By Diane Wright Hirsch, MPH, RD
The 68th UN General Assembly declared 2016 the International Year of Pulses (IYP). The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations will conduct a variety of activities in support of this focus on a food product that is nutritious and sustainable. According to information on the web site, www.fao.org/pulses-2016, the objectives of IYP are to:
- Raise awareness about the important role of pulses in sustainable food production and healthy diets and their contribution to food security and nutrition;
- Promote the value and utilization of pulses throughout the food system, their benefits for soil fertility and climate change and for combating malnutrition;
- Encourage connections throughout the food chain to further global production of pulses, foster enhanced research, better utilize crop rotations and address the challenges in the trade of pulses.
So what exactly are pulses?
Pulses are the edible seeds of legumes. Legumes are members of the botanical family Papilionaceae within the family of Fabaceae (or Leguminosae), the third largest family in the plant kingdom. You are probably most familiar with dry peas and beans, lentils, chickpeas, soybeans and fava beans. Peanuts are also legumes. Generally, “pulses” refer to the dry seeds or grains produced by the legume plants: they do not include peas or beans eaten green or soybeans used for oil production.
Cuisines from all over the world rely on pulses as a source of high protein nutrition. In Kenya a family may sit down to a traditional meal of Githeri or Mutheri, a boiled mixture of maize and beans; in India, it may be Dal, a soup like dish made from lentils or a chickpea curry also known as chole or chana masala; baked fava beans from Greece or falafel or hummus from any number of middle eastern countries, made traditionally from chickpeas are all examples of how these legumes are a critical part of the world’s food basket.
In addition to being rich in protein, these foods are low in fat and are a great source of soluble fiber. Soluble fiber is one of two types of dietary fiber-the other is the insoluble form that is found in wheat bran, vegetables and whole grains. Soluble fiber attracts water and forms a gel. It slows digestion and has been associated with reducing the risk for heart disease, lowering blood cholesterol and helping to control blood sugar. According to the USA Dry Pea and Lentil Council, legumes contain “three times as much iron as meat, two times as much magnesium as rice, and four to five times as much potassium as meat.”
And, diets rich in these plant proteins are also contributing to a more sustainable food system. Cultivation of pulses is less dependent on fertilizers and fossil fuels because the plants are able to “fix” or get nitrogen from the atmosphere. This helps with soil fertility and long-term productivity of farmland. They are also drought tolerant.
Grow your own
So, why not try growing lentils, chick peas, fava beans or soybeans in your home garden? They can be relatively easy to grow. The difficult part may be finding seeds. Several online blogs and forums have participants who have had success with purchasing dry lentils and chickpeas in the grocery store and planting them. Some seed companies have “sprouting seeds” that you could try. And others do have seeds for growing soybeans, lentils and dry beans. Search through the seed catalogs or online.
Most legume crops like cooler growing areas and are somewhat drought tolerant. They do not like a rainy growing season. Lentils are more tolerant of frost than other legumes so may be planted earlier. If you grow these crops for several seasons, practice crop rotation to minimize disease. There are several Extension publications that you may refer to online. Try searching for “Growing Dry Beans: A Vermont Tradition” by Winston Way or “Growing Lentils in Montana” by Cash, Lockerman, Bowman and Welty.
The growing season is over and harvest begins when pods are dry and begin to crack open. Try to harvest after a dry period. If rain interferes, pull up the plants and hang until dry. Remove the seeds/beans from the pods and allow to dry at room temperature for a few weeks before storage. Sort through the beans and remove any that look shriveled or moldy. If you are concerned about the presence of any bugs, you may freeze your dry beans in an airtight freezer container. Otherwise, store in an airtight container (glass canning jars are good) in a cool, dark location.
But, remember, that if you would rather devote your garden space to fresh vegetables, herbs or berries, pulses are readily available at very low cost in any grocery store. Some of the more exotic options such as red lentils or fava beans may be found in stores that specialize in international cuisines. But why not try growing them just once?
For more information on growing, storing and cooking with pulses, contact the UConn Home and Garden Education Center at firstname.lastname@example.org or 1-877-486-6271.