Christopher Marinangeli is the Director of Nutrition, Science and Regulatory Affairs at Pulse Canada
Mohammad Abdullah is a Research Associate at the Richardson Centre for Functional Foods and Nutraceuticals at the University of Manitoba
Jared Carlberg is the Associate Dean in the Faculty of Agricultural and Food Science at the University of Manitoba
Peter Jones is the Director and a Professor at the Richardson Centre for Functional Foods and Nutraceuticals at the University of Manitoba
Each year the United Nations declares an “International Year” of observance that highlights and bolsters awareness around a specific theme or concept. The “International Year” is promoted across the globe to encourage a mindfulness of global challenges and, ideally, meaningful change. In previous years, multiple paradigms were promoted – for example, 2014 was declared the “International Year of Family Farming,” “International Year of Crystallography” and “International Year Small Island Developing States”, while, 2015 was declared the “International Year of Soils” and “International Year of Light-based Technologies.” Intriguingly, the year 2016 International is comprised of a single theme, the “International Year of Pulses.”
Simply put, pulses are a subset of legumes that include dried beans, peas, lentils and chickpeas; and exclude legumes that are harvested for oil, such as peanuts or soy. In many areas of the world, such as Southeast Asia, the Mediterranean, regions of Africa and South America, and Mexico pulses are a substantial source of sustenance. Although evidence of the cultivation of pulses as a food source dates as far back as 11,000 B.C., much of North America is unfamiliar with the term “pulse” in its food context, which stems in part from relatively low dietary inclusion within Canada and the US.
As with any other International Year, a brief glimpse can highlight the importance of the subject that is celebrated throughout the designated period; hopefully, this year the glimpse provided here demonstrates the important contribution pulses can make to raising awareness of the contribution of sustainable food production to strengthening health and well being through nutrition.
Nutritionally, the composition of pulses is unique. In addition to providing the expected substantial levels of fibre or complex carbohydrates, pulses are also high in protein and a variety of minerals such as iron, folate and potassium that are considered nutrients of concern in developed and undeveloped regions. This unique nutrient composition permits pulses to be classified as both a vegetable and protein source within the US dietary guidelines. Moreover, ongoing breeding efforts that aim to further enhance or “biofortify” the nutritional composition of pulses will broaden their use in addressing international nutrition-related diseases such as iron-deficiency anemia.
An additional critical characteristic of pulses pertains to their efficacy in facilitating better health outcomes related to chronic disease. More than twenty years of clinical trials along with recent meta-analyses suggest that the inclusion of pulses as a dietary staple could be effective in preventing chronic disease through reduced circulating LDL-cholesterol levels, blood glucose management and decreased systolic blood pressure. Mechanisms of action can be logically deduced through the nutrient composition of pulses and known effects of these constituents, such as dietary fibre, protein and potassium, on biological functions. Newer research suggests that pulses could one day make substantial contributions to gut health with applications to inflammatory diseases and microbiome diversity. It is known that preventative lifestyle strategies will be essential for reducing economic stresses on healthcare systems.
Nutrition and health are usually top-of-mind when we think about food systems. However, when considering that agriculture generates up to a quarter of all greenhouse gas emissions, the environmental impact of food production is impossible to ignore. Pulses are unique within the world of agriculture inasmuch as they require substantially less water than other animal or vegetative sources of protein. Furthermore, due to the presence of symbiotic bacteria within the nodules of their root system, pulse crops have a unique ability to “fix” atmospheric nitrogen into ammonia, thus enriching the soil with natural nitrogen and reducing the need to apply synthetic nitrogen fertilizer to alternative crops when pulses are grown in rotation. Considering various climate change benchmarks, including those reached in Paris in late 2015, sustainable agriculture will be a cornerstone of slowing global warming, optimizing farmland already designated to farming and maintaining biodiversity of ecosystems. Enhanced utilization of pulses in agriculture can serve as a segue to increasing their consumption in diets and assist in meeting sustainability goals.
A singular theme for the UN’s 2016 International Year speaks to the important contribution pulses can make to addressing global challenges that encompass nutrition, health and sustainability. There is an international and concerted effort to maintain the unprecedented momentum that the International Year of Pulses has rallied around the world. It is the hope of the international community, across disciplines, that pulses can play an integral part for nurturing efforts toward a future with healthy people and a healthy planet. After all – we’re all in this together!