The Holy Grail of Grains

Pulses are a diverse, colourful and lesser known grain. They offer a variety of health benefits, so many, that The World Health Organization has included them in the population nutrient intake goals for preventing diet-related chronic diseases. The current popularity of pulses in Australia is rather dismal. So, let’s try and improve the profile of pulses by incorporating them to our diets. This is likely to improve our health too!

Pulses include lentils, chickpeas, navy beans, field peas, azuki beans and so much more. Some traditional uses include lentil dhal, baked beans and the increasingly popular, hummus.

Compared to conventional grains such as wheat and rice, pulses are superior on many measures of health. To start, protein content. Not only do pulses contain more protein than other grains, they also contain better quality proteins too. The proteins within pulses more accurately reflect the bodies needs. Perhaps the most important component of pulse protein is lysine. Lysine is an essential amino acid that is largely lacking in wheat. This makes pulses a important protein source for vegans. While pulse proteins have many good merits, they aren’t perfect. Pulses lack the essential amino acid, methionine. The good news is- this amino acid is found in abundance in wheat. Therefore, consuming wheat and pulses together (for example, good ol’ baked beans on toast) is a great way to achieve protein completeness. The two main types of protein in pulses are albumins and globulins. Albumins, are water soluble, and often lost in water that legumes are canned with (known as ‘aquafaba’- translates to bean water). Or, are lost during the process of cooking. I would recommend roasting legumes or incorporating aquafaba into your meal in order to maintain protein content.

Fun fact: the albumins in chickpea aquafaba very closely resemble those of egg whites! Similar cooking properties means aquafaba can be used to make delicious light and fluffy meringues and mousses that are egg white free and vegan friendly.

Like other grains, the main carbohydrate of pulses is starch. What separates pulses from other grains is a diverse carbohydrate profile. Specifically, the presence of raffinose carbohydrates. Raffinose carbohydrates are structured differently to other carbohydrates and for this reason, cannot be digested by enzymes within our body. Instead, they move to the large intestine where the microbiome (bacteria residing in the gut) ferment them. Fermentation of raffinose carbohydrates results in bloating and discomfort that often deters people from pulse consumption. Don’t let a little discomfort deter you! If consumed in high quantities for a substantial duration, the microbiome adapts to better metabolise raffinose carbohydrates, resulting in less discomfort. This is seen in populations where pulses are a staple food, for example, Indian. If you find the discomfort too great, there is a short cut! Try soaking your pulses overnight to draw out raffinose, this should elicit large improvements in gastrointestinal discomfort.

Compared to cereals, pulses contain more resistant starch. This has favourable outcomes on satiation (feeling fuller for longer), blood glucose management, the microbiome and more. Modified leaves that coat pulses protect the inside starch from digestion. Furthermore, pulses are high in (good) fats that wrap around starch within the grain, causing resistance to digestion. Pulse dishes that are served cold have additional retrograded resistant starch.

Eating the rainbow means incorporating as many colours into your diet as possible. While this usually applies to fruit and vegetables, the concept has grain applications as well. Antioxidant pigments are responsible for the hues of various pulse varieties. Therefore, diversifying grain consumption to include colourful pulses increases antioxidant consumption, of which has notable health benefits.

Pulses contain a plethora of bio-active substances that are largely lacking in conventional grains. Some of these include; phytosterols that have (bad) cholesterol lowering effects, flavonoids with anti-oxidant properties and phenolic compounds that lower blood pressure

All in all, pulses are augmentative of health. More so, than conventional grains such as wheat and rice. While Australia currently grows a lot of pulses, the demand is largely overseas with a small domestic market. By trading bread for hummus or rice for lentils, we can improve the domestic market, as well as our health.

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