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Pete Iannetta joins us to talk the role of pulses in health and sustainable food systems

News | Published  24 January 2023

It’s World Pulse Day next month, which is why in the lead up to it I am supporting Eating Better’s, Anything Is 'Pulse-able’ campaign which highlights the power of pulses. It’s World Pulses Day and, “so what?” many might say. It seems that every day brings another ‘something day’, many with associated marketing and sales spin. I suspect consumers may be becoming immune and fatigued by these special ‘days’, and I can empathise strongly with that stance. All that said, please believe me when I say, World Pulses Day is different. The first indicator of this should be when you ask yourself, and you should: who established World Pulses Day, and why?

World Pulses Day has been identified by a highly reputable agency - the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations - and you might already know what a ‘pulse’ and why they are special, though very many do not. So, “what is a pulse?”. They are a particular group of crop plants which yield grains commonly known as ‘beans’, though also includes peas, lentils, and chickpeas - among others. These grains offer high nutritional density, including proteins, slow-release carbohydrates, essential minerals, and many other health-promoting bioactive compounds. Pulse grains, as they do not contain any oil, can also be stored dry and for long periods, as an assurance of nutritional provision during periods of food shortage or crop failure. So, I hope you’ll see the FAO’s aim to highlight that pulses are critical sources of nutrition and food security globally. 

Another, very important aspect of pulse crops is that they can achieve their yields without the application of synthetic nitrogen fertiliser a major source of environmental pollution, including eutrophication of waterways, local coastal zones, and global warming greenhouse gases. The capacity of pulses to obtain their own natural nitrogen fertiliser is a function of their ability to ‘fix’ the abundant di-nitrogen gas from air into biologically useful forms, such as protein. This process is called ‘biological nitrogen fixation’. So, pulses are unique in offering consumers a food source which offers personal-nutrition and health benefits, plus environmental-health benefits. Though the environmental benefits are achieved only in those localities which choose to grow pulses; and nutritional benefits to those who choose to consume pulses; and food security to those to choose to store pulses.

Yet, pulse joins the long list of life’s many ironies since despite their benefits, and in the industrialised food systems of Europe, pulses are rarely grown despite being highly affordable. We have investigated why this is as part of a four year and €5 million project called, “TRUE”. We found many factors, and I could not possibly discuss all these here in this short article - I can however offer you the project website,, and highlight that one critical discovery was the importance of habits, and here, dietary habits. Among these, it is crucial to introduce children to tasty pulse-based dishes as early as possible. To have great fun with youngsters, learning to cook pulses together, and according to their favourite recipes. So, I draw your attention to just one of the various cook-books developed by TRUE - Easy Peasy Recipes, (and other legumes recipes), and hope you might try a recipe on World Pulses Day – lentil soup takes only 15 minutes to prepare. Also, that you might take time, as I do with my exercise routine, to consume pulses regularly every week - and even better if the pulses you use are grown locally, or at least nationally. Do this for the same reasons one should exercise, which is break the often-eroding habits of modern living and diversify your lifestyle towards a norm which can help ensure an improved quality of life – and this will not just benefit you by the way, but your family, friends, and the planet too. Happy World Pulses Day!

Dr Pietro Iannetta, a Research Leader based in the Agroecology Group, Dept. of the James Hutton Institute - LinkedIn - @AgroEcoAtJHI / Twitter


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