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Pulses, a Resource to Celebrate

Pulses, a Resource to Celebrate

The United Nations declared that 2016 will be the International Year of Pulses: here is a closer look at the types of pulses and the main producing countries.

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The United Nations Organization intends to promote all types of pulses in a big way. All bean varieties, peas, chick peas, grass peas, lentils and lupins… Tiny yet preciously rich in nutrients as well as being economical. They all belong to the category of 'pulses', a collective noun referring to leguminous vegetables cultivated for their dried edible seeds only – which therefore excludes those consumed as fresh vegetables such as dwarf beans, and others mainly grown for the production of oil like soy seeds and peanuts (also classified as legumes).

The International Year of Pulses

2016 is going to be their very own year: the International Year of Pulses. In the past, this ‘humble’ source of proteins was extremely widespread also in Europe; nowadays, pulses are a primary source of food and an important element of food security among wide layers of the population in Latin America, Africa and Asia. “They have been an essential part of the human diet for centuries – explained Jose Graziano da Silva, Director General of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) – and yet their nutritional importance is not fully understood and often underestimated”. The same can be said for their taste: while pulses did not feature strongly in 20th century haute cuisine, today’s desire for healthy – and sustainable – food is rapidly changing this state of affairs. So, it is not unusual now for a traditional bean soup to find its way into a starred restaurant.

In fact, it may be preferable for the time being to resort to chickpeas rather than locusts if we wish to reduce our meat intake: the UN aims at focusing international attention on those precious seeds tucked away in the pods of leguminous plants and to heighten worldwide awareness – also in richer, meat consuming countries – of their many benefits. Rich in minerals such as iron and zinc, B group vitamins, carbohydrates and, above all, proteins – with twice as much protein as wheat and three times that of rice – they are low in fat and gluten-free, good for children, men and women, and are an important part of any balanced diet aimed at preventing cholesterol and obesity.

Moreover, they have now become crucial for the health of our planet too. The ultimate aim of this campaign is to increase the production and trade (generally carried out by women in developing countries) and to promote a better and more intelligent use of pulses throughout the food supply chain. In economic terms, pulses provide higher returns than cereals. Developing countries are in the front line since they account for about two thirds of production and consumption.

Main producers of dried beans

The main producers of dried beans – the most widely cultivated of all pulses with a share ranging between 34 and 46% of the world’s total output of pulses, according to statistics – are Brazil and India. In pro capita terms, these are the most widely consumed pulses in the world with an incredible peak in Latin American and Caribbean countries (whose approximate annual consumption of 11 kg per person is three times that of the world average), and an almost total monopolization of consumption.

Another important region for the consumption of pulses is the so-called “MENA region”, that is to say. North Africa and the Middle East (with a population of around half a billion) where plant protein sources represent a very high percentage of the total. Typical of this area is the consumption of broad beans (accounting for 7-10% of the world production of pulses), along with a particular fondness for lentils which are mainly grown, however, in south Asia (where the cultivation of all types of pulses thrives). It is there that chick peas (14-22% of the overall world production) exceed all other pulses in popularity, followed by beans, pigeon peas and lentils. Pigeon peas (5-7% of the world’s total production) - similar to peas but adaptable and resistant to drought - are in fact widely consumed in some South Asian countries like Malaysia.

In Sub-Saharan Africa, the world’s greatest consumer of pulses (with around 13 kg/year per person), cow peas are by far the most widely used variety. A godsend in semi-arid tropical climates, this bean is native to West Africa but is also consumed in Asia, South America and Southern Europe, representing 6-7% of the total world production of pulses. Forecasts regarding the worldwide consumption of pulses indicate an upward trend. This applies to all regions, including Europe. Easy to prepare and versatile, they have all the necessary characteristics to make a rapid comeback, even on the Old Continent.

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