Pulses pack a mighty punch with their nutrition and health benefits, but like a poorly understood superhero, they can’t get any respect, nutritional experts lamented here last week.
In fact, as incomes rise in countries that have traditionally leaned heavily on dietary pulses, consumers abandon them in favour of diets less conducive to good health.
Speakers addressing the 2nd annual Pulse Health and Food Symposium here last week concluded pulses need an image makeover if they are to carve out their rightful place on the dinner plate.
“Pulses really have an image problem,” said the two-day event’s keynote speaker Christine Hawkins, executive chairman of Go Grains Australia, noting simply telling people pulses are good for them won’t be enough.
Go Grains Australia is a national grain and pulse promotion organization and one of Canada’s expanding number of international partners working to shift consumption towards more pulse-based foods.
“All the research that we have in Australia shows us that consumers think that a) pulses are boring and b) difficult to prepare and time consuming,” she said.
Compounding the problem is the reality that people prefer to eat other things, in diets that actually do more harm than good; a lot of the chronic diseases eating pulses could potentially curb are linked to low-fibre, high-fat diets.
Hawkins said boost -ing pulse consumption will require “comprehensive, coordinated, targeted and very determined effort.
“We are going to need a quantum shift in how we do business,” she told a room full of government and medical researchers, farmers, food ingredient suppliers and manufacturers.
Changing people’s dietary habits requires a ‘whole of society’ approach that includes touting health benefits, said Laurette Dubé, professor of consumer and lifestyle marketing at McGill University. “But if you want to go beyond health claims, you look at how choices are made and in what context.”
Pulse-based diets can potentially deal with some of humanity’s most pressing issues, from food security to disease reduction to benefiting the environment, she said.
Donna Winham, assistant professor with Arizona State University’s department of nutrition, says pulse’s bad image stems from the way people reflect their changing social and economic status; they change the way they eat. Traditional pulse-based dishes start to disappear from dinner tables as prosperity rises, she said. They’re replaced by more meat in the diet, and higher-processed foods.
Prime examples of pulse consumption plummeting worldwide include China, where per capita consumption has dropped from 10 kilograms (kg) in 1961 to one kg in 2001.
Consumption is also declining in India; from 24 kg 40 years ago to 12 kg today. North America has seen virtually no change at 3.5 kg in the past 25 years.
Encouraging people to eat pulses will additionally require “promoting and celebrating” traditional culture’s diets at higher socio-economic levels, Winham said. “Then people might think, ‘if people are eating black beans in Hollywood, maybe I ought to keep eating my black beans too.”
This year’s symposium heard the final results of seven research studies funded through the Pulse Innovation Project which have explored the potential of lentils, chickpeas, beans and peas in improving human health.
Canada’s pulse industry received $3.2 million from the federal government four years ago.
Pulse Canada wants to continue moving forward in its efforts to deliver value to business, farmers and society, said Pulse Canada CEO Gordon Bacon. The job now is to prepare a draft vision and strategy document that reflects both what their research findings are saying, plus the direction the industry has been given at the symposium.