Pulses are the dry, edible seeds of plants in the legume family. Think chickpeas, lentils, dry peas, and bean varieties such as black, kidney, adzuki, lima and cannellini. OK, that’s the boring bit over.
As much as I dislike the term ‘superfood’ (it’s generally used as a marketing term for fairly expensive foods that though good for us, we can live without), I make an exception for pulses. Here’s why:
1. Pulses are good for your wallet. Consider comparable sources of protein: the cost per serving for lentils is just 10 cents, per serving of quinoa is 59 cents, and per serving of beef is $1.49.
2. Pulses are good for the environment. In fact this is part of the reason the UN cares so much about pulses. Pulses have a lower carbon footprint than almost any other food group, and enrich the soil where they grow. They are water-efficient. It takes 50 litres of water to produce one kilo of lentils, 4,325 litres to produce a kilo of chicken, and a whopping 13,000 litres to produce 1 kilo of beef. Pulses are likely to play a major role in meeting future food needs, since the world’s growing populations is set to require a 70% increase in agricultural production by 2050.
3. Pulses are nutritional powerhouses. Loaded with protein, fibre, B vitamins and minerals, and heart-friendly phytonutrients, pulses are also a source of low GI carbohydrates, which don’t cause a spike in blood sugar. That’s very good news, given the increasing rates of pre-diabetes and diabetes.
Pulses are high in fibre, both soluble and insoluble. And we could all do with increasing our fibre. Soluble fibre forms a gel in our digestive system, and is associated with delaying sugar entry into the intestine, reducing blood cholesterol levels, and decreasing rates of heart disease.
For anyone following a vegetarian diet, pulses are an essential source of protein, iron, zinc, calcium and magnesium. (Just make sure you include a vitamin C-rich food when eating them to maximise iron absorption.)
By way of comparison, pulses contain twice the protein of quinoa, and are loaded with more antioxidants than blueberries or pomegranate juice. Chickpeas have three times the folate as kale (folate is the essential B Vitamin that helps prevent neural tube birth defects).
4. Pulses reduce the risk of heart disease and diabetes, and lower blood pressure and cholesterol through their combination of fibre and nutrients.
5. Pulses help with weight loss. High in protein and fibre, they help fill you up without adding excess calories.
6. Pulses keep your gut bugs happy. Pulses are also a source of resistant starch. This is starch that passes through the small intestine undigested: it is instead broken down in the large intestine and feeds the good bacteria there. This process produces a fatty acid that not only fuels the body but keeps lower intestinal cells healthy — which in turn may provide protection against cancer.
So why don’t we eat more of them?
Well, we’re not sure what to do with them. Most require soaking before cooking, but the wide choice of canned pulses are a convenient alternative. I’ve noticed Edgell have recently added black beans and black-eyed beans to their stable of pulses – go and try them.
Add pulses to curries, casseroles, and salads, or make a dip using beans such as chickpeas, cannellini or broad beans. Lentils are perfect for thickening soups or adding to different grains as a base for salads. Try the tiny black or caviar lentils – they hold their shape particularly well. Explore books of Middle Eastern and Indian recipes – they use pulses in imaginative and delicious ways.
The gas factor
Many people report excessive flatulence from eating beans. This is caused by complex sugars called oligosaccharides, which can’t be digested by us but are fermented by our friendly intestinal bacteria. They love them!
It may be uncomfortable, but gas doesn’t indicate the food is harmful. In fact oligosaccharides are good for the health of your intestines as they increases the proportion of ‘friendly bacteria’ such as bifidobacteria.
To reduce the problem, always rinse canned beans thoroughly before using. If using dried, soak them beforehand and discard the soaking water. Allow your body to get used to the extra fibre and oligosaccharides by having a small serving once or twice a week.
And chew the beans thoroughly. This helps expose the legumes to digestive enzymes in your saliva.
A word about lectins and phytates.
Some people avoid legumes because they contain the ‘anti-nutrients’ lectin and phytic acid (or phytate).
According to the paper Minor components of pulses and their potential impact on human health published in the journal Food Research International (43 (2010) 461–482) pulses contain a number of substances that can affect nutrient absorption. Enzyme inhibitors and lectins are two of these, but both have little effect after cooking.
Phytic acid, or phytate, can bind to minerals, reducing their availability, but may also have protective effects, acting as an antioxidant, and protecting against DNA damage.
Many other fruits and vegetables contain both lectin and phytic acid. Spinach and some nuts for instance, are high in phytic acid. So yes, phytic acid may reduce mineral availability, but not enough to justify striking pulses off your menu, given their numerous health benefits.