Around the world they call them pulses, here in the U.S. we call them beans. Either way Irvin Widders is enthused about the potential for this nutrition-rich crop.
A benefit of this job is the ability to connect with a wide range of people on any number of topics. This week I'm attending the global Agricultural Bioscience International Conference in Fargo, N.D., where I'm catching up on a range of topics from Golden Rice to anti-GMO sentiment. Earlier this week I had the chance to listen to a speaker who spoke passionately about a topic we talk little about – pulses.
Irvin Widders is professor and director of the Feed the Future Legume Innovation Lab at Michigan State University, and he was on hand to discuss the International Year of the Pulse. For Widders, the pulse – or grain legume crop – includes about 60 species of crops for personal consumption. This list does not, however, include soybeans or peanuts, which while valuable crops are considered oil legumes.
When you talk grain legumes or pulses – we would call them beans. "In Canada and the rest of the world, I can say pulse and people know what I mean," Widders explained to me before his speech. "In the United States, we call them beans."
During his ABIC 2016 talk, Widders outlined five areas where he notes the value of grain legumes.
• Pulses are nutrient rich
• This class of food also promotes digestive health.
• The crop can fix nitrogen, which is important for sustainability.
• There are options with pulses that can help deal with climate change.
• They offer food and nutritional security around the world.
In essence, Widders points to pulses as almost a miracle crop given what these plants offer both the environment and the consumer. These products are high in protein, and as incomes increase globally more protein is what consumers gravitate to.
"We're concerned about our diets and the quality of our diets including rising fat levels," he points out. "Grain legumes are more than a protein-based food, they offer complex carbohydrates that are slowly digested, they're high in fiber and have micronutrients that are essential for human growth."
He adds that a growing body of research shows pulses can reduce the risks of several adult chronic diseases, including cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes. "Regular consumption of grain legumes reduces cholesterol and other bio markers," he notes. "And they have a low glycemic index." This is a key diet factor for those with type 2 diabetes since the legumes are not digested rapidly, so their starches are slower to release sugar.
And there's growing evidence that grain legumes are good for your own personal microbiome – a more direct term is gut health – and that consuming more beans can offer benefits there too.
Widders went on to list a number of key benefits. Environmentally, grain legumes fix about 21 million tons of nitrogen from the atmosphere, which is fixed in the plant and harvested and consumed. But about 5 to 7 million tons of that N is returned to the soil.
Perhaps what got to me most in my conversation with Widders and hearing him talk was his enthusiasm for the topic. He makes a strong case that this crop – which is cultivated in every corner of the world, and provides an efficient protein source for all income levels globally. He notes, for example that the Lima bean, which comes from Peru, has gone a lot of places. In fact, you can find wild types of lima beans from Maine to the tip of Chile in the Americas. "They succeed in almost every micro-environment in the region," he notes.
It was Widders' enthusiasm and excitement for what many may think of as the lowly bean that got my attention. The more he talked about the benefits of the crop the more I wondered why they're not more widely researched and cultivated. I realize part of his job is to promote the potential of grain legumes for the future. And he makes a great ambassador.
Next time you're picking a protein source for dinner, you might want to consider adding in some beans. It's just a thought.