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More beans, please!

Humble legumes pack a powerful nutritional punch

Humble legumes pack a powerful nutritional punch
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Beans on the menu!

Winnipeg Health Region
Wave, November / December 2015

Every year, new and exciting super foods emerge on the market and in the media.

People rush out to buy and try them, but over time, their appeal fades, the lack of research behind their nutritional benefits comes to the forefront and they get forgotten about. Does anyone still eat mangosteen or acai?

Yet there is one truly superfood that has never received the publicity it deserves. This food has evidence to support its nutritional benefits, is grown locally, is cheap, and can be used in a variety of different recipes. It even has its own jingle! "Beans, beans, the musical fruit. The more you eat, the more you . . . "

Beans are just one type of pulses and are also known as "legumes."

"Pulse" is the term for the edible seeds of legumes (plants with a pod), and includes dried beans, dried peas, chickpeas and lentils. Pulses do not include fresh green beans or peas.

If you aren't familiar with the term pulses, you aren't alone; according to a 2010 survey by Ipsos Reid and Alberta Pulse Growers, most people don't know what the term pulses means.

If you're also thinking you don't eat a lot of beans or lentils, you're not alone there either. While certain cultures have consumed pulses for centuries, consumption of pulses is relatively low in many countries.

According to a 2012 study that looked at data from the 2004 Canadian Community Health Survey (CCHS), on any given day, only 13 per cent of Canadians consume pulses (even though Canada is the second largest pulse producing country in the world!).

Why is this previously underrated food being discussed now? When we ring in the New Year in a few weeks, it will also be the International Year of Pulses, as declared by the United Nations.

This campaign hopes to increase public awareness of the nutritional benefits of pulses, as well as their role in sustainable food production and food security.

More and more people want to eat in a way that is better for the planet. Pulses certainly fit into a sustainable diet; growing pulses is actually good for the environment. Growing pulses in a crop rotation helps maintain soil fertility. A crop rotation that is good for the soil could include subsequently growing cereals (wheat, barley or oats), oilseed (canola, flax, sunflowers) and pulses. Growing pulses helps fix nitrogen in the soil, which leads to higher yields in the crops grown afterwards. 

Pulses are also a high-protein food with low emissions and water usage when grown and processed. When you compare a kilogram of beef to a kilogram of pulses, the footprint of the pulses is significantly lower. Processing a kilogram of beef uses 43 times more water and emits nine kilograms more greenhouse gas emissions (kg CO2) than processing a kilogram of pulses. If more people eat pulses more often, this could have a positive effect on the future health of our planet.

Nutritionally, there are many reasons for everyone to eat more beans and lentils. All pulses are low in fat, and high in protein, fibre, B vitamins like folate, and iron. Beans and lentils are definitely a great nutritional boost even if you enjoy them once in a while, but studies have shown that there can be even more nutritional benefits for people who consume pulses more often.

People who eat about one serving of pulses every day get about 30 per cent more fibre than people who don't eat pulses. Many of us only get about half of the fibre we need, so pulses can definitely bring us closer to the recommended amount, improving bowel health and increasing satiety.

The high-fibre benefits of pulses can extend beyond general health improvements as well. A 2014 meta-analysis found that eating about one serving of pulses a day for about three weeks significantly reduced bad (LDL) cholesterol levels in participants, which could lower the risk of heart attack or stroke.

In addition to fibre, people eating pulses daily have higher intakes of protein and nutrients like folate, potassium, magnesium, iron and zinc.  

Cooking with beans and lentils is simple. To prepare canned pulses, all you need to do is open the can and rinse the contents well to remove excess salt (rinsing usually reduces the sodium content by about 40 per cent) and make them less gas-producing. Canned pulses are already cooked, so you just need to add them to the dish you are preparing.

Dried peas, beans and lentils take a little more time to prepare, but not too much more effort. All dried pulses, except lentils and split peas, need to be soaked to help them cook faster. It is easiest if you soak the pulses overnight, and drain and rinse the soaked pulses before cooking in fresh water. Cooking times can vary depending on the variety and storage time of the pulse, and cooking could take one to two hours, largely unattended.

However you decide to prepare beans and lentils, it doesn't take a lot of time to enjoy the health and taste benefits of this superfood!

Kerri Cuthbert is a registered dietitian with the Winnipeg Health Region.

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