1. You’ve eaten them without knowing it. If the word “pulse” as a food leaves you flummoxed, fear not. The word pulse comes from the Latin word “puls,” which means thick soup or potage. No doubt you’ve enjoyed dried beans, lentils and peas in a soup or stew. Pulses are the edible dried seeds of certain plants in the legume family. Soybeans, peanuts, fresh peas and fresh beans are legumes but not considered pulse crops. Some lesser-known pulses like adzuki bean and cowpea play critical roles in diets around the world. Many pulses are economically accessible and important contributors to food security.
2. They’re very nutritious. Pulses contain between 20 and 25 percent protein by weight—twice the amount you’ll find in quinoa and wheat—and next to no fat. Around the world, they are a key source of protein for people who don’t eat meat or who don’t have regular access to meat. Pulses need less water than other crops, which adds to their appeal and value in areas where water is scarce.
3. Pulse crops have other environmental benefits as well. As members of the legume family, pulses are capable of taking nitrogen from the air and putting it back in the soil in a form available to plants. This makes legumes a critical part of any crop rotation and contributes significantly to sustainable farming. Pulses are grown worldwide but are particularly well adapted to cool climates such as Canada and northern states in the U.S.
4. We’re learning a lot about pulses from a recently sequenced genome. Adzuki bean was domesticated 12,000 years ago in China and is one of the most important pulses grown in Asia. There it is known as the “weight loss bean” because of its low calorie and fat content and high levels of protein. A recent genome sequencing collaboration among scientists in India and China revealed that genes for fat were expressed in much higher levels in soybean than in adzuki bean, while genes for starch were expressed at greater levels in adzuki bean. Their findings suggest that humans selected for diversified legumes in their diet—some that would provide oil and others that would provide starch.
5. It’s their year! The 68th UN General Assembly declared 2016 the International Year of Pulses, so now is the time to eat and learn. Events taking place all around the world focus on everything from cooking pulses (sample recipes: fava bean puree, carrot and yellow split pea soup) to growing them and incorporating them into school lunches. Learn more at www.fao.org/pulses-2016/en/.
Irwin Goldman is a professor and chair of the Department of Horticulture.