What Pulses Are and Why You Should Be Eating Them
Last Updated: Apr 29, 2016
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Think you have your finger on the pulse of sustainable eating? Then you won’t be surprised that 2016 has been designated the International Year of Pulses. Pulses are planet-friendly vegetarian-protein foods, like lentils and heirloom beans, that can help prevent and manage obesity, diabetes, heart disease and cancers. They’re good for your body, farmers and the environment because they improve soil fertility, increase water efficiency and grow in a variety of climates. Don’t know a pulse from a legume? Read on to learn more about these small but mighty nutritious foods.
WHAT ARE PULSES?
Pulses, ancient crops dating back to 8000 B.C.E., are a type of legume. While all pulses are legumes, not all legumes are pulses. Legumes are pod plants, but only dried seeds are considered pulses. So fresh peas, fresh green beans, peanuts and soybeans are legumes, but not pulses. Dried beans, dried peas, lentils and chickpeas are pulses. Pulses are rich in protein and fiber, have virtually no fat and digest slowly, which helps keep blood sugar levels stable. They’re also high in the B vitamin folate and minerals like iron, zinc and magnesium and they’re naturally cholesterol- and gluten-free. They can be stored for months without losing their nutritional value.
What’s typically thought of as a common crop gets a luxury makeover in heirloom beans. “I love the variety of these pulses that include Peruano beans, cranberry beans, butterscotch calypso beans, European Soldier beans, Chestnut Lima beans and Jacobs Cattle beans,” says Elizabeth Shaw, RDN, of Shaw’s Simple Swaps. “Literally every bite has a unique texture and flavor.” Shaw’s favorite way to prepare them is in a soup with baby kale and spinach. Heirlooms are visually stunning, have a rich flavor and stay more al dente than the average bean. They're also not as easy to farm, which is why they cost a little more.
FRENCH GREEN LENTILS
French green lentils are a little smaller than the standard brown lentil, take a little longer to cook and have a strong peppery flavor. Their green, bluish-black coloring means they have some of the same antioxidants as blueberries. They retain their shape and stay firm, making them a good choice for cold salads, side dishes or as a ground-meat substitute. A favorite recipe (see below) from Kara Lydon, RD, blogger at The Foodie Dietitian, uses green lentils. It’s a hearty and comforting Vegan Lentil Shepherd’s Pie. Lentils are her favorite pulse “because they are an inexpensive source of protein — 20 cents for 9 grams of protein.” Nutrition info (1 cup cooked): 18 grams of protein, 15 grams of fiber, 140 calories.
Related: Vegan Lentil Shepherd’s Pie
Chickpeas, or garbanzo beans, are a versatile pulse: You can use them in cold salads or savory sides like chickpea masala, pureed into hummus or ground into flour for falafel. “They are mega-nourishing, immensely versatile and tend to go over well with kids,” says Katie Sullivan Morford, RD, blogger at Mom’s Kitchen Handbook and author of “Best Lunch Box Ever” and “Rise and Shine.” “I like to mash them with goat cheese, lemon juice and cumin for a vegetarian sandwich fixing on a toasted baguette.” Nutrition info (1 cup cooked): 15 grams of protein, 13 grams of fiber, 100 calories.
Related: How to Build Any Salad Like a Boss
BLACK BELUGA LENTILS
The caviar of lentils, black lentils are sometimes called Beluga lentils. They’re small, black, shiny lentils that hold their shape well. They have a strong, earthy flavor that can’t be ignored. They look gorgeous and taste great mixed into whole-grain sides and green salads. Try them in a salad of farro, cucumbers, tomatoes, diced red onions, parsley, olive oil and lime juice. Nutrition info (1 cup cooked): 18 grams of protein, 15 grams of fiber, 140 calories.
Cannellini beans, or white kidney beans, are large with a slightly nutty and earthy flavor, thin skin and tender, creamy flesh. They often appear in pasta salads and minestrone soup. Deanna Segrave-Daly, RD, and blogger at Teaspoon of Spice, likes to “mash them up into tomato sauce for some extra fiber, and then use [the sauce] for pasta, tacos and sloppy joes.” For an easy appetizer or snack, top baguette rounds with a mix of cannellini beans, basil, lemon juice, roasted garlic and olive oil. Nutrition info (1 cup cooked): 17 grams of protein, 11 grams of fiber, 110 calories.
Commonly known as split peas, they’re also referred to as yellow lentils, and come in yellow and green. Green split peas are sweeter and less starchy than yellow peas. They break down quickly when cooked, which is why split pea soup is such a popular way to enjoy them. Other dishes that benefit from their creamy texture include hummus, veggie burgers and Indian dal curry. Accent the earthy flavor with fresh or acidic flavors, such as freshly squeezed lemon juice, red onions or pickled radishes. Nutrition info (1 cup cooked): 16 grams of protein, 16 grams of fiber, 140 calories.
Related: 12 Slimming Soups
“Though all pulses have their plusses,” says Marisa Moore, RDN, “black beans stand out for their generous dose of anthocyanins, the blue-purple pigments that may help reduce the risk of heart disease and cancer and possibly boost cognitive function.” Try them mixed with salsa, in tacos, mixed into marinara sauce over pasta, mashed into a spicy black bean burger or in a spicy black bean soup. Amy Gorin, RDN, a New Jersey-based dietitian and owner of Amy Gorin Nutrition, adds, “One of my favorite ways to eat them is making a casserole using ‘pasta,’ such as Tolerant Foods black bean penne or rotini.” She recommends combining the black bean pasta with whole black beans, tomatoes, broccoli and cheese for a delicious meal. Nutrition info (1 cup cooked): 15 grams of protein, 15 grams of fiber, 110 calories.
Related: Spicy Black Bean Soup
Kidney beans are relatively large and, as the name suggests, shaped like a kidney. The common red variety have a deep-red, glossy skin and a firm texture that withstands long cooking times, so they're great for slow-cooked dishes like soups and chilis. Kidney beans are used in iconic dishes, such as Louisiana’s red beans and rice, India’s rajma masala (a spicy red bean stew) and East Asian red bean dessert dumplings and frozen treats. Nutrition info (1 cup cooked): 15 grams of protein, 11 grams of fiber, 120 calories.
Related: 10 Healthy and Hearty Chili Recipes
These patriotic beans get their name from being a U.S. Navy diet staple in the 19th century and are in Senate Bean Soup, a menu item available in the U.S. Senate’s restaurant to this day. Navy beans are also the type of bean used in Boston baked beans. Navy beans are highly nutritious, affordable and have a long shelf life. They’re small, white and oval-shape with a mild and delicate flavor, making them a good “starter bean” for the pulse novice and ideal for chili, soup or stew. Nutrition info (1 cup cooked): 15 grams of protein, 19 grams of fiber, 120 calories.
GREAT NORTHERN BEANS
Great Northern beans are a medium-size oval bean with a delicate, white skin. They’re mild, light and have a nutty, dense flavor. They’re used in French and Mediterranean cuisine and can be used in any recipes that call for white beans. After soaking, these beans cook in 45 to 60 minutes. Try a fresh salad with Great Northern beans, Roma tomatoes, cucumbers, basil leaves, olive oil, minced garlic, a pinch of salt and as much pepper as you want. Nutrition info (1 cup cooked): 15 grams of protein, 12 grams of fiber, 120 calories.
RED AND PINK LENTILS
These lentil varieties break down quickly when cooked, making them a perfect texture for soups and stews. Unlike brown, green or black lentils, these lighter-hued lentils do not keep their shape well. Red and pink lentils are soft and thin, and both work well in Indian dal. They are most often split, which means they’ll cook faster than whole round lentils. They both turn golden yellow after cooking and can be used interchangeably. Nutrition info (1 cup cooked): 18 grams of protein, 15 grams of fiber, 140 calories.
Brown lentils are the workhorse of the lentil family. They’re widely available and affordable and tend to keep their shape. “I love lentils because they’re surprisingly quick-cooking and have a meaty texture similar to ground meat,” shares Abbey Sharp, RD, at AbbeysKitchen.com. “I like to substitute them for ground meat in pasta sauces and sloppy joe mixtures.” Sharp also recommends them pureed in soup to add body, fiber and texture. Nutrition info (1 cup cooked): 18 grams of protein, 15 grams of fiber, 140 calories.
About half of all the beans grown and eaten in the U.S. are pinto beans. They’re most commonly used for refried beans, but a lighter way to enjoy them is as a side dish with red bell peppers, olive oil, lime juice, red onion, cilantro and pepper. “You can cook them from scratch or turn to canned beans for extra ease,” add Liz Weiss and Janice Newell Bissex, RDNs and The Meal Makeover Moms. Some of their favorite uses include adding them to tacos, soups, pastas, salads and even brownies. Nutrition info (1 cup cooked): 15 grams of protein, 15 grams of fiber, 110 calories.
Since pulses are a natural food, pebbles and small debris can make their way into them, so make sure you remove them before cooking. The amount of water doesn’t need to be exact; just taste as you cook until they’re the right consistency and texture. Choose the right pulse for the amount of time that you have: Split peas and lentils don’t need soaking and are relatively quick-cooking, but dried beans need to soak for hours, often overnight. Pulses have a talent for picking up flavor, so experiment with garlic, onions, herbs and spices. Lastly, precooked beans are a great shortcut: Just rinse them to help shed residue and sodium.
WHAT DO YOU THINK?
Do you feel more confident in your pulse know-how? Which pulses will you be trying for #IYP2016? What’s your favorite recipe that includes pulses? Let us know in the comments.
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