If you're trying to shift your diet toward more nutritious foods you need to make friends with dried beans, chickpeas and lentils if you haven't already. Their nutritional benefits are legendary. Just one example: Studies of the world's longest-living people (in the so-called "blue zones") find that such beans are the one specific food they all eat in common.
But health is just one focus of a new United Nations campaign around these wonders. The U.N. declared 2016 the International Year of Pulses, a global marketing effort promoting their promise in feeding a growing population. (Such declarations only occasionally involve edible crops, by the way: The last two such designations were quinoa in 2013 and potatoes in 2008. In 2015 the two subjects were soil and light/light-based technologies.) Among other things, the campaign asked member nations to submit recipes for signature dishes using pulses (which are sometimes referred to as "grain legumes"). It also inspired U.S. and Canadian growers to launch the Pulse Pledge, a website where eaters can vow to eat more pulses and get access to recipes, cooking tips and more.
I spoke with Tim McGreevy, a pulse farmer in Washington state and chief executive of the American Pulse Association, about the campaign and about growing, cooking and eating pulses. Edited excerpts of our conversation follow.
What exactly defines pulses, and how is the term different from other categories we use for legumes and beans?
They're a legume. The legume category is broad. It includes soybeans; it includes peanuts. The category of pulse crops actually is a United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization definition. There are 11 types, but in the United States the primary pulse crops are dry beans, peas, lentils and chickpeas, a little bit of fava beans as well. They're in their dry form; they're not fresh. We're not fresh peas, we're not fresh green beans, which are terrific products but not pulse products. Pulses are really defined because they have a low oil content compared with the other legumes in the family.
So that's what makes them unlike peanuts.
Yes. Soybeans have a very high oil content, and so do peanuts. Pulses really are in their own category in the legume matrix. Legume plants are unique in the plant kingdom because they fix much of their own nitrogen in the soil from the air. … They require none to very little fertilizer to produce a good crop, which is absolutely critical.
Why else are they considered such an important food from a global perspective?
For the developed world like the United States, where we have problems with weight management, these crops offer super high protein and an excellent source of dietary fiber. These foods will keep you full longer and will help with weight management. From the U.N.'s perspective, these are absolutely critical to food security. People don't need as much dietary fiber in the developing countries, but they need the protein.
When it comes to food waste, surely it helps that these are dry products and easy to store.
Yes. The word "pulse" is from a Latin word, puls, that means thick soup. One reason the Romans were able to conquer the world is because they had lentils and pulse crops that they carried with them in their knapsacks. They'd have some rice and they'd have some pulses in some form. … They would cook up their own vegetable protein, and they could go long distances, which they did, without having to kill animals and without all that spoilage.
Why don't we eat as many pulses in America as in other parts of the world?
When the Europeans descended upon the Americas, they brought pulses with them, because they are portable, they are storable and they were a staple. But we are a meat culture, a meat protein culture. We are not under-proteined in this country. We are over-proteined. That's a great thing. But people are starting to look more and more at plant proteins because of a lot of different factors. Health is one, and sustainability is certainly another.
As a pulse grower, what are some of your personal favorite ways to eat them?
With the chickpeas that I raise, of course we make hummus. Hummus has taken center stage, and it's tremendous. And roasted chickpeas are terrific. Another thing, with lentils, they cook really quickly, so in our house, since my wife, Christine, is into green drinks, we are actually now including lentils as a puree right in with our smoothie. I'm telling you, getting that good protein hit early in the morning is a game-changer.