How to Feed the World: Pulses
In the previous instalment we’ve seen how the amazing nutritional and agricultural properties of cereals propelled humans from being (hunter)gatherers into civilisation era. We will return to that, but before we do, we need to take a look at another amazing group of grains; pulses.
Legumes, Pulses, Beans?
Before we continue we need to clarify our terminology. According to Harvard School of Public Health:
Although used interchangeably, the terms “legumes,” “pulses,” and “beans” have distinct meanings. A legume refers to any plant from the Fabaceae family that would include its leaves, stems, and pods. A pulse is the edible seed from a legume plant. Pulses include beans, lentils, and peas. For example, a pea pod is a legume, but the pea inside the pod is the pulse. The entire legume plant is often used in agricultural applications (as cover crops or in livestock feed or fertilizers), while the seeds or pulses are what typically end up on our dinner plates. Beans in their various forms (kidney, black, pinto, navy, chickpeas, etc.) are just one type of pulse.
So there you have it. For the purposes of this article, I will use the term “legumes” for a plant as a whole and “pulses” for the grains we use in a kitchen. Why this difference is practical will be evident in a minute.
The Perks of Eating Pulses
To understand why pulses have been desirable to ancient people, we need to return to what we said about proteins when discussing cereals. Some pseudo-cereals like buckwheat, quinoa, and amaranth provide an entire list of essential amino acids for humans, while “some grains are deficient in the essential amino acid, lysine. That is why many vegetarian cultures, in order to get a balanced diet, combine their diet of grains with legumes. Many legumes, however, are deficient in the essential amino acid methionine, which grains contain. Thus, a combination of legumes with grains forms a well-balanced diet for vegetarians.” (source)