumed one serving each day of dry beans or peas had higher intake of fiber, protein, folate, zinc, iron and magnesium with lower intakes of saturated and total fats.[ii] Diets emphasizing legumes over red meat have been shown to lower cholesterol, improve blood glucose control in Type II diabetics and lower blood pressure.[iii] [iv] [v] Several studies have associated consumption of legumes with a lower body weight and smaller waist circumference.[vi]

Despite all these positive outcomes, studies show that only 8-14 percent of Americans eat legumes on any given day.

  1. Global and Local Food Security

Pulses provide a large proportion of protein intake globally, and there is potential to produce a lot more. Pulses are inexpensive and easy to grow for consumption as well as income. They are locally adapted, and most farmers are familiar with them. They keep well in storage when dried and do not require refrigeration; thus families can consume pulses during the lean season. Because they are so packed nutritionally, they are highly accessible foods for fighting malnutrition and are a valuable part of a healthy, adequate diet. Here in the U.S., studies show that many lower-income families rely on pulses for protein as well.

Increasingly, people are eating more meat across the globe with urbanization and a slow rise in incomes. This comes at the expense of health, the environment and family budgets. Especially in developing countries, where the trend in dietary choices is moving toward more animal based protein and cereals, retaining pulses is an important way to ensure diets remain balanced and to avoid the increase in non-communicable disease often associated with diet transitions and rising incomes.[vii]

  1. The Environment and Climate

Pulses are good for the environment and build sustainability and biodiversity. They require far less water, land and resources to grow than animal proteins, especially beef. Producing one pound of beef requires 1,800 gallons of water, while a pound of beans takes only 43 gallons. About 30 percent of the world’s total ice-free surface is used to support animal food production, in contrast to 10 percent that is used to raise grains, fruits and vegetables that are fed directly to people. Pulses have a significantly lower carbon footprint than animal products. A serving of lentils produces 1.9 grams CO2 equivalents, while a serving of beef produces 330 grams CO2 equivalents on average.[viii]

Pulses are an important part of a crop rotation for sustainability of land and plants. They require little fertilizer and are nitrogen fixers, meaning they add nitrogen—the most needed nutrient for crop production—to the soil in which they grow. Rotating fields with pulses results in higher yields, less fertilizer use and lower carbon footprint of the subsequent crops.[ix] Pulses feed the soil microbes, and the plant residues left after harvest provide diverse amino acids to the soil.phoca_thumb_l_dscn1805

  1. Cost and Simplicity

Pulses are cheap! A pound of dried beans (about 12.5 cups cooked) can feed a large family and costs less than $2. This is compared with a pound of meat that cost three times as much (or more) and will feed fewer than four people. Canned beans cost a little more—usually about $1.50 per can—but are still considered an inexpensive protein.

Pulses are convenient! Looking at a bag of dry beans and imagining dinner may be overwhelming, but in reality, it’s an easy project if you plan ahead! And not much can beat the ease of using canned beans when you don’t have much time to cook them.

(The Bean Institute outlines a simple method for preparing beans. See below for a step-by-step guide.)

  1. Taste and Variety

Beans are thought of as a poor man’s food, but in reality, they are treasures.

Although most popular in developing countries, pulses are increasingly becoming recognized as an excellent part of a healthy diet throughout the world. They are a part of many traditional and tasteful dishes, such as Indian dhal, bean paste, Mexican food, hummus and falafel. Most importantly, kids tend to like beans, especially when they are introduced early in life. They take on the flavors of the spices and seasonings they are prepared with, so they essentially serve as a canvas for delicious food.

Pulses round out a meal and can be a healthy, easy way to eat less meat for health, animal welfare and the environment. Pulses provide protein, have a low glycemic index and supply many other important nutrients. The variety of pulses and ways they can be prepared seem nearly endless. So, why not try a new pulse this Monday and make it a Meatless Monday!

More Pulse Tips

  • Look for canned beans without BPA if possible.
  • Rinsing off the brine from canned beans will reduce the sodium slightly.
  • You can save the bean liquid, called aquafaba, from the can or cooking. It can be used as an egg white replacement for baking and even for making merengue. Chickpea aquafaba is the most common.
  • Flatulence, gas and bloating are reduced when beans are soaked in hot water.
  • Sprouted and fermented pulses are other forms of preparation that have probiotic properties helpful for intestinal and digestive problems.

A Few Recipes to Get You Started:

Punj Rattani Dal

Punj Rattani Dal

*Step 1: Soak (or not)

  • Soak—overnight (I often pour them in a glass bowl, cover with a few inches of water and go to bed).
  • Quick soak—forgot last night? As you get ready for work, put the beans in a pot, cover with water and bring to boil. As soon as they boil, cover with a lid, turn off the heat and set the timer for one hour.
  • Don’t soak—lentils and small beans don’t need to be soaked.

Step 2: Drain and cook

Drain the soaked beans, put in pot and cover with a few inches of water. Bring to boil and reduce heat. Let simmer partly covered for 1-2 hours, depending on the bean—until tender. If you have a pressure cooker, try it. It’s the fastest, most convenient way to cook beans. Don’t add salt until beans are cooked.

Add flavor at any time with these ingredients:

  • Sautéed onions, garlic, peppers and tomatoes
  • Chili powder, curry powder, herbs, salt and pepper

Step 3: Eat

Add your pulses to almost anything:

  • Chili with or without meat
  • Mix with meat dishes to cut down on mat
  • Top a salad
  • Fill wraps, burritos or tacos
  • Serve over rice (my family’s favorite)
  • Make hummus with chickpeas or try another pulse, such as white beans.

If you make a big pot, and can’t eat them all, throw them in the freezer. You can keep them in refrigerator for a few days and use them in various meals. (You WILL smell them if they go bad, though!)


[i] FAO 1994. Definition and classification of commodities: 4. Pulses and derived products. (Accessed 22/10/2015).

[ii] Mitchell DC, Lawrence FR, Hartman TJ, Curran JM; Consumption of dry beans, peas, and lentils could improve diet quality in the US population. J Am Diet Assoc. 2009 May; 109(5):909-13.

[iii] Jenkins DJA, Kendall CW, Augustin LS, et al; Effect of legumes as part of a low glycemic index diet on glycemic control and cardiovascular risk factors in type 2 diabetes mellitus. Arch Intern Med 2012;172:1653–1660

[iv] Jayalath, V., et al; Effect of Dietary Pulses on Blood Pressure: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis of Controlled Feeding Trials. Am J Hypertens (2014) 27 (1): 56-64 first published online September 7, 2013 doi:10.1093/ajh/hpt155

[v] S Hosseinpour-Niazi, et al.; Legumes intake and cardiometabolic risk factors; European Journal of Clinical Nutrition; (2015) 69,592–597

[vi] Papanikolau, Y. Bean consumption is associated with greater nutrient intake, reduced systolic blood pressure, lower body weight, and a smaller waist circumference in adults: results from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey 1999-2002; JACN. 2008 Vol. 27, Issue 5. 569-576

[vii] International Year of the Pulse

[viii] Tilman & Clark; Global diets link environmental sustainability and human health; Nature; 515, 518–522; November 2014

[ix] Gan, Y., Liang, C., Wang, X. and McConkey, B. 2011. Lowering carbon footprint of durum wheat by diversifying cropping systems. Field Crops Research. 122: 199–206.


  1. Posted by Joseph Yracheta

    Interesting. Just got done reading a paper from Norway on how there was an active economic program to move away from the pulse in the 1980’s and now they are trying to return to it because of the efficiency and nutrition of those plants.

    Many are Amerindigenous and not properly attributed to them historically, journalistically or economically.

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