Fingertips on the Pulse: 2016, the Year of the Pulse

Year of the pulse? No, we aren’t talking about feeling your heartbeat. Instead, we're talking about food. Pulses are attracting attention this year with the United Nations (UN) declaring 2016 the UN International Year of Pulses. You might be wondering, what’s a pulse? Why are pulses receiving so much attention? Well, we’ve got you covered with some pulse pointers.

So what exactly is a pulse?

First, let’s talk legumes. Legumes are a family of more than 13,000 species of plants whose fruit is enclosed in a pod. Pulses are a subsection of legumes that only includes the dry seed. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization has classified 11 primary pulses including beans, lentils, chickpeas, and dried peas. Examples of legumes that are not pulses are soybeans and peanuts, as these are mainly grown for oil, as well as green beans and green peas, since these are considered vegetables.

Pulses are packed with nutrition

The protein content of pulses typically ranges from 21 to 26 percent and can offer about 20 to 25 grams of protein per cup. Protein has been shown to increase feelings of fullness, maintain lean body mass, and repair tissue damage. Pulses are an incomplete protein, but this does not mean they are inferior sources of protein. Complete vs. incomplete protein refers to the amino acid profile of the protein. Amino acids are the building blocks for protein, and different combinations and amounts of protein are used to build all sorts of things in the body such as muscle, hair, and nails.

Twenty types of amino acids are used in the body. Nine of those are essential and need to come from the food you eat. The other 11 amino acids are non-essential – meaning the body can make these on its own. Some sources of protein are complete, meaning they contain the essential amino acids in the right proportions. Other protein foods are incomplete, or lacking in some essential amino acids. But don’t fret! You can easily have a complete protein profile by pairing two incomplete proteins. A great go-to for a pulse protein is rice with beans or lentils.

You also do not have to pair incomplete proteins at every meal. Consuming a variety of protein foods in adequate amounts throughout the day will provide the essential amino acids your body needs. If you have more questions, check out our infographic series on protein pairing.

In addition to being great sources of protein, pulses offer a variety of other functional nutrition: They're packed with fiber to support a healthy gut. Some pulses offer about one-third of your daily recommended amount of fiber. Switching to fiber-rich foods is something many of us should do. More than 90 percent of Americans fail to reach the daily fiber recommendations.

Pulses also have high levels of minerals such as iron and zinc. Iron is critical for cardiovascular health by ensuring that proper oxygen transport occurs. Iron is also necessary for the production of various enzymes. Zinc plays an important role in supporting a healthy immune system, promotes wound healing and is involved in hormone regulation.  Pulses are rich sources of a variety of B vitamins such as folate. Folate is especially critical for pregnant women to prevent developmental defects.

Pulses can contribute to sustainable agriculture

Let’s go back to school, where we learned about the nitrogen fixation pathway. Nitrogen is an important element found in soil for plant growth. It is necessary in forming the basic building blocks (ranging from DNA to protein) for all forms of life. However, N2 is not an available source for plants. That’s why fixing nitrogen (N2) into ammonia (NH3) and finally into ammonium (NH4+) is critical.

Pulses contain symbiotic bacteria on their roots that assist in fixing nitrogen into ammonium. Additionally, when a pulse plant is harvested, all of the rich sources of nitrogen stored in its roots are released into the soil. These sources of nitrogen are converted into nitrate (NO3-), a nitrogen source that many other plans can use. Crop rotation using pulses is a very common practice in farming as a way to deliver nitrogen to the soil and ensure that the soil is rich for agriculture.

Pulses are a powerhouse for nutrition and agriculture. Packed with fiber, protein, vitamins, and minerals, pulses offer a variety of healthy components. Serving as a source of nitrogen for modern agriculture, pulses are a sustainable plant used in many different farming practices. So let’s all cheer that the year of the pulse is finally here!