Legumes and Pulses

a variety of legumes and pulses organized in bags and bowls on a wooden tray, including black beans, cranberry beans, kidney beans, white beans, split peas, mung beans, yellow lentils, red lentils, green lentils

The Fabaceae or Leguminosae (commonly known as the legume, pea, or bean) family is the third largest family of flowering plants, consisting of over 20,000 species. [1] Legumes are a nutritious staple of diets around the world. They are an inexpensive source of protein, vitamins, complex carbohydrates, and fiber.

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.

Legumes are emphasized by the U.S. Dietary Guidelines (about 3 cups a week) and the DASH Eating Plan of the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (4-5 half-cup servings a week). [2] The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations declared the International Year of Pulses in 2016, focusing on the contribution of pulses in food production and nutritional diversity to help eradicate hunger and malnutrition. [3]

Rich In

Legumes and Health

Legumes contain several components that, when eaten as part of a balanced plant-rich diet, may help prevent the development of various chronic diseases:

falafel on a pita over hummus, yogurt and paprika

What about products made from legumes?

Because of their texture, flavor, and nutritional profile, legumes are found in numerous products throughout the supermarket. While these can include classic options such as tofu, peanut butter, and hummus, legumes and their components are also a key ingredient in a wide range of plant-based meat alternatives. Because this product mix relies on varying degrees of processing, consumers should be on the lookout for added sodium, sugar, saturated fat from tropical oils, or other additives. The Nutrition Facts Label and ingredients list can be useful tools in deciding when to include a  processed food in the diet.

For Your Health and The Planet’s Health

icon of a globe with a fork and spoon on the sides of itFood production places an enormous demand upon our natural resources, as agriculture is a major contributor to climate change, deforestation, species extinction, and freshwater depletion and contamination. However, along with varying impacts on human health, different foods also have differing impacts on the environment. Generally, the production of plant-based foods tends to have lower greenhouse gas emissions, and use less land and water than producing animal-based foods. In transitioning towards healthy diets from sustainable food systems—especially with our global population slated to reach 10 billion by 2050—legumes are slated to play a key role. The 2019 EAT-Lancet report that outlines a “planetary health diet” recommends 50 grams of legumes (about ¼ cup) in the daily diet. [14]

Legumes have a range of characteristics that make them a relatively sustainable crop. For example, legumes release up to seven times less greenhouse gas emissions per area compared to other crops, and can sequester carbon in soils. They can also make their own nitrogen from the atmosphere, thus reducing the application of nitrogen fertilizers. This leaves nitrogen-rich residues in the soil after harvesting; a benefit for the next crop planted in its place. [1] According to the FAO, drought-resistant species of legumes can be of particular benefit to dry environments where food security is often a challenge. They can also help minimize food waste, since pulses can be dried and stored for relatively long periods of time without losing their nutritional value. [15]

Bottom Line

Despite their wide variety, legumes share many common benefits. They are relatively sustainable and inexpensive, a low glycemic index food, rich in protein and fiber, and satiating. Because of their “meaty” texture, legumes can even stand in for animal-based protein foods in a variety of preparations. Additionally, their generally neutral flavor makes them versatile to blend well with other ingredients and pair easily with a variety of seasonings.

Learn more about some specific legumes, including a variety of ways to incorporate them into your meals:

Oven roasted spiced chickpeas on baking tray

Chickpeas (Garbanzo Beans)

Whichever name you call them, explore these versatile legumes; a staple of diets worldwide.
a bowl full of yellow lentils

Lentils

Lentils are one of the earliest domesticated crops, seen in the diets of ancient Rome and Egypt. Learn more about this staple legume.

a variety of soy foods, including: soybeans, edamame, soy sauce, tofu, tempeh, soy milk

Soy

Soy is a unique and widely studied food. Examine the research behind this nutrient-dense source of plant protein.

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