Why Pulses Are Such a Power Food

2016 is the International Year of Pulses. Here’s the scoop on lentils, chickpeas, beans, and more

Did you know there’s a type of pulse that has nothing to do with a visit to the doctor?

These pulses can, indeed, help keep you healthy, and maybe even away from the doctor’s office. Pulses — dry beans, dry peas, lentils, and chickpeas — are dried seeds that are part of the legume family. And although they’re tiny, they pack a big punch as a valuable food source worldwide — so much so that the UN Food and Agricultural Organization has declared 2016 the International Year of Pulses.

The reason for honoring these humble beans and seeds: to boost awareness of their nutritional value and affordability as part of a global push for sustainable food production.

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Pulse cultivation stretches back thousands of years; throughout history, there’s evidence that they’ve been grown in locations ranging from ancient Egypt to 11th century Britain. Nowadays, they’re found in nearly 175 countries.

“Pulses are, indeed, an ancient crop,” says Tim McGreevy, CEO of the American Pulse Association (APA) and the USA Dry Pea and Lentil Council, based in Moscow, Idaho. “They are a fantastic source of iron, potassium, and dietary fiber. Many cultures around the world are familiar with the term ‘pulse,’ and embrace them as a staple in their diets.”

Most people who are unfamiliar with them tend to lump pulses together and call them all “beans.” Lentils and dry peas, for instance, are not actually beans, McGreevy says, while chickpeas are considered to be in the bean category. Go figure.

Technically speaking, pulses comprise hundreds of varieties of crops in the legume family. (Legumes are dry fruits or pods that contain seeds or dry grains.) Pulses dry naturally in the field, instead of being harvested prematurely as some crops are; they are grown purely to eat, not for oil extraction, as is often the case with, say, soybeans and peanuts. Common pulses include kidney, lima, adzuki, and navy beans; black-eyed peas; lentils; and chickpeas.

Why the buzz about these foodstuffs? Lots of reasons: As McGreevy says, they’re highly nutritious, packed with protein (20-25 percent by weight, about double that of wheat and triple that of rice) plus plenty of fiber. They’re also low in fat and cholesterol-free. And pulses are rich in minerals (iron, magnesium, potassium, phosphorus, zinc) and contain B-vitamins (thiamine, riboflavin, niacin, B6, and folate). The American Pulse Association says one serving of dry peas contains as much potassium as a banana and four times more fiber than a serving of brown rice. Per serving, chickpeas boast three times more folate than kale, and more than twice the iron as a standard three-ounce serving of chicken breast.

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These health boosters also help manage blood-sugar levels, maintain muscle and nerve function, and — according to the FAO — are brimming with bioactive compounds that “show some evidence of helping to combat cancer, diabetes, and heart disease.” UN research adds that eating pulses regularly can also help in the battle against obesity.

Pulses are also good for the planet: They need about 50 percent less water to grow than many other crops, and are a nonanimal protein source that grows in a variety of climates. They’re a boon for the pocketbook, too. An estimate by the American Pulse Association found that one serving of lentils in the US costs about seven cents, compared with one serving of chicken (63 cents), pork (73 cents), and beef ($1.49).

Small in size but packed with iron, lentils are a low-cost substitute for meat

Did You Know…?

Impress your pals with these fun facts about pulses:

Dry beans

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  • Beans (and all legumes) are the only cultivated plants that enrich, rather than deplete, the soil. Their roots add nitrogen instead of using it up.
  • The four leading families of ancient Rome took their surnames from legumes: Lentullus (lentils), Piso (peas), Cicero (chickpeas), and Fabius (favas).
  • You may have heard beans called “the musical fruit.” This reputation comes from their oligosaccharides, complex sugars that cannot be broken down by digestive enzymes, but instead “ferment” in our intestines during digestion. Cooking time and method, as well as the variety of bean used, can mitigate this reaction.

Dry peas

  • Available either whole or split, these peas are deep green or yellow in color.
  • Consumed since prehistoric times, fossilized remains of dry peas have been found in Switzerland.
  • One cup provides 196 percent of your daily value of molybdenum, which helps detoxify sulfites used as preservatives in some foods.


  • Quicker to prepare than other pulses, lentils are very high in iron and — unlike red meat — low in fat and calories.
  • The word “lens” — as in contact lens — was inspired by the shape of a split lentil.
  • Canada is the world’s leading exporter of lentils, which are known as “dal” or “daal” in India.
  • For centuries, lentils were eaten in Catholic countries during Lent (when eating meat was forbidden).


  • Also known as garbanzo or ceci (“chee-chee”) beans, chickpeas are the main ingredient in both hummus and falafel.
  • One of the earliest cultivated plants, chickpeas were first grown in Turkey, Syria, and Iran in 7,000 BC.
  • Roasted chickpeas were used as a substitute for coffee in Europe during World War I.

The Local Scoop

Pulses are available in many places in the Valley — they’re sold in most supermarkets, and increasingly, straight from the bin in health-food stores. And notwithstanding lentil soup (a favorite cold-weather staple in many diners), they were once found primarily on the menu at vegan restaurants and ethnic-style cafes. But nowadays pulses are popping up more frequently in mainstream eateries, too.

“These types of beans and peas have long been used in natural cooking,” says Hari Raval of Nimai’s Bliss Kitchen in Newburgh. The restaurant features dishes based on the Ayurvedic system of healthy eating and living that originated in India centuries ago. It’s owned by four physicians whose practice, Orange Medical Care, is adjacent to the eatery and offers a holistic approach to health that includes both Western and Ayurvedic practices.

If you want to learn how to whip up some tasty dishes using pulses, Bliss Kitchen offers Ayurvedic cooking classes. The restaurant also plans to launch a food truck in April that will travel through parts of the Hudson Valley, starting in the Poughkeepsie and New Paltz areas.

Of course, many of us have been eating hummus and throwing chickpeas into salads on a regular basis for years now. But these little pulses are highly versatile. The chickpea fries at Twisted Soul Food Concepts in Poughkeepsie remain a much-requested item, as does the chickpea coconut curry at the Rosendale Café in Rosendale. In fact, you can incorporate chickpeas into appetizers, soups, salads, entrées — and even desserts.

Try three of our favorite recipes below:

beet chickpea cakes

Beet Chickpea Cakes with Dill Yogurt

peanut butter chickpea energy balls

Peanut Butter Chickpea Energy Balls

chicken and chickpea pasta

Chicken and Chickpea Skillet Pasta

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