Healthy pulse

Brian Hartz
November 02, 2009
Written by
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 A University of Alberta employee harvests crops at PUREnet research plots near St. Albert, Alta. Photography by Brian Hartz

 
Canada is one of the world’s leading producers and exporters of pulses – beans, peas, lentils and chickpeas – and these crops are increasingly being looked at as healthful, functional ingredients for baked goods.

In 2009, this message has been taken to the food manufacturing community with new vigour thanks to groundbreaking research into the nutritional benefits of pulses and pulse ingredients such as flours and starch fibres. At a February symposium in Toronto, Pulse Canada unveiled the results of seven human clinical trials conducted from 2006 to 2008 at universities here and in the U.S., with major benefits reported in the areas of cardiovascular health, weight management, diabetes and gut health. Pulses were also found to be good sources of fibre, folate and iron, and low in fat.

“Pulses are an under-utilized ingredient in North America and around the world,” Pulse Canada market innovation director Peter Watts told Bakers Journal. “For food companies looking to create new, healthier products or reformulate existing products, we see a big opportunity for pulses but we see a low level of awareness of the ingredients.”

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University of Alberta student Christina Williams, foreground, and her professor, Dr. Jane King, explain the pulse crop research they’re conducting.  
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Pulse specialist Jay Han of the Food Processing Development Centre in Leduc, Alta.
 
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Lovoni Walker of Fabulous Food Creations prepares Curried Lentil and Carrot Burgers at her kitchen studio in Nisku, Alta., while Wendy Benson looks on.
 
Watts says about 90 per cent of Canadian pulses are exported, but domestic food producers should consider their long list of benefits, because “when people see ingredients such as bean flour in a bread or pastry product, they think healthy.”

Pulses also fit nicely into food trends popular with consumers, Watts adds. “They’re Canadian grown. They’re essentially a local product, not exotic. And they’re natural, unmodified, and gluten-free. There’s also the sustainability aspect – environmentally it’s an area that’s going to have some potential.” More on that later.

But, Watts says, “This is an emerging industry. Sure, other ingredients are going to be more cost-competitive on the surface, but what kind of benefit are you getting? [Domestically], the pulse flours aren’t yet in as good supply as wheat [flour]. But pea fibre is a great example of a cost-competitive product that’s on the market right now. It can be used as a source of dietary fibre in a food product and can be very cost-effective compared to say, inulin.”

To further stimulate awareness of pulses, Pulse Canada and the Alberta Pulse Growers sponsored a first-hand look at western Canada’s pulse industry, inviting chefs and media – including Bakers Journal – from Canada, the U.S., Mexico and the U.K. to Edmonton to take part in their three-day “Healthy People/Healthy Planet” tour.

Fabulous food
The tour’s first stop was Fabulous Food Creations – the Nisku, Alta., kitchen studio of Lovoni Walker, a celebrated chef, cookbook author, food stylist and host of the TV cooking series Simple, Fresh, Delicious. As she efficiently went to work on a pulse-themed menu, Wendy Benson, R.N., of the Alberta Pulse Growers highlighted some of the other nutritional aspects of pulses – and their benefits to food producers.

“Pulses play an important role in controlling blood sugar,” she said, “with most having a low glycemic index (GI) between 40 and 50. They’re also naturally low in fat and high in fibre – about eight grams per 250-millilitre serving.”
Benson reported that pulses are an excellent source of protein for vegetarians and vegans, and are also good for people with celiac disease, as flours milled from these crops are naturally gluten-free. However, despite all these benefits, the consumption of pulses in North America continues to be much lower than desired.

“Americans eat about half a cup of pulses per week,” Benson said, “and Canadians eat about a quarter of a cup.”

U.S. Dietary Guidelines recommend eating three cups of pulses per week, and Canada’s 2007 Food Guide to Healthy Living urges regular consumption of them as a way to reduce saturated fat while still getting protein.

“All these food guides recommend more pulses in our diets,” Benson said. “But people have lost touch with how to use them in everyday meals.”

That wasn’t a problem for Walker, who presented a truly fabulous lineup of dishes, starting with a Yellow Split Pea Soup with Chilies and Goat Cheese and ending with a batch of Speckled Chocolate Chip Cookies made with black bean flour. She handed out the recipes to the tour group so we could follow along as she cooked, and they didn’t seem too complex or difficult to this untrained eye. For more information, contact Walker at 780-955-3841 or This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

R&D
Next up was the Food Processing Development Centre (FPDC) in Leduc, Alta., near Edmonton International Airport. Agribusiness is a cornerstone of the Alberta economy – pulses alone bring nearly $200 million per year to the province – and this government facility is designed to strengthen and expand the industry through application of new technology and the development of new or improved products and services.

Founded in 1984, the centre is a hub for cutting-edge research and development, stocked with the latest food-processing equipment and staffed by scientists and engineers specializing in dairy, meat, cereals, vegetables, small fruits, packaging, bakery, extrusion technology, condiments and sensory evaluation. These experts work with food processors, entrepreneurs, industrial or commodity groups, university researchers, federal and provincial agriculture personnel and suppliers of equipment, ingredients and packaging.
They can help guide a new product from initial technical consultation to the final pre-production phase, including packaging and consumer evaluation.
Then, companies can make use of FPDC’s pilot plant for up to a year to put these new products into full-scale production – giving them time to evaluate the product’s performance in test markets before moving them into their own production facilities.

Start-up companies and business ventures without a proper production facility can make use of the adjoining Agrivalue Processing Business Incubator (APBI). APBI contains 32,000 square feet of processing area divided into eight privately accessed, fully serviced processing suites – ensuring security and confidentiality.

Crop scientist Jay Han, PhD, is FPDC’s resident pulse specialist. He has been working on a couple of interesting projects using pulse flours: a gluten-free chickpea cracker and chickpea dog treat. He has also developed an extruded meat analogue product using chickpea flour, and an ongoing project is the development of gluten-free pastas using a high percentage of pulse fractions.
“I’ve found the pulse ingredients with the most promise are chickpea flour, pea starch, pea protein and pea fibre isolates,” he said, showing us a finished carton of the gluten-free chickpea crackers, which were produced in collaboration with Edmonton-based Kinnikinnick Foods. “In the end, I chose chickpea flour for commercial scale-up and production.”

Han’s findings, as reported in the journal Food Research International, said: “The compositional and nutritional profiles of the crackers were very similar to existing cracker products on the market with the exception of the percentage daily values per serving of iron that were three to six times higher in the chickpea crackers than existing products on a per serving basis. The pulse-based, gluten-free cracker products investigated in this project have well-developed potential to appeal to consumers and impart health benefits.”
The potentially lucrative ramifications of Han’s work have not gone unnoticed, as Stephen Daniells of NutraIngredients.com reports: “The findings could lead to enhanced products for the blossoming gluten-free food market, worth almost $1.6 billion last year, and experiencing a compound annual growth rate of 28 per cent over four years.”

For more information about the FPDC and APBI, visit:  www.agric.gov.ab.ca/fpdc .

Down on the farm
Ironically, the tour wrapped up where the process of turning pulses into delicious baked goods begins: the seemingly endless golden fields of Alberta.
We were treated to a barbecue lunch at Pathfinders Western Ltd., the 2,200-acre family farm of Paul and Annette Gabbey, just outside Edmonton.
“My great-great-grandparents first acquired this land,” Paul told us. “It’s pretty fertile, good farmland; we average about 70 bushels per acre of yellow peas.”
The Gabbeys’ crop rotation is usually split between cereals – such as red spring wheat and malt barley – and canola and yellow peas. Paul says peas were tried as far back as the 1940s but they couldn’t compete with wheat and barley in terms of profitability.

Now, however, “we’ve been able to grow really good peas and some years they’ve been our most profitable crop,” he says. “The nice thing about them is that they can handle cold weather, so you can plant them earlier in the season, and their overall input costs are very low.”

Concluding the tour was a visit to PURENet crop research plots in St. Albert, Alta. PURENet, or Pulse Research Network, is a new Canada-wide effort led by Pulse Canada, the University of Alberta, Alberta Pulse Growers, and Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada that seeks to understand the role pulse crops such as field peas, faba beans and lupins can play in a sustainable agricultural system.

“Canada’s biggest export crops are wheat and canola, but we can’t grow those all the time so it’s good to grow these pulses as well,” said Dr. Jane King of the University of Alberta, one of 44 researchers working at the PURENet site.
“So, we’re looking at what pulses can do to affect nitrogen for the following year’s crops, but there are other effects we don’t totally understand yet. Pulses and legumes are one of the few plants that can take nitrogen from the air, and incorporate it into its roots and the surrounding soil. So, the big advantage to the farmers is that they won’t have to buy as much artificial fertilizer to get nitrogen into the soil.”

King and her colleagues are in the second year of a three-year study of pulses’ nitrogen fixation qualities. In Year 1, field peas, faba beans and lupins are planted along with barley and canola as reference crops. In Year 2, flax, triticale, ryeseed and two varieties of wheat are added to the mix. By the end of the study, the researchers will have been able to evaluate the yield and nodulation success of 40 different crop rotation options.

“Crops which follow a pulse in rotation may differ in their ability to access the nitrogen and non-nitrogen benefits from the preceding pulse crop,” the researchers wrote in a statement given to tour participants. “Identification of these differences will allow the design of crop rotations that optimize crop sequencing and maximize the benefit from including a pulse in the rotation.”

On the web: Pulse Canada:  www.pulsecanada.com
Alberta Pulse Growers: www.pulse.ab.ca

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