Grand renaissance for pulse crops!

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17 January 2016
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Not before time 2016 has been called ‘the international year of pulses’ by the United Nations (UN) placing a strong focus on this under-valued but very diverse group of crops, comprising mainly beans and peas, in achieving future food and nutrition security.

It is a sad but real irony that during the Green Revolution, in the second half of the 20th century, production of pulse crops declined greatly as that of common cereal grains, such as wheat, maize and rice, increased enormously.

And as pulses usually contain about twice as much protein, minerals, micronutrients and fibre than the common cereal grains, this transition has contributed significantly to the increasing global occurrence of deficiencies in these essential dietary components.

Therefore bringing more pulses back into diets will contribute greatly to reducing the incidence of protein, mineral and micronutrient deficiencies, particularly in developing countries.

Furthermore the potential role of pulses in increasing the intake of fibre in Western life-style diets should now receive more attention following the recent publication of research work by Sonnenburg et al (Nature Vol 529 p. 212-215).

Their ground-breaking research has shown that the diversity of beneficial human gut microbes is decreasing in Western populations compared to those present in populations living traditional life-styles – and without inclusion of more fibre in the Western-style diets then these beneficial microbes may, in future generations, become extinct!

The importance of fibre in maintaining the diversity of beneficial gut microbes arises from its high content of ‘microbial available carbohydrates’ or MAC’s which are usually low in many Western diets (high in fat; simple carbohydrates like sugars; low in fibre) compared to traditional (typically rural agrarian) diets.

The beneficial microbes feed on the MAC’s to produce short-chain fatty acids (SCFA’s) and research has shown that a lack of these may lead to disruption of the immune and anti-inflammatory systems which underlie diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, asthma, allergies and inflammatory bowel and might explain some of their increasing occurrence in young Westerners!

This study adds further support for the UN’s initiative to increase awareness, production and consumption of pulses starting now in their designated international year.

“The evidence is irrefutable that pulses have a key role in improving human health mainly through their contribution of protein, minerals and micronutrients in developing countries; and boosting dietary fibre (and MAC intake) in Western diets” says Dr Kevin Moran of Kemnovation.

He adds “Finally this also illustrates the importance of introducing a broader diversity of food crop types into diets to help achieve food and nutrition security for a growing planet”.

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