10th February is World Pulses Day, designated by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation in recognition of the role pulses can play to help solve the challenges facing the global food system.
Pulses, the edible mature seeds of leguminous plants, have been among the world’s most important foods for more than 10,000 years.
The many types of pulses include beans (of different kinds), chickpeas, lentils, peas and numerous lesser-known species comprising thousands of different varieties. Grown and eaten hand-in-hand with cereals since the dawn of farming in the Fertile Crescent, pulses contributed essential fertility to the fields and nutrition to the people that grew them.
But why should we eat more pulses? It’s hard not to come across as madly evangelical when extolling the benefits of pulses, which span nurture, nature, culture and flavour.
Pulses are good sources of macro-nutrients, particularly protein, fibre and resistant starch. They’re also a good source of many micro-nutrients, including iron, potassium and folate. They have a low glycaemic index, helping to avoid blood sugar spikes that can contribute to the development of Type 2 Diabetes.
The British Heart Foundation recommends eating more pulses:
“Replacing half or even all the meat you eat with pulses is a great way to eat less unhealthy saturated fat, manage your weight and keep your digestive system healthy. You will also feel better and reduce your risk of a heart attack or stroke.”
Pulses are an incredibly low-impact food, especially when compared with animal sources of protein. They require less land, less water, and less or no fertiliser. Leguminous plants have the amazing ability – with a little help from their microbial friends - to take nitrogen from the air and turn it into fertility in the soil.
Pulse crops play an essential role in more sustainable rotations, breaking weed and disease cycles and helping crops access more nutrients. Growing pulses can increase microbial activity and diversity in the soil even after they’ve been harvested.
Pulses are grown in at least 173 different countries. They’re eaten by communities across the world, comprising a rich cultural tapestry of varieties grown, dishes cooked, festivals celebrated, traditions followed and legends told.
Slow Food’s Ark of Taste catalogues 300 threatened types and varieties of legume around the world. In Eating to Extinction Dan Saladino tells the amazing stories of particular pulses including the Alb Lentils of Swabia in Germany and the Geechee Red Pea from Sapelo Island in Georgia, US.
But this is just a fraction of the full span of diversity, with tens of thousands of different types of pulses catalogued around the world. The John Innes Centre in Norwich has over 4,000 different peas in its collection, while the International Center for Agricultural Research in Dry Areas (ICARDA) in Lebanon has over 10,000 lentils, and India’s International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) almost 17,000 different chickpeas.
Whether cooked in a dal, cassoulet or pease pudding, or used to make hummus, falafel or mushy peas, pulses are superb culinary ingredients. They’re satisfying and sustaining, each with its own distinctive flavour but also able to absorb and enhance the taste of other ingredients.
Pulses come in two basic forms, whole (with their skins intact) or split (skinned and divided in two) but they can also be milled, roasted, sprouted and fermented to produce a vast array of foods with wonderfully different flavours and uses.
For all this pulses have been in decline over recent decades and even centuries. As countries around the world have industrialised their diets have shifted away from pulses as a main source of protein to meat and dairy. To our shame the UK led the way in this shift and we Britons are perhaps the nation most estranged from our historic pulse crops.
We urgently need to eat more pulses – but we also need to celebrate, consume and support the vast diversity of pulse species, types and varieties.
Thankfully the tide is turning, with a rediscovery of pulse culture around the world and a global movement of local community initiatives reviving, growing and promoting pulses.
The nutritional, environmental and cultural benefits of pulses are increasingly recognised and celebrated. Most notably, The General Assembly of the United Nations named 2016 the International Year of Pulses. Building on the success of The International Year of Pulses, Burkina Faso proposed the idea of an annual celebration of pulses and the UN proclaimed February 10th as World Pulses Day.
In our work at Hodmedod we celebrate and enjoy pulses every day of the year, but World Pulses Day is an opportunity to step back and consider the wider picture. Pulses really can play a crucial role in mitigating the global challenges of poverty, food security and nutrition, human health, and soil health.
Eat more beans to help save the world!
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A few years ago we were looking for a sweetner for some granola recipes, something UK produced and minimally processed. When our apple syrup order from Liberty Fields arrived we knew we were onto something special - we quickly added them to our short list of brilliant Guest Producers
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Down a warren of country lanes, not far from the Tamar Valley in Cornwall, is Julie Bailey's orchard Lower Trelabe, where she grows historic local varieties of apple and makes her delicious Apple Natural apple shreds, traditional fruit leathers that contain only the natural plant sugars.