British pulses and legumes for sustainable, healthy diets

Dr Diogo Souza Monteiro, Senior Lecturer in Agribusiness Management, School of Natural & Environmental Sciences

Pulses are grain legumes that serve as the basis of healthy meals throughout the world. Historically legumes and pulses were an important source of proteins for both food and animal feed. In India, the Middle East and Mediterranean countries they are still an important source of protein and key ingredients for traditional dishes. However, in the UK the consumption of these products has been in steady decline in the past two decades. Yet peas, beans and many other legumes can be successfully produced in the UK for both animal feed and, more importantly, as food.

I have worked with the pulses industry in the UK on a project investigating alternative sources of protein for a growing global population. With colleagues I wrote a report for the Processors and Growers Research Organisation (PGRO) on how to develop British pulses for food consumer markets. The report is divided into three parts:

  • health benefits and claims on pulse products
  • evidence for environmental benefits of introducing pulses in crop rotations
  • market opportunities for pulse based products in the British market

Legumes are one of the most sustainable sources of protein. They have an outstanding nutritional value and therefore are increasingly recommended as part of a heathy diet.  While in wealthier countries, such as the UK, normally the population has sufficient protein intake. There are, however, some groups, namely the elderly, that are not consuming their recommended daily intake. This was reported in a recent review paper published in the journal Nutrients. Legumes increase satiety, and therefore are being used in weight management programs. Also they are important sources of fibre and can be used to manage diabetes.

The production of pulses has proven environmental benefits:

  • they maintain or improve soil quality
  • reduce the need for nitrogen fertilised inputs
  • boost biodiversity
  • reduce greenhouse gas emissions
  • improve water retention in soils

Finally, legumes and pulses have a positive economic impact as they are a profitable crop for farmers, a relatively cheaper source of protein to the food industry and to consumers, as well as providing important ecosystem services.

Pulses are a key ingredient for clean label products, breakfast cereals, snacks, pasta and ready meals. Furthermore we identified three consumer segments with the potential to increase consumption:

  • people with food related health conditions (namely diabetes)
  • consumers that want to reduce consumption of meat products for environmental, health or animal welfare concern
  • vegans
  • vegetarians

However, it is still not entirely clear how product categories that include pulses map onto the consumer segments identified.

These findings and recommendations were recently incorporated into the PGRO report: A Blueprint for UK Pulses in a Post-Brexit World, which summarises the key challenges facing the legumes and pulses industry and outlines a clear strategy for its development. A key element for the implementation and success of such a strategy is to increase the level of information and awareness of the benefits of legumes and pulse consumption.

Along with the need for fundamental research on the biology of pulses, there is a clear need for applied research to improve productivity of pulse production, understand which factors may improve their use in the food industry as well as improve our knowledge of consumer preferences for pulse based products.

Another key area of research is on the economics of pulse production and their benefits to crop rotation. Finally, a clear message from industry is that there needs to be more market level information on the levels of production, quality and location of pulses.

For further information contact: diogo.souza-monteiro@ncl.ac.uk

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