Why should we eat pulses more often?

World Pulses Day was designated by the United Nations as a global event, to recognize and celebrate their importance as a global food. Since 2019, it has been celebrated on February 10.

This article will focus on (1) what makes pulses an environmentally friendly crop, and (2) the health benefits one can get from including pulses in one’s diet. At the end, you will find a section with more articles to explore, if you wish to delve deeper into the amazing world of pulses.

But first – what are pulses?

About pulses

Pulses are the edible seeds of plants in the legume family. They grow in pods and come in an array of different shapes, sizes, and colors.

According to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), there are 11 types of pulses:

  • dry beans,
  • dry broad beans,
  • dry peas,
  • chickpeas,
  • cow peas,
  • pigeon peas,
  • lentils,
  • Bambara beans,
  • vetches,
  • lupins
  • pulses NES (not elsewhere specified – varieties that don’t fall into one of the other categories).

The relationship between humans and pulses goes back a long way. The earliest evidence of pulses comes from 11,000 years ago in the Fertile Crescent. This region in the Middle East was home to some of the first human civilizations.

There is an incredible variety of pulses worldwide!

Pulses and the environment

Pulses are climate-smart crops. They simultaneously adapt to climate change and contribute towards mitigating its effects.

Pulse crops have a lower carbon and water footprint than most foods. As an example, 100g of beef requires 1,550 litres of water, while the same amount of beans (pinto, white, black, kidney, lima, red) takes 164 litres, almost 10 times less. When it comes to carbon emissions, beef produces 100kg CO2 eq per 100g of protein, around 50% of which is methane. Soybeans, for instance, produce 1.98kg CO2 eq per 100g of protein, with negletable amounts of methane being produced.

On the other hand. Healthy, biodiverse soils allow for more resistant and resilient ecosystems. And pulses can help improve soil health!

Pulses are able to fix nitrogen in the soil. This means they can use atmospheric nitrogen and transform it so that it becomes available for plants. In fact, this skill comes from a partnership (it’s called a symbiotic relationship) with microbes living in the soil. This ability to fix nitrogen is good news – it reduces, for instance, the dependency on fertilizers, as it improves soil fertility.

Some varieties of pulses can also transform other compounds in the soil and enhance microbial life, which is the foundation for nourishing soil.

When using crop rotation methods, the nitrogen fixed by pulses will benefit the next crop going in, allowing, among other things, for better yields.

Additionally, agroforestry systems that include pulses can improve food security and income for farmers. For one, pulses are able to grow in harsher environments, and second, increasing the diversity of crops being grown will also boost the system’s resilience.

With the help of microbes living in the soil, legumes can extract nitrogen from the atmosphere and fix it in the soil.

The health benefits of pulses

In some cultures, pulses are regarded as “the poor man’s food” being replaced by meat whenever people can afford it.

Pulses, however, are packed with healthy nutrients. They are a good protein source and quite low in fat. Pulses are also rich in complex carbohydrates and fiber, which allow for slow digestion and a longer feeling of satiety – this means that one stays satisfied for longer, before hunger kicks in again.

Apart from the very important macronutrients, pulses contain a diversity of micronutrients: folate, iron, calcium, magnesium, zinc, and potassium.

One should note it is important to soak pulses before cooking and eating them (and make sure to discard the water). Raw pulses contain high levels of “anti-nutrients” like phytate, tannin, and phenol. These nutrients can limit the body’s absorption of minerals such as iron and zinc and increase the propensity to cause flatulence.

To sum up

Pulse crops have a lower carbon footprint than most foods. They require a small amount of fertilizer to grow, as they are able to fix their own nitrogen. They also have a low water footprint since they are adapted to semi-arid conditions and can tolerate drought. Environmental sustainability is just one factor. Pulses are nutritional powerhouses, rich in both macro and micronutrients. As if this wasn’t enough, pulses are inexpensive and easy to store, vital in improving nutrition in low-income rural areas.

So, what do you think? Ready to start eating pulses more often?

Check out our most recent Food for Thought article for inspiration on how to use pulses in the kitchen.

You can also visit one of the following articles for more ideas:

Falafel, made out of chickpeas
Koftes, using red lentils
Fava-bean stew
– And much more on our Whispers from the woods blog!!

Would you like to know more or do you have something to add? Use the comment section below to share your thoughts!


Further reading:
The following factsheets & websites were used as inspiration to write this blog article:

Pulses & Food Security
The health benefits of pulses
Pulses & Biodiversity 
Pulses & Climate Change



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