Legumes are a curious food. Some say they are a superfood. They are indeed the only food that gets prominent double billing in the USDA’s new dietary guidelines, which sets out rationale for the optimal American diet.
Legumes include most beans, peas, and lentils, and these are categorized both as a recommended vegetable, and a protein source, alongside meat and poultry, nuts, seeds, and soy.
Pulses (as legumes are known by most of the world, but there are differences as you’ll read below) are excellent sources of protein, the USDA states, because they provide nutrients iron and zinc, which are found in seafood, meats, and poultry. At the same time, they are part of the vegetable category because “they are excellent sources of dietary fiber and of nutrients, such as potassium and folate, that also are found in other vegetables.”
The duplication explains a lot about the latest vegetable protein craze in America, which stars the yellow pea, but there is still plenty more to trumpet about this food group.
But first, let’s clarify some of the finer points of the legume.
Legumes are some of the oldest cultivated plants on earth, and they produce seemingly endless varieties of edible dry beans, lentils, and peas. These legumes are known by most of the world as pulses.
Pulses helped the Roman empire expand, because the army carried the nonperishable, nutrient-rich foods in their bags as they marched. They didn’t have to hunt or worry about spoiled food. All they needed was fire to cook up a nutritious rice and lentil stew.
Legumes are also popular cover crops, like alfalfa and clover, used by farmers to improve their soils, as well as soybeans and peanuts—but none of these are pulses—and pulses are really what the USDA is referring to when they say “legumes.”
Another notable exception is green beans and fresh or frozen green peas, which are also legumes, but not pulses. These are simply vegetables.
Only pulses get double billing, so let’s be clear. When it says legumes, the USDA means pulses.
The government’s Choose My Plate website explains that pulses are unique foods that many people consider as vegetarian alternatives for meat. It goes on to recommend that everyone eat one-and-a-half cups of pulses per week, because of the food’s high nutrient content.
However, if you look back, Americans’ consumption of whole pulses, such as in bean soups, lentil stews, and hummus, has not been that impressive. Pulses are not that popular, largely because they take a long time to cook, and because, well, America is a big meat culture.
USDA research from 2007–2010 shows Americans across the board were 70 to 95 percent below their recommended daily intake of pulses. Incidentally, it’s young children who eat their mushy peas the most.
Future surveys will look different though, because it’s no longer necessary to cook our peas in order to consume them. We can reach for a granola bar, or another processed food instead.
Because pulses are so nutritious (remember, they are also vegetables), protein powders made from whole peas have been used for years in the manufacture of high-performance protein shakes.
The application was limited, though, because the taste and aroma of ground pulses was long considered too strong for most applications. Proteins are notoriously off-putting in their isolated form.
Recent advances in flavor modulation have changed that, and the powders are now considered palatable for broader application. R&D labs at food companies across the country are now working at a frenzied pace to unleash the potential of pulses in powdered form.
Already, pulse protein ingredients are starting to appear in grocery stores across the spectrum of food products that we enjoy on a daily basis: bean tortilla chips, lentil crackers, gluten-free pasta, baked goods, and so on.
A Star is Born
While there are many pulse-based proteins on the market, such as flours, fibers, and starches, which all contain quality vegetable proteins, the star of the show is the yellow pea protein, and it’s been a hot item for just a couple of years.
While global production of whole yellow peas has grown (and is predicted to grow) at a steady rate of 2 to 4 percent annually, revenues from pea protein are expected to grow around 10 percent annually, according to 2015 research by Frost & Sullivan.
Attribute it to America’s latest love affair with protein. We’ve sworn off fats, sugars, and carbohydrates as the demons of weight gain, and protein’s what’s left.
But it’s also our increasing desire for healthy alternatives to meat. People are concerned about the fat and artificial hormones contained in most meat and poultry, so vegetable protein has become more appealing.
The World Health Organization (WHO) probably scared us too, when it pronounced it had found “convincing evidence” that processed meat causes colorectal cancer, and classified it in the same risk category as tobacco smoking. It also cautioned against red meat, but said more research was needed.
So sustainability-minded chefs and manufacturers are beginning to incorporate more vegetables and meat alternatives into their menus and products. An explosion of food creativity has helped to make pulses a little more appetizing.
Vincent James, who founded Mediterranean Snacks in 2007, says his business was one of the first to market snack food alternatives, such as veggie sticks.
But sales took off significantly, he said, only after the company began to focus on plant-based protein. “The consumer if finally starting to recognize that you can get protein from sources other than meat.”
Today, you can buy Mediterranean Snacks-branded hummus crackers, baked lentil chips, and a new product called Bean Stalks, which are tricolor pulse tubes: white for cannellini beans, red for pinto beans, and green for green pea.
Mediterranean is one of scores of snack food startups zeroing in on beans and peas, such as snack companies Beanitos, Simply7, and The Daily Crave.
Bill Gates-backed Beyond Meat is a vegetable meat startup. It has earned endorsements from Food Network star Alton Brown, and former New York Times columnist Mark Bittman. The Manhattan Beach, Calif.-based company markets itself as the “future of protein.” Their Beast Burgers, Beyond Beef Crumble, and Beyond Beef Meatballs are all made with pea protein.
Another is Hampton Creek, which manufactures Just Mayo using pea protein. The Silicon Valley company has been named a Technology Pioneer by the World Economic Forum, and one of 49 of the most innovative companies in the world.
Its not just startups who are invested in this. Big food may move a little slower, but their R&D pipelines are churning furiously, and most major manufacturers have at least a bean-based tortilla chip on the market.
A couple of years ago, the enthusiasm of U.S.-based General Mills for pea protein caused a temporary market shortage. Matthew Boyle, writing for Bloomberg, learned that the company had bought up large amounts of the powder to support its R&D strategy for products like the Larabar, leaving its competitors scrambling to source some.
Henk Hoogenkamp, an industry consultant with deep expertise in vegetable protein, explains that soy protein had a fall from grace around 2010, and General Mills, along with rivals ConAgra and ADM, were forced to quickly find a replacement.
Soy suffered its devastating blow after a misleading marketing campaign of unsupported medical claims put consumers off. According to Hoogenkamp, this meant “the pea industry hit the jackpot.”
Soy has long been the dominant vegetable protein choice, and still is, mainly due to its popularity as an additive to meat products. About 70 percent of the 1.1 million metric tonnes of soy protein produced in the world is added to meat.
But pea protein is growing fast. The estimated global size of the pea protein market in 2016 is 120,000 metric tonnes, triple what it was four years ago, according to Hoogenkamp.
Pea protein has a lot of advantages over soy. For one, it is non-genetically modified (GMO). Soybeans, on the other hand, are 94 percent GMO in America, which is a major producer.
Soy protein extraction also requires harsh chemicals like hexane and hydrochloric acid, which does not bode well for conscious consumers. By contrast, proteins made from pulses are extracted with water.
Especially for the millennial generation (born 1981–1996), who are largely the target market for manufacturers of vegetable protein—consumer behavior shows that they want their food natural, and non-GMO.
Pulses are perfect for marketing to health-oriented consumers, in that they are naturally low-allergen, and high in fiber, antioxidants, vitamins, potassium, iron, and folate.
Hoogenkamp points out that pea protein products are largely sold to affluent consumers in North America and Europe who have a choice, and will choose the natural option if they can.
The “virtues” of the pulse go on, in that farmers can actually improve their soils by growing it, meaning its a sustainable option.
Most pulses thrive without irrigation and are usually planted in rotation with other crops, such as wheat and barley, since most pulses fix nitrogen into the soil, reducing the need for artificial fertilization of the farmers’ next crops.
A Bright Future
The pea’s success has earned it investors. Hoogenkamp says we’re now experiencing a global pea protein glut, driving the price of pea protein down 30 percent to 40 percent in the last six months. It will be about a year before the market corrects.
After the shortage in 2014, a number of large production facilities were added to supply increasing demand in North America, Europe, and China.
There are also two large manufacturers in China, one in Canada, and one in the United States, according to Hoogenkamp. Oskaloosa, Iowa-based World Food Processing, launched its PURISPea product in May of last year.