Move over, zombies and vampires. The United Nations General Assembly has designated 2016 as the Year of the Pulse. All those without natural blood flow are officially on the outs. Truth be told, 2016 is “The Year of Pulses,” but I dusted off my handy Artistic License there.
Lima bean field. Photo: University of Delaware, Creative Commons, some rights reserved
Since one of the tenets of English is that clarity should be avoided when possible, pulses are essentially just another word for legumes. Strictly speaking, pulses are legumes grown for edible dry seeds, for example chickpeas, dry beans, and lentils, and don’t include oil-seed crops like soy. The UN recognizes eleven types of pulses, from the familiar split pea to the dubiously named moth bean. But many pulse crops are harvested when the pods are young, and cooked as a green vegetable, e.g. Lima beans and black-eyed peas. So the lines are blurry enough that we can apply either term, along with our favorite seasonings, to our lentils and split peas.
In New York, about 35,000 acres of dry beans—our only real pulse crop—are grown annually, valued between $11 and $12 million. However, that only gets us to 10th place in the nation. By contrast, in some years a half-million acres of dry beans have been grown in North Dakota, and a quarter-million in Montana. Washington, Idaho, and Oregon are other pulse-producing heavyweights.
It turns out that pulses, dry beans in particular, need light, well-drained soils, and many soils in the Empire State just don’t fit the bill. The central Finger Lakes region as well as several counties in western New York produce nearly all the pulses grown in the state.
One of the benefits of raising legumes is that their roots harbor special bacteria that fix nitrogen (N) in the atmosphere, which is otherwise not available to plants. Who knew that 78 percent of our air was broken? It’s a good thing, too, because if all that N was in a soluble form, we would have massive water pollution issues. Yes, more than there is now. And we would probably need to hack our way through rampant vegetation to get out of the house every day.
Generally, pulse seeds are dusted with dry bacteria culture to give them a head start fixing nitrogen. As the plants grow, they develop root nodules, basically cozy condos for these microbes, which in turn provide nitrogen to the plant. Pulse crops still need fertilizer, but far less than they would if not for their N-fixing superpowers.
Another super thing about pulses is their nutritional value. They are renowned for their high protein content, but also contain a wealth of other nutrients. The 2010 U.S. Dietary Guidelines state that: “Beans and peas are excellent sources of protein, iron, zinc, potassium and folate, similar to seafood, meat, and poultry, and are excellent sources of dietary fiber. Because of their high nutrient content, beans and peas may be considered both a vegetable and a protein food.”
Pulses are gluten-free, and have a low glycemic index, meaning they’re a good food for diabetics. Chickpeas have a glycemic index of 39, far less than white bread, which has a value of 100. Research done at Toronto’s St. Michael’s Hospital in 2014 showed that just a half-cup of pulses per day lowered LDL (bad) cholesterol five percent. This equates to a five to six percent drop in the risk of stroke or heart attack. In other words, pulses are good for your pulse.
Some people don’t like a certain kind of “pulse” that eating pulses can cause. It’s easy to reduce the musicality of pulses through modified cooking methods. For best results, drain the water that your dry beans have soaked in, and then after the beans have cooked, discard the liquid and rinse the beans well. Also, make sure to cook beans thoroughly—“al dente” beans cause a lot more gas. If you use canned beans, rinse thoroughly. And if you’re extra sensitive to pulses, you can take an enzyme-based product called Beano, available at many drugstores and whole-foods stores, before eating. That way we can all have a 2016 that is replete with healthy pulses.
Paul Hetzler is a horticulture and natural resources educator with Cornell Cooperative Extension of St. Lawrence County.