Chickpeas, lentils and beans celebrated in year of the pulses

The United Nations has declared 2016 the International Year of Pulses — but what, exactly, are pulses? We've got a breakdown on why they’re great for your health and the environment, and how to get more of them in your diet.

Pulses are the 'edible seeds of plants in the legume family' — they're sustainable, healthy and cheap

Canadian pulses - dry beans, dry peas, lentils and chickpeas - are stepping into the spotlight in 2016 as the world celebrates International Year of Pulses. Here, green lentils and chickpeas are featured in a taco recipe by chef Michael Smith. (Tim Chin/Canadian Press)

The United Nations has declared 2016 the International Year of Pulses, and they're not talking about your heart beat.

So what — you ask — are pulses? 

Pulse Canada describes them as "the edible seeds of plants in the legume family."

Some of the most common examples are dried peas, beans, lentils and chickpeas. 

Pulse Canada describes them as "the edible seeds of plants in the legume family." (Westend61/Getty Images)
And while Canada produces literally tonnes of the protein-packing pulses — around 4.5 million tonnes each year — most of them are for export.

Nevine Elchibini, a healthy cooking instructor and food coach from Pierrefonds, Que., says if she had her way every year would be the year of the pulse.

Here are five reasons Canadians should up the pulses in their diet:

​1. Pulses are good for you

Elchibini says pulses are a great source of protein. 

"They're very low in fat, they provide a great source of protein, they have both soluble and insoluble fibre — which is fantastic for health."

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, pulses are "a vital source of plant-based proteins and amino acids for people around the globe and should be eaten as part of a healthy diet to address obesity, as well as to prevent and help manage chronic diseases such as diabetes, coronary conditions and cancer."

2. Pulses are sustainable

Pulses have a lower carbon footprint than almost any other food group. They're also water-efficient and enrich the soil where they grow, according to Pulse Canada.

Érik de Franciosi is the vice-president of Agro-Haribec in Brossard, a company that produces and exports Quebec-grown romano beans.

"This is a very sustainable crop," he says.

3. Pulses are cheap

"They definitely are also almost giving them away," says Elchibini.

As the price of food goes up, upping your pulse intake is a great way to help keep your grocery budget low.

A 450 gram bag or can of dried beans usually costs around a couple bucks at your local grocery store.

Elchibini suggests swapping out meat for lentils to save money and balance your diet.

Making homemade burgers? Try mixing in some lentils with the ground beef. It might surprise you! 

4. Pulses are easy to cook

Elchibini says some people shy away from pulses because they have to be soaked ahead of time, but she says they can be easy to prepare.

She recommends starting with split lentils.

"They cook in less than five minutes and they can be incorporated in any sauce, spaghetti sauce, soup, any dish," Elchibini says.

"It adds all those minerals — fibres and vitamins and iron to a dish easily."

Looking for some other quick ways to add pulses to your diet? Try mixing in black beans with salsa for a tasty dip with pita chips.

Another creative idea: thicken soups with a can of puréed white beans instead of cream. 

For more recipe ideas check out Pulse Canada's cooking guide.

5. Support your local farmers

Canada is the world's largest producer and exporter of dry peas and lentils, according to Pulse Canada.

It ships to more than 150 countries around the world each year, including India, China and Turkey.

De Franciosi says it's not clear why they're not as popular in North America, but he encourages people to give pulses a try. 

"We see an evolution with the younger population especially to return to the pulses ... and with immigration we have new dishes ... look at hummus," he says.