Why pulses are good for you and the planet?

Pulses are the dried edible seeds of plants in the legume family. They include peas, beans, lentils and chickpeas.

Pulses have been eaten for around 10,000 years and are one of the most widely used foods in the world1.

They are cheap, nutritious and versatile, so it’s no surprise that campaigns like ‘Beans is How’ are encouraging us all to eat more of them.

Image: Oxford Brookes University

Why are pulses good for you?

Pulses are high in protein, fibre and a number of vitamins and minerals, including iron, zinc, folate and magnesium1. Eating half a cup of beans or peas per day can improve diet quality1. They also contain antioxidants, so may help protect against cancer and they improve cardiovascular risk factors like blood pressure and inflammation1, potentially reducing the liklihood of heart attacks and strokes.

Pulses are packed full of plant based protein. Amino acids are the molecules that make up proteins. There are nine essential amino acids that we need to get from our food. Soy and pea protein contain all nine essential amino acids2. Beans are missing one of the amino acids, but it is present in grains like wheat and rice, so beans on toast really is a great combination.

Pulses contain both insoluble and soluble fibre. Insoluble fibre adds bulk to your diet and helps move food through your digestive system, preventing constipation.  Soluble fibre dissolves in water, forming a gel-like consistency and helps to lower cholesterol and blood sugar levels. 

And, did you know that around three heaped tablespoons of beans or lentils (80g) count as one of your five fruits and vegetables that the NHS recommend we eat every day.  

Growing your own

Peas and beans are fantastic to grow in the garden or in containers. The seeds are large and easy to sow and as many of them grow vertically with supports, you don’t need much space for a bountiful harvest.

They are also good for the garden – with the help of a bacteria, they ‘fix’ nitrogen in the air and store it in their roots. When the plant dies the nitrogen is released back into the soil, so leave roots in the ground when you cut the plant down at the end of the season.

They can be grown over a long season, with over wintering varieties of broad beans and early peas meaning you can start to harvest them in spring.

There are so many bean and pea varieties to grow – the RHS have recommended 10 to try.

Images by Lisa Marie and Hanna from Pixabay

Why are pulses good for the planet?

Pulses use less water and are more tolerant to drought than other crops, making them increasingly useful as we adapt to climate change3. Just like in the garden, pulses improve soil fertility by nitrogen fixation and can improve the efficiency of chemical fertiliser use in crop rotation3. When used in multiple cropping systems, pulses increase biodiversity and provide employment for rural women and young people3.

Dried or tinned?

So does it matter if you use dried or tinned pulses?

Dried pulses are cheaper, especially if you buy in bulk, and there is generally more choice available. I love red lentils, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen them in a tin.

Tins often contain added salt – using dried pulses lets you decide how much salt to add. You can also control the texture and softness of them by cooking for more or less time.

Tins are definitely more convenient, as dried pulses often require soaking overnight and can take a long time to cook. You can speed this up by using a pressure cooker.

Images by Dmitriy from Pixabay

Use as a meat or fish substitute

Lentils make a great substitute for minced beef in dishes like spagetti bolognaise. Forks over Knives suggests using two cups of cooked drained lentils to replace 450g of meat. They recommend using chickpeas as a chicken substitute in burgers or nuggets and baking cooked beans or chickpeas with smoked paprika to make bacon-like pieces4. Chickpeas can also be used to make plant-based tuna substitute like in this recipe from Sainsbury’s.

With thanks to Dr. P. Sangeetha Thondre, Senior Lecturer and Applied Human Nutrition MSc students (Daria Ovuka, Beth Harrison, Nidhi, Christeena and Lottie Ryan) from Oxford Brookes University.

  1. Nutritional and health benefits of pulses, Appl Physiol Nutr Metab. 2014 Nov;39(11):1197-204.
  2. Vegan fit guide
  3. Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations
  4. Forks over Knives

Want more tips? Check out our other grow-your-own guides or follow us on social media!

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