Ingredients derived from lentils, a member of the pulse family, provide protein and other nutrients to any form of snacks or baked goods.
Pulses are not new food ingredients, but most people know them by their individual names rather than their collective term. That’s changing as consumers become more educated through industry efforts to communicate the value of pulses in the diet. Bakers are poised to benefit from these efforts because there are opportunities to include pulses in all types of grain-based foods.

But what exactly are pulses? They are the dried seeds of plants from the legume family, such as peas, edible beans, lentils and chickpeas. Many of these ingredients have long been used to extend meats and create meat analogs. They are included in salads, sauces, soups and side dishes to add flavor, texture and visual appeal. They have strong ties to many ethnic cuisines, most notably Indian, Mediterranean and Middle Eastern. And now, people embrace them for their “superfood” status.

Inherently gluten-free and vegetarian, pulses have special properties that make them particularly attractive to today’s health-conscious consumers. They are naturally high in protein and dietary fiber and are a rich source of minerals, including iron, zinc and phosphorus, as well as a source of B vitamins and folic acid. Pulses are considered non-allergenic proteins that are not genetically modified (non-GMO) and have a low glycemic index. They’ve been shown to reduce the risk of heart disease and diabetes, lower blood pressure and cholesterol, and help with weight loss.

“There is tremendous opportunity to educate product developers about the functionality of pulse ingredients and how they can help meet consumer needs,” said Pat O’Brien, manager, strategic business development, Ingredion. “I do think that the United Nations making 2016 the Year of the Pulses was a step in the right direction. This will help educate consumers about the general benefits and the nutrition value of pulses.”

Numerous food industry forecasts predict that pulses and plant proteins will only continue to grow in use. Between April 2014 and March 2015, the penetration of pulses into U.S. households grew by 34%, according to consumer research based on sales data from The Kroger Co., Cincinnati, Ohio, U.S. And Innova Market Insights reported a 74% increase in new product launches featuring pulses from 2010 to 2014.

Those innovations span the supermarket, with nutrition bars leading the way. Kroger’s data showed that 33% of all nutrition bars contain one or more pulse ingredients. This figure continues to climb. Other pulse-enhanced baked goods are emerging as formulators discover that pulses are easy-to-use and recipe-adaptable sources of protein and fiber.

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The nutritional value conferred by pulse-based ingredients helps differentiate snacks from the ordinary.

Promise of protein

Research firm Packaged Facts explained in its recent report “Food Formulation and Ingredient Trends: Plant Proteins” that consumer interest in boosting protein intake remains strong with more attention being paid to the specific types of protein being consumed. The desire for clean labels, ease of digestion, compatibility with vegetarian and vegan lifestyles, concerns about sustainability among the general population and the need to avoid allergens are putting the spotlight on plant proteins.

“Consumer notions of what constitutes a good protein source are expanding to include a wider variety of plant protein ingredients,” said David Sprinkle, Packaged Facts research director and publisher.

Today’s consumers, in particular millennials, demand more — and varied — protein for a range of reasons including weight management, allergies, sustainability, and ethical or religious beliefs. With 10% of millennials considering themselves vegan, according to the Packaged Facts report, plant-protein-enhanced foods have an audience.

“Protein enrichment is a growing trend, and with more consumers preferring vegetable-based proteins, pulses can be a logical and cost-effective choice,” O’Brien said. “Pulse ingredients stand apart in the protein world with their combination of positive nutrition and ‘free from’ attributes. They are readily used to add protein and fiber to cereals and snack foods and can even be used to replace eggs in baked goods.”

Some grain-based foods make pulses their base ingredient and the reason the food exists. For example, RW Garcia, San Jose, California, U.S., is rolling out Pulse Chips, a snack that is a source of protein, as well as high in fiber and low in fat. There are three varieties: Black Bean & Ancient Grains is made with just eight ingredients and a base of 26% black beans. These chips have an earthy flavor punctuated by red quinoa seeds and chia seeds. Chickpea & Ancient Grains has a subtle kick from red bell pepper flakes and a base of 26% chickpeas. Lentil & Ancient Grains is 26% green lentils. These chips also contain protein- and mineral-rich amaranth, which gives a nutty flavor. All are Non-GMO Project verified, certified gluten-free and kosher.

“We’ve been eager to utilize pulse crops, which are versatile, earth-friendly and delicious,” said Genelle Chetcuti, senior director of marketing, RW Garcia. “The sustainability of pulse crops was an important factor for the company, which is committed to sustainable practices and social good across its supply chain and production facilities. We’ve always been the brand with heart, and now we’re the brand with pulses.”

Natural Intentions Inc., Folsom, California, U.S., introduced Daily Crave Quinoa Chips, where the emphasis is on the quinoa; however, lentils, chickpeas and peas deliver most of the 4 grams of protein in a 1-oz serving. The chips come in Bourbon BBQ, Gouda & Romano Cheese, Himalayan Pink Salt and Spicy Thai Chili varieties.

Sprinkle agreed that pulses make sense for snacks.

“Looking at both present trends and toward the future, alternative ingredient snack sales are going to continue moderate-to-strong growth over the next few years, building on the larger healthier-for-you trend affecting the overall snack market and on the unique flavors and textures consumers are also craving,” he said.

Snack foods, traditionally high in refined carbohydrates and starches and low in nutritional value, can be improved with pulses, which offer the opportunity to introduce higher fiber and higher protein, according to Regina Bertoldo, food scientist, Healthy Food Ingredients.

“Pulses have an excellent amino acid profile and mineral content. When paired with other flours, pulses offer certain amino acids in higher amounts, which creates a more complete amino acid profile in the product,” she said.

Many pulses also have a good starch content, which is important in baked goods, said Michele Majeski, food scientist at Healthy Food Ingredients.

“Pulses can often be used as a direct replacement for wheat flours or other flours in many recipes with minimal adjustments,” she said.

Healthy Food Ingredients has formulated many baked products incorporating pulses that simply required minor adjustments in moisture content.

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Black bean or lentil pulses can be used in chocolate brownies and other products.

Spreading the word

Consumer acceptance is increasing as people become more aware that pulses have been in various food items for decades.

The Global Pulse Confederation introduced the Pulse Brand and Made with Pulses seal at the Institute of Food Technologists’ 2016 annual meeting and Food Expo to raise awareness and educate consumers and industry. The brand and seal are available to food manufacturers, consumer packaged goods companies and the foodservice industry to use on packages and in promotions. Packaged products that contain pulses among the first five ingredients listed by weight and present at a minimum of 5% of the final formulation are eligible to apply to use the seal. Akin to other popular certifications, such as the Whole Grain Stamp and Gluten-Free Certified logo, the Pulse Brand and Made with Pulses seal can be used on qualifying product packaging and promotional materials.

“Increasing consumer and manufacturing awareness of the already existing presence of these ingredients in our foods may also remove potential barriers,” Majeski said.

For example, soy flour has been in baked goods for decades. Cooked beans have been a staple for centuries; just look at the popularity of hummus. Majeski said that it seems only logical to start incorporating the nutritional, functional and economic benefits of such ingredients in baked goods, too.

MarJanie Kinney, product development manager, World Food Processing, said pulses in their milled, powdered form offer the functionality of flour, but with a protein and fiber benefit. For many pulses, that’s generally a 20 to 25% protein content and 10 to 30% fiber content, she explained.

“Aside from the obvious nutritional benefits, this is a clean-label means to diversifying the diets of consumers,” Kinney said.

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Pulses provide fiber and protein benefits for gluten-free bread, rolls and sweet goods.

Managing flavor challenges

Cakes, cookies and muffins — baked goods with a strong flavor profile and a dense or moist texture — are ideal candidates for pulse ingredients. The flavorful ingredients used in these products may help mask any of the less palatable flavors from the pulses, which vary from mild and slightly sweet to stronger bitter notes.

“Multiple types of pulse flours can also be blended to achieve a desired flavor and color profile,” Majeski said. “In addition, pulse flours have good water retention properties. This helps create a dense and moist texture in baked goods.”

Garbanzo bean flour is a great example for use as a flour replacement, she said. It has a mild flavor and a lighter color that complements many formulations. Black bean ingredients, on the other hand, make sense for chocolate baked goods such as brownies. Pea powders may be best applied to baked goods that deliver on savory or salty rather than sweet.

Breads from Anna, Iowa City, Iowa, U.S., markets an array of gluten-free bakery mixes based on chickpea flour, navy bean flour and pinto bean flour. This includes the Black Bean Brownie Mix to which the baker adds a 15-oz can of black beans.

To reduce the signature “beany” taste of many pulse ingredients, supplier companies often incorporate a de-flavoring step during processing.

“After reducing particle size, our pulse powders are offered in two main forms,” Kinney said. “There’s raw, or uncooked, and gelled, or cooked, forms. The latter offers a cleaner taste and neutral color. We believe clean taste and flavor welcomes creativity and flexibility. This means the formulator is not limited to the masking properties of chocolate.”

Ingredion is working with AGT Foods to offer a new line of clean-taste proteins and pulse-based flours. The line includes chickpea flour, faba bean flour, yellow lentil flour and yellow pea flour.

“[Clean flavor] is not much of an issue with snacks, but in more bland applications, flavor can be problematic,” O’Brien said. “A lot of times, food companies may want to increase the protein content and nutritional value, but the flavor may limit the amount of protein they can use.”

He explained that the reasoning behind Ingredion’s development was to allow a manufacturer to use more protein at higher levels or where the application, say a bread, doesn’t have much to cover the flavor. The company developed sweet and salty ancient grain pulse crisp clusters made with about 8.5% (total) faba bean flour and faba bean protein concentrate. Combined with the protein from the ancient grains, a 68-gram serving provides 9 grams of protein.

“Baked goods that are more mild or bland in flavor may pose some difficulties when incorporating pulse flours,” Bertoldo said. “This includes many crackers and breads.”

She explained a simple approach to combat these issues is to replace only a portion of the wheat flours with pulse flours. This retains the health and functional benefits of the pulses without detracting from the functionality or the sensory properties provided by the other flours.

In Canada, Weston Foods developed Gadoua MultiGo bread made with 18 grains, including chickpea flour and lentil flour. A two-slice (79 gram) serving contains 9 grams of protein and 5 grams of fiber.

The usage rate of pulses depends on the overall flour and ingredient blend, as well as the application. Some adjustments to other ingredients, such as eggs, liquids and starch, may be necessary.

Another approach to overcome flavor issues is to use sprouted or roasted pulses. These processes modify some of the compounds associated with the bitter and less palatable flavors of pulses.

“Sprouting also begins the breakdown of complex polysaccharides into smaller polysaccharides and sugars, making pulses easier to digest,” Bertoldo said.

In addition to their functional and nutritional capabilities, pulses can be attractive ingredients because of their sustainable nature. They are known for their water efficiency and low carbon footprint.

“Pulses produce their own fertilizer by fixing nitrogen into the soil,” O’Brien said. “They use significantly less non-renewable energy and water relative to other crops.”

Pulses offer an opportunity to differentiate products. Introducing pulses and their ancient histories to mainstream food markets, as Bertoldo explained, helps fulfill our need for global interaction and cultural exchange.