Little Beans, Big Opportunities
Posted February 04, 2016
On November 19, 2015, the Academy's Sackler Institute for Nutrition Science and Bush Brothers and Company sponsored a full-day conference on pulses, titled Little Beans, Big Opportunities: Realizing the Potential of Pulses to Meet Today's Global Health Challenges. The event celebrated the United Nations' declaration of 2016 as the International Year of Pulses, a measure intended to highlight the potential of dry peas, beans, lentils, and chickpeas to improve both human health and the sustainability of global agriculture.
The keynote presentation focused on how these little beans could help solve the synergistic threats of malnutrition and environmental degradation worldwide. Speakers in the morning session discussed the many health benefits of pulses. Clinical trials have shown that legume-based supplements can prevent childhood growth stunting in developing countries. Bean consumption also leads to improvements in markers associated with type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease and promotes a healthy intestinal microbiome.
Humans have grown and eaten pulses for over 10 000 years, and in many countries the agricultural techniques for pulse production are virtually unchanged. Speakers in the afternoon session described the urgent need to improve the efficiency of pulse production and discussed ideas for increasing supply and demand for these crops.
Use the tabs above to find a meeting report and multimedia from this event.
Presentations available from:
Seth Adu-Afarwuah, PhD (University of Ghana)
Allan Hruska, PhD (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations)
P.K. Joshi, PhD (International Food Policy Research Institute)
Mark J. Manary, MD (Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis)
John McDermott, PhD (International Food Policy Research Institute)
Sonny Ramaswamy, PhD (USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture)
John L. Sievenpiper, MD, PhD (University of Toronto, Canada)
Joanne Slavin, PhD (University of Minnesota)
Moderator: Vincent Amanor-Boadu, PhD (Kansas State University)
How to cite this eBriefing
The New York Academy of Sciences. Little Beans, Big Opportunities: Using Pulses to Meet Today's Global Health Challenges. Academy eBriefings. 2016. Available at: www.nyas.org/LittleBeans-eB
- 00:011. Introduction by Vincent Amanor-Boadu
- 07:532. Presentation by Sara Baer-Sinnott
- 17:403. Presentation by Richard Black
- 26:554. Presentation by Laurette Dube
- 42:175. Challenges; Examples of African heritage meals
- 52:456. Promotion by industry; Barriers to convergence; Building partnerships
- 58:247. Food and culture; Conceiving initiatives
- 68:348. Audience Q and A session; Conclusio
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Lu J, Xiong S, Arora N, Dubé L. Using food as reinforcer to shape children's non-food behavior: the adverse nutritional effect doubly moderated by reward sensitivity and gender. Eat Behav. 2015;19:94-7.
Maust A, Koroma AS, Abla C, et al. Severe and moderate acute malnutrition can be successfully managed with an integrated protocol in Sierra Leone. J Nutr. 2015;145(11):2604-9.
McConnell R, Hruska AJ. An epidemic of pesticide poisoning in Nicaragua: implications for prevention in developing countries. Am J Public Health. 1993;83(11):1559-62.
Ordiz MI, May TD, Mihindukulasuriya K, et al. The effect of dietary resistant starch type 2 on the microbiota and markers of gut inflammation in rural Malawi children. Microbiome. 2015;3:37.
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U.S. Department of Agriculture. SuperTracker: My Foods. My Fitness. My Health.
Julianne Curran, PhD
Julianne Curran holds a PhD in human nutritional sciences from the University of Manitoba, Canada. At Pulse Canada she works to promote pulse crops (beans, peas, lentils, chickpeas) and their ingredient derivatives as healthy and environmentally sustainable ingredients for the food industry. As vice president of food and health, Curran identifies strategic priorities for research through multisectoral outreach. She facilitates projects and funding partnerships for these research priorities, works on developing credible, science-based nutrition and health marketing messages and health claims, and provides support for food regulatory initiatives.
Anna Lartey, PhD
Anna Lartey is the director of nutrition at the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations in Rome, Italy, and president of the International Union of Nutritional Sciences. She was a professor of nutrition at the University of Ghana before joining FAO in 2013. Lartey attended the University of California, Davis, as a Fulbright student, receiving her PhD in international nutrition. She also holds an MSc from the University of Guelph, Canada. She worked as a researcher in sub-Saharan Africa for 27 years, where her research focused on maternal child nutrition. Lartey won the University of Ghana's Best Researcher Award for 2004. She held the International Development Research Center (IDRC, Canada) Research Chair in Nutrition for Health and Socioeconomic Development in Sub-Saharan Africa from 2009 to 2014. She is the recipient of the Sight and Life Nutrition Leadership Award for 2014.
John McDermott, PhD
John McDermott is the director of the CGIAR (Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research) research program on agriculture for nutrition and health (A4NH), led by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) since January 2012. Previously, from 2003 to 2011, he was deputy director general and director of research at the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) in Nairobi, Kenya. He has lived and worked in Africa for 25 years. His research has focused on public health, animal health, and livestock research in developing countries, primarily in Africa. He has led projects on zoonotic and emerging diseases in Asia and Africa and has a strong background in quantitative methods (modeling, study design, and statistics). He earned a PhD in quantitative epidemiology and a DVM from the University of Guelph, Canada, and a Master's degree in preventive veterinary medicine from the University of California, Davis. He was a visiting lecturer at the University of Nairobi and a professor at the University of Guelph. He has also served as an advisor to the FAO, the World Health Organization, the World Organisation for Animal Health, and other international agencies, and has served as a non-executive director of the Global Alliance for Livestock Vaccines and Medicine (GALVmed) and as a member of the advisory committee of Veterinarians Without Borders.
Sara F. Rose, MBA
Bush Brothers & Company
Sara Fortune Rose is vice president and director of industry and government affairs at Bush Brothers & Company, a Knoxville-based company primarily known for its brand of bean-based products. She is focused on strategic initiatives to grow the industry and the company, and has also held roles in marketing, manufacturing, product development, and research over 20 years at the company. Rose served as the first president of the Beans for Health Alliance, an international consortium of organizations supporting the link between bean consumption and improved health status, funded by USAID. She also served on the board of directors of the American Pulse Association in its first 5 years, and she represents Bush Brothers on the board of the U.S. Dry Bean Council. Rose holds an MBA from Indiana University.
Janice M.W. Rueda, PhD
ADM Edible Bean Specialties Inc.
Janice M.W. Rueda earned a PhD in nutrition and food science from Wayne State University. She joined the Edible Bean Specialties group of Archer Daniels Midland in 2014. She works on developing market opportunities for bean ingredients and on establishing research priorities, developing grant proposals, and facilitating policy to increase the availability of bean-based foods in the food supply. Rueda is enthusiastic about the potential of beans to improve agricultural systems and public health. She serves on several organizing committees for the International Year of Pulses and holds adjunct faculty positions at Washington State University and Wayne State University.
Irvin Widders, PhD
Michigan State University
Irvin Widders holds a PhD in plant physiology from the University of California, Davis, and is a professor in the Department of Horticulture at Michigan State University. His research has focused on vegetable crop physiology, the regulation of ion transport, and plant responses to abiotic stresses. Widders has been actively engaged in international programs at MSU, including serving as director for the Bean/Cowpea Collaborative Research Support Program (CRSP) and the Dry Grain Pulses CRSP project. Most recently, he has served as director of the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Collaborative Research on Grain Legumes (Legume Innovation Lab). MSU is the management entity of this Title XII program, funded by USAID's Bureau of Food Security, which partners U.S. universities with institutions in sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America in collaborative research and capacity building. Under his leadership, the program expanded in technical scope to include research on human nutrition and developed international ties with CGIAR grain legume research programs to improve the livelihoods of the rural poor, especially those who produce, market, and consume grain legumes in developing countries in sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America.
Amy R. Beaudreault, PhD
Formerly at the Sackler Institute for Nutrition Science
Julie Shlisky, PhD
The Sackler Institute for Nutrition Science
Sonny Ramaswamy, PhD
USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture
Sonny Ramaswamy was appointed by President Obama to serve as director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's extramural science agency, the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), in 2012. Through its funding portfolio, NIFA catalyzes transformative discoveries, education, and engagement to meet agricultural challenges. Ramaswamy previously held academic positions including dean of Oregon State University College of Agricultural Sciences, director of Purdue University Agricultural Research Programs, distinguished professor and head of Kansas State University's Entomology Department, professor of entomology at Mississippi State University, and research associate at Michigan State University. As an insect physiologist, his work focused on on integrative reproductive biology of insects. Ramaswamy has received research grants from several federal agencies. He is a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and of the Entomological Society of America. He is the former Frazier Lecturer at the American Society for Horticultural Science and the recipient of the Presidential Award from the Soil Science Society of America. Ramaswamy received an MSc in entomology from the University of Agricultural Sciences, India, and a PhD in entomology from Rutgers University. He is a graduate of the University of Nebraska New Academic Chair's Program and of Harvard University Management Development Program.
Seth Adu-Afarwuah, PhD
University of Ghana, Ghana
Seth Adu-Afarwuah is a faculty member in the Department of Nutrition and Food Science at the University of Ghana. He obtained a PhD and completed postdoctoral training in international nutrition at the University of California, Davis. Before joining the University of Ghana, he worked with the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF). His research is in the area of maternal and infant nutrition, with a focus on the prevention and treatment of malnutrition. Since 2009 he has been is a member of a team of international collaborators from the University of California, Davis, the University of Tampere, Finland, and the University of Ghana investigating the efficacy of micronutrient supplements made using groundnut paste, vegetable oil, powdered milk, and micronutrients for improving the nutrient intakes of women and children in low-income settings. Adu-Afarwuah's work focuses on meeting the nutritional needs of women and infants during the first 1000 days of life and beyond.
Allan Hruska, PhD
Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations
Allan J. Hruska is a plant production and protection officer of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). He has been based in the Sub-regional Office for Mesoamerica, in Panama, since 2008 and previously was based in the Regional Office for Latin America and the Caribbean, in Chile. He earned a PhD in entomology from North Carolina State University and an MSc in genetics from Duke University. Hruska has dedicated his career to the promotion of sustainable agriculture and food security in Latin America. He has lived and worked in Panama, Chile, Nicaragua, Honduras, and Costa Rica for over 30 years, leading projects, teaching, and conducting research. He provides technical and policy advice in seed systems, crop disease and pest management, early warning systems for emerging problems, pesticide management, sustainable crop production and food systems, family farming, and local development. Before his career with the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, he worked with CARE, Zamorano and NicaSalud, and the National Agricultural University of Nicaragua.
P.K. Joshi, PhD
P.K. Joshi is the director for the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), South Asia. He was previously director of the National Academy of Agricultural Research Management, India, and the director of the National Centre for Agricultural Economics and Policy Research, India. He has served as South Asia coordinator at the IFPRI, as senior economist at the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics in Patancheru, as chairman of the SAARC Agricultural Centre's governing board in Bangladesh, as chairman of the UN-CAPSA governing board in Bogor, and as a member of the intergovernmental panel on the World Bank International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development. He was a member of the International Steering Committee for the Climate Change, Agriculture, and Food Security Challenge Program, led by the ESSP Science Community and the CGIAR (2009–11). He was also a member of the core group of the Indian government's "Right to Food" National Human Rights Commission and the secretary-general of the Fourth World Congress on Conservation Agriculture. Joshi is the trustee of the Trust for Advancement of Agricultural Sciences (since 2008) and secretary of the Agricultural Economics Research Association in India. His areas of research include technology policy, market, and institutional economics.
Mark J. Manary, MD
Mark J. Manary is the Helene B. Roberson Professor of Pediatrics at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, from which he holds an MD and where he completed internship and residency training in pediatrics. His research interests include the prevention and treatment of primary malnutrition in Africa, the pathophysiology of kwashiorkor (protein malnutrition), the development of novel foods to heal tropical enteropathy, and the use of plant genetic engineering to improve nutrition security. His professional goal is to fix malnutrition for kids in Africa. He has developed ready-to-use therapeutic food and used the food in home-based therapy. Ready-to-use therapeutic food is a lipid-based food that has been accepted as the standard of care for uncomplicated severe acute malnutrition by the UN agencies. He is currently formulating and evaluating new foods designed to augment the therapy of HIV in Africa and to treat moderate childhood malnutrition, and is exploring the use of lipid nutrient supplements as complementary foods for children 6–24 months old in Malawi.
John L. Sievenpiper, MD, PhD
John Sievenpiper completed his MSc and PhD degrees and postdoctoral fellowship training in nutritional sciences at the University of Toronto. He completed his MD at St. Matthew's University followed by residency training in medical biochemistry at McMaster University, Canada. Sievenpiper is an associate professor in the Department of Nutritional Sciences at the University of Toronto, where he holds the PSI Foundation Graham Farquharson Knowledge Translation Fellowship and a Canadian Diabetes Association Clinician Scientist Award. He is also a consultant physician in the Division of Endocrinology and Metabolism, a scientist in the La Ka Shing Knowledge Institute, and Knowledge Synthesis Lead of the Toronto 3D Knowledge Synthesis and Clinical Trials Unit at St. Michael's Hospital. His research is focused on using randomized controlled trials, systematic reviews, and meta-analyses to study diet and chronic disease prevention. He has appointments to the nutrition guidelines committees of the Canadian Diabetes Association, the European Association for the Study of Diabetes, the Canadian Cardiovascular Society, and the American Society for Nutrition.
Joanne Slavin, PhD
Joanne Slavin is a professor in the Department of Food Science and Nutrition at the University of Minnesota, where she teaches advanced human nutrition. Her research has focused on the role of diet in disease prevention. Slavin was a member of the 2010 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee. She is a science communicator for the Institute of Food Technologists and a member of several scientific societies, including the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and the American Society for Nutrition. She holds MS and PhD degrees from the University of Wisconsin–Madison and is a registered dietitian.
Vincent Amanor-Boadu, PhD
Vincent Amanor-Boadu is an agribusiness economics and management professor in the Department of Agricultural Economics at Kansas State University. He is principal investigator of the USAID-funded Monitoring, Evaluation, and Technical Support Services Project in Ghana and of the Legume Innovation Laboratory's Consumer Choice Economics Project in Eastern Africa. He received his PhD from the University of Guelph, Canada, and has been the managing director of AgriFood Innovations, an agri-food technology commercialization company he cofounded. He is a managing editor of the International Food and Agribusiness Management Review (IFAMR) and serves on the editorial advisory board of the International Journal of Chain and Network Science (JCNS). He is a reviewer for several journals, including the Canadian Journal of Agricultural Economics and Food Policy. His research activities include entrepreneurship and business development, inter-organizational relationships and governance, and the enterprise of science.
Sara Baer-Sinnott, MA
Sara Baer-Sinnott joined Oldways in 1992 to work on one of its first international symposia, on Food, Culture and Discovery in Spain, and its first Mediterranean Diet Conference. She became Oldways president in 2010 and now develops company strategy and oversees its projects and programs. She was involved in developing the company's Traditional Diet Pyramids and in projects such as the Whole Grains Council, Healthy Pasta Meals, and High Five Children's Cooking Curriculum. She is coauthor of The Oldways Table with Oldways founder Dun Gifford. She was previously the special projects editor at Inc. Magazine and has also worked for state and federal government agencies. She holds an MA in regional planning from the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
Richard Black, PhD
Richard Black joined PepsiCo in 2013 as vice president of Global R&D Nutrition. Before joining PepsiCo, Black worked for Mondelez International as vice president of nutrition and chief nutrition officer. He has held leadership positions at Nestle, Kellogg's, Novartis, and Kraft, with a focus on dairy, sports nutrition, and micro/macro ingredients. He has also served as an assistant professor at the University of Toronto, Canada, and worked on Health Canada advisory panels developing policies on health claims and micronutrient guidelines. He holds a PhD in the psychology of eating behavior. He is a member of the American Society of Nutrition, the Institute of Food Technologists, the Obesity Society, and various food industry trade associations.
Laurette Dubé, PhD
Laurette Dubé is a professor and the James McGill Chair of Consumer and Lifestyle Psychology and Marketing at McGill University. She holds a PhD in marketing and an MPS in services marketing management from Cornell University and an MBA in finance from HEC Montreal, Canada. Her research interest is the study of behavioral economic processes underlying consumption, lifestyle, and health behavior, as well as interventions for behavioral change and ecosystem transformation. Dubé is the founding chair and scientific director of the McGill Centre for the Convergence of Health and Economics, which fosters convergence between science, policy, and innovation sectors. Dubé received the YMCA Women of Distinction Award for the social sciences in 2011 and the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal in 2013. She is a fellow of the Royal Society of Canada.
Alan Dove is a science writer and reporter for Nature Medicine, Nature Biotechnology, and Bioscience Technology. He also teaches at the NYU School of Journalism and blogs at http://dovdox.com.
USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture
Pulses yield highly nutritious meals from marginal land, using few inputs.
Research on new varieties of pulse seeds could provide enormous benefits.
Increasing pulse consumption will require multi-sector partnerships
Pulses for the planet
To an outsider, the topic of the Little Beans, Big Opportunities conference might have seemed odd. Over a hundred researchers, policy makers, and advocates nonetheless crowded into the conference room to discuss pulses, the dry, edible seeds of podded plants. This class of legumes includes dry peas, beans, lentils, and chickpeas. But what's so special about these crops?
A lot. The basic characteristics of pulses read like a wish list for the perfect food. The plants' roots can fix nitrogen from the air, so pulses grow even in poor soil with little or no added fertilizer. The beans themselves are high in protein, fiber and vitamins, and diets rich in pulses have been shown to improve growth in infants and to reduce the incidence of cancer, type 2 diabetes, obesity, and heart disease in adults. As Sonny Ramaswamy of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) explained in the meeting's keynote presentation, foods with these traits could help reverse widening disparities in nutrition worldwide.
There are over 7.3 billion people in the world, and as that number keeps rising, disparities in food distribution worsen. Nearly 800 million people do not have adequate food, and about 3 million children die annually from causes related to poor nutrition. Meanwhile, over a billion people suffer from high cholesterol, hypertension, and type 2 diabetes—diseases caused or exacerbated by overeating.
"We have ... an existential threat, and this existential threat is not something that's going to happen in the year 2050; it's happening right now," Ramaswamy said. Starvation in poor countries is often a product of political instability, but wealthy democracies suffer from nutritional problems that are just as serious.
In the U.S., 75% of health care costs are attributable to preventable chronic diseases, mostly linked to excessive calorie intake and insufficient exercise. This dietary imbalance devours lives as well as money. For centuries, every generation in the U.S. has lived longer than the previous generation. That trend reversed a decade ago; children born within the last 10 years are expected to live shorter lives than their parents, largely because of their skyrocketing rates of preventable chronic diseases.
Tragically, as incomes rise in developing countries, people there flock to the same eating patterns that are now killing Americans. China and India each have about 300 million people in their middle classes, and "[people] are switching over from a plant protein–based diet to an animal protein–based diet," Ramaswamy said. More energy and more water are required to produce meat calories than to produce plant calories, and with current trends in environmental degradation, climate change, and land and water constraints, this dietary switch could not come at a worse time.
Pulses have numerous health benefits. (Image courtesy of Sonny Ramaswamy)
"Pulses have just the perfect sweet spot of characteristics" to solve these challenges, Ramaswamy said. Beans yield abundant harvests of protein, vitamins, complex carbohydrates, and fiber for a minimal investment of water, fertilizer, and effort. Unfortunately, they are often neglected in favor of more lucrative crops.
Beetles in the beans
For decades, crop breeding and nutritional research has focused on corn, wheat, rice, and a few other plant species, largely ignoring pulses. The science that has been done on pulses has, however, generated promising results for improving crops and yields. Ramaswamy pointed to the grass pea Lathyrus sativus, a very hardy pulse that farmers in Asia and Africa rely on to produce harvests even when other crops fail. L. sativus produces a neurotoxin that causes lathyrism, a neurological condition with symptoms similar to multiple sclerosis. Scientists recently developed a strain of the plant that lacks the neurotoxin; widespread adoption of it could substantially reduce both starvation and lathyrism.
Advances in gene editing technology, as well as a new focus on traditional crop breeding, could soon yield additional improvements in beans. "We believe that there are really excellent possibilities for us to enhance the already fantastic food item that we've got," Ramaswamy said.
Insect-resistant pulses could yield large benefits for developing countries.
Insect-resistant pulses could also become invaluable, especially in developing countries. Ramaswamy described an experience he had as an entomologist studying pulse pests in Africa. In a food market, he and his colleagues noticed a sack of beans crawling with insects. The shopkeeper solved the problem by pouring a cocktail of hazardous pesticides on the bag. "About two minutes later, in comes this little bitty girl about four or five years old ... and she was going to take [the beans] home and be exposed to all those pesticides," he said.
Several types of improvements could overcome pulse crops' current limitations. (Image courtesy of Sonny Ramaswamy)
Improved pulse crops, and increased pulse consumption, could also reduce food waste, which is a problem in rich and poor nations. In developing countries, a third to half of the food farmers try to grow is devoured by pests. Pesticides are either unaffordable or poorly regulated, leading to incidents like the one in Ramaswamy's story. Insect-resistant pulse varieties could provide a much-needed increase in the available protein in those areas.
Farmers in developed countries have easier access to safer insecticides; ironically, this availability has led to food surpluses, overeating, and nearly as much food waste. Instead of losing a third of the crop to insects, these countries now lose a third of it to garbage disposals. Improved diets, including consumption of more plant-based protein, would reduce the excess food demand in these countries and the energy used for growing food.
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Collaboration among governments, the food industry, academia, and the public will be needed to solve the manifold problems in global food supply. Academic researchers are already studying these issues. Ramaswamy pointed to a project at Colorado State University, which received a $2 million grant from NIFA to study how bean consumption affects dietary biomarkers in humans.
New consumer technologies, such as wearable sensors and computerized dietary analyses, are also converging on a trend Ramaswamy calls "precision food." "All of these things are coming together, including food analysis, lifestyle, and behavior, [and] I believe we're tantalizingly close to being able to address that nutritional security issue," Ramaswamy said, referring to the twin global threats of starvation and obesity. The USDA has taken an active role in this effort, releasing a smartphone application called SuperTracker, which provides personalized diet and exercise recommendations based on food intake and activity levels.
Audience questions and comments after the talk included a proposal to use heat to clear infestations in stored pulses and a call to shift priorities in government programs that are currently geared toward other crops. One audience member also pointed out that the USDA could promote pulse consumption by allowing pulses to count as a meat substitute in its national school lunch program.
University of Ghana
John L. Sievenpiper
University of Toronto, Canada
Mark J. Manary
Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis
Legume-based supplements can reduce stunting in vulnerable children.
Increased pulse intake lowers blood sugar and may reduce the incidence of cardiovascular events.
Making strong health claims about pulses will require new clinical trials.
Beans may promote a healthy intestinal microbiome.
The first 1000 days
Seth Adu-Afarwuah of the University of Ghana started the first session by presenting his work on infant nutrition. Adu-Afarwuah and his colleagues focus on the first 1000 days, from conception through pregnancy, breastfeeding, and the beginning of regular feeding. "It is the age of greatest vulnerability to malnutrition and infection," Adu-Afarwuah explained. Malnutrition during this time can cause developmental delays and lifelong physical and mental deficits.
Pregnant and nursing women need to increase protein intake and consume higher amounts of several vitamins and minerals. Infants then need substantially higher dietary levels than adults of iron, zinc, and other nutrients; but because their stomachs are small and inefficient, babies must consume large amounts of food just to meet their daily needs. In many areas, the standard foods for infants are cereal-based porridges, which have low nutrient density and lack many essential vitamins and minerals. As a result, millions of children start their lives malnourished.
Diversifying the diets of pregnant women and babies can help. Blending cereals with higher-protein foods such as pulses and mixing mineral supplements into the foods offsets some of the nutrient deficits. However, even these blended diets do not provide all of the micronutrients infants need.
Adu-Afarwuah's team designed an intervention to fortify the diets of new mothers in three countries plagued by childhood undernutrition, Malawi, Ghana, and Burkina Faso. In four randomized controlled trials, the researchers gave expecting mothers lipid-based nutrient supplements made from vegetable oil, powdered milk, peanuts, sugar, and micronutrients. Infants in the experimental groups were consistently heavier and longer and developed larger head circumferences than those in the control group. Pregnant women who had the highest risks for raising malnourished babies benefited most.
Adu-Afarwuah cautioned that supplements will not automatically solve the infant malnutrition problem. Distributing the supplements in poor countries is hard, the mothers who would benefit most are least able to afford them, and widespread infectious diseases may offset many of the advantages of food fortification in the poorest areas. "We want to think about a menu of interventions, not just one intervention that is capable of solving one problem," he said.
Good for your heart
John L. Sievenpiper of the University of Toronto talked about the growing number of people who suffer from the consequences of overnutrition: obesity, type 2 diabetes, and cardiovascular disease. Public health officials project that over the next 20 years, global rates of type 2 diabetes will increase by 55%. "Diabetes is really ... poised to bankrupt the health services with these sorts of increases," Sievenpiper said.
Because type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease tend to occur together, researchers have tried to develop drugs targeting both. Those efforts have yielded a success: acarbose, a compound that simultaneously lowers blood sugar and reduces the incidence of cardiovascular events.
Acarbose works by slowing the absorption of carbohydrates in the intestine. However, some foods—particularly pulses—have the same effect. "We tend to view pulses as a nutritional model of acarbose," Sievenpiper said. Several studies on the acute effects of pulses have shown that pulse-based meals decrease starch digestion and lower postprandial blood sugar compared to meals with higher grain contents.
Current dietary guidelines tend to include pulses in the general category of legumes, mainly as alternatives to meat. The developers of these guidelines, including the USDA and the researchers it consults, have not explored whether pulses can promote long-term improvements in diabetes and cardiovascular disease. "Clinicians and dieticians that are on these committees ... weren't asking the question," Sievenpiper said. He added that when clinicians hear the term "pulse," they generally think of vascular rather than dietary pulses.
To answer the question, Sievenpiper's team performed meta-analyses of the scientific literature on dietary pulses. In 38 clinical trials, meals with pulses resulted in about 50% lower postprandial blood sugar spikes compared to meals with bread or potatoes, an effect similar to that of acarbose. An analysis of ten other trials showed that pulse-based meals produced greater feelings of satiety than control meals without pulses, possibly reducing overall food consumption. Similar analyses revealed that pulse consumption helps control blood lipids, reduce blood pressure, lower body weight, and reduce the risk of cardiovascular events.
While these data supporting increased pulse consumption are strong, Sievenpiper conceded that the field needs larger and longer trials of pulse-rich diets. Ideally, those trials would include direct comparisons to drug interventions such as acarbose.
Mark J. Manary of Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis shifted the focus to the gut, an organ that has recently gained new respect for the diverse bacterial ecosystem it hosts. Though microbiologists have long known that this microbiome existed, the recent availability of high-throughput sequencing techniques has begun to reveal just how important microbes are to intestinal health.
The microbes in the gut extract nutrients from food, help form a barrier between the inside and the outside of the body, detoxify poisons, and promote the development of a healthy gut lining and immune system. "The gut cells don't grow unless they have these microbes around them," Manary said. "We need these microbes."
A dysbiotic bacterial ecosystem leads to enteropathy, degrading the lining of the intestine and reducing nutrient absorption substantially. The condition is uncommon in healthy people with good sanitation, but in some areas, such as sub-Saharan Africa, it is endemic. Enteropathy in children is a major factor causing stunting, a debilitating growth defect found in 40% of 3-year-olds in rural Africa. Numerous organizations have tried to reduce stunting through interventions to improve diet and reduce infectious disease rates. Manary argued that neither type of effort will work if the gut microbiome does not heal, and said that current interventions appear to fail on that score.
Pulses could help. The small intestine absorbs easily accessible nutrients, such as carbohydrates from grains, so feeding the microbes in the large intestine requires eating resistant starches, which are found in pulses. In theory, eating more beans could help feed "good" gut flora, restoring healthy gut microbiomes in undernourished children.
Manary and his colleagues are now testing that idea. In a pair of randomized controlled trials, the researchers are providing poor mothers in sub-Saharan Africa with powders of cooked legumes to add to children's daily meals of corn porridge. The studies, expected to conclude in 2016, will test markers of gut health, including microbial markers, as well as overall growth rates. "What we expect is to be able to have something to say about complementary foods with legume bases in them, and we're really looking for a big swing there," Manary said. If the data support this approach, the bean powders would be easy to distribute on a large scale.
International Food Policy Research Institute
University of Minnesota
Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations
International Food Policy Research Institute
The success of 20th century agriculture stemmed largely from improvements in cereal crops.
Changing USDA dietary guidelines could substantially increase pulse consumption.
Inefficient small farms grow most of the world's pulses.
Skewed markets handicap pulse farmers.
After a lunch that featured several pulse-based dishes and extensive discussions among attendees, the conference reconvened with a session on the promise of pulses. John McDermott of the International Food Policy Research Institute began by discussing the evolving links between agriculture and health. The traditional story told by the agricultural industry is that food production has increased steadily for decades, driving down food prices and the incidence of undernutrition. "We've basically conquered food security, that's the good news according to agriculture," McDermott said.
Like most simple stories, this tale of steady progress conceals more complex realities. Cereal crops have certainly become more available and cheaper, but the real prices of milk, meat, fish, and most vegetables have gone up. Developing a more balanced agricultural system will require grappling with diverse problems in different countries.
Diets are inevitably shaped by a combination of needs, wants, economic realities, environmental constraints, and crucially, choices made by farmers. "We can't deliver a nutritious food to somebody if nobody grows it," McDermott said.
Most changes in the food system are the result of private-sector decisions, and McDermott separates this sector into three areas: agricultural businesses, food businesses, and connecting businesses. Government subsidies and economies of scale affect the agricultural business. If subsidies were coordinated with improved, higher-yield pulse crops and production systems, the supply of pulses would increase and prices would fall. Food businesses such as grocery stores can better market pulse products, but only if the supply is reliable. Finally, intermediaries such as food distribution and logistics companies can ensure that the crops reach consumers with minimal losses to pests and rot.
Pulses on MyPlate
Joanne Slavin of the University of Minnesota focused on the U.S. Department of Agriculture's influential Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which are updated every 5 years through a lengthy public process. To ground the guidelines in science, the USDA observes a hierarchy of different types of evidence that can support a dietary recommendation. Expert opinion is the least convincing form of evidence the department will consider, and randomized controlled clinical trials are the most convincing. Other types of data fall in between.
The food industry is well aware of the power of the USDA guidelines and the need for evidence to make changes in them. "You have to remember that your competition, like dairy, have done a ton more studies than pulses have, so you're really way behind," Slavin said. More research on beans, particularly high-credibility projects such as randomized trials, could help in persuading the USDA to recommend more pulses.
Slavin pointed to the example of whole grains, a category of foods that had not been discussed much until recently. During the 2005 update of the dietary guidelines, the USDA recommended that half of people's daily grain consumption should be in the form of whole grains. Grain giant General Mills funded much of the research backing that change.
The 2010 guidelines and the associated "MyPlate" graphic recommended that fruits and vegetables account for half of daily calorie intake and highlighted beans and peas as good sources of protein, iron, and zinc. The 2010 guidelines also allowed pulses to count as either a vegetable or a protein for dietary planning. Slavin argued that although these recommendations are a good start, pulse promoters could do better with a stronger research portfolio.
Allan Hruska of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization talked about the United Nations' sustainable development goals, which focus on ending poverty and hunger globally. Agriculture is at the crux of both issues. "Ninety percent of the extreme poor in the world live in rural areas and are directly related to agriculture," Hruska said. Many of those people also rely heavily on pulses for their diets and incomes.
Most of the world's pulse crops grow on small plots of land tended by manual labor. Pulses sold in India, for example, come from more than 22 million individual farms. Those small operations tend to be far less efficient than the large mechanized farms that dominate agriculture in developed countries. Hruska highlighted this dichotomy with slides showing mechanized harvesters sweeping across enormous U.S. fields, contrasted with groups of men with traditional planting sticks poking seeds into a mountainside in Latin America.
Reducing poverty and hunger requires increased pulse production in poor countries, which will not be easy to achieve. "It's not simply a technology, it's not a new bean variety that's going to change things, it's really a whole enabling system," Hruska said.
In countries with efficient pulse farming, that enabling system includes strong private and public sector support, with enforceable contracts, appropriate machinery, weather monitoring, and price supports. Many poor countries lack all of those things. Instead, farmers there rely on traditional multi-crop planting systems and diverse varieties of seeds to reduce their risks. Ideally, policy makers will preserve the genetic diversity of indigenous seed strains while helping farmers move to more efficient, mechanized systems.
The pulse of the market
P.K. Joshi of the International Food Policy Research Institute continued the exploration of pulse farming, with an overview of global trends in supply and demand for pulses. Overall pulse consumption rose with the world's population over the past 30 years, but consumption per capita fell. Meanwhile, distributors have used market inefficiencies to exploit pulse farmers in poor countries; even when bean prices skyrocket for consumers, growers' profits often stagnate, with middlemen keeping the difference. "[Small farmers] don't have enough bargaining power, so they're not sharing the higher market prices either in the global market or the local market," Joshi said.
In developed countries, the land area planted in pulses has declined but yields have risen, illustrating the potential to improve productivity with better farming methods. Developing countries show the opposite trend, with yields declining and land area increasing—probably as a result of the tendency in those countries to grow pulses on marginal land. Higher quality farmland usually hosts more profitable cereal crops. The lack of insurance programs for pulses in many countries also leaves farmers vulnerable when these crops fail.
Low yields from small farms lead many poor and middle-income countries to import pulses from the U.S. and Canada; major importers such as India are therefore highly sensitive to price shocks. "If there is any shortfall in production of pulses in [North America], the prices will go up, which we are expecting this year in India, and it will adversely affect the importing countries," Joshi said.
Joshi argued that as demand for pulses increases and supply remains constrained, prices will continue to rise, with devastating effects for the world's poor. To avoid that outcome, he advocated more research to improve pulse strains and programs to promote better farming practices in developing countries.
Vincent Amanor-Boadu, Moderator
Kansas State University
McGill University, Canada
Bean production has risen in recent years, but it has not kept pace with the growth of the global population.
Traditional cuisines often emphasize pulses.
Food processing companies need a more consistent supply than bean farmers can currently provide.
Private and public sectors must work together for the International Year of Pulses to succeed.
A weak pulse
The meeting's final session featured a panel discussion, with four short presentations followed by questions and comments from the audience. This interactive format encouraged attendees to explore partnerships to promote pulses in the coming year.
Moderator Vincent Amanor-Boadu of Kansas State University introduced the panel with a brief overview of global pulse production trends. From 2000 to 2013, the land area planted in pulses nearly doubled worldwide, but consumption of these legumes remains relatively low compared to other crops. Amanor-Boadu encouraged attendees to embrace the International Year of Pulses as an opportunity to change that. "I'll ask each of us as participants in this section to think about how, over the next year, we will make the objectives of the International Year of Pulses come true," he said.
What's old is new
Sara Baer-Sinnott represented Oldways, a nonprofit organization that seeks to improve health by promoting traditional cooking. "There is value in preserving culinary and cultural food traditions for future generations," said Baer-Sinnott, adding that "these ways of eating are not only delicious, but they're very healthy and they're sustainable."
Oldways is probably best known for creating the Mediterranean Diet Pyramid, adapting the graphic design of the USDA's previous food guide to the meals traditionally eaten around the Mediterranean. The so-called Mediterranean diet that includes this cuisine has been correlated with low rates of cardiovascular disease. The organization has produced similar healthy-eating guides based on Asian, Latin American, and African ethnic diets.
Pulses are a natural fit for Oldways. "We just promote pulses because they are so much a part of heritage diets all around the world. There are pulses in every traditional diet," Baer-Sinnott said.
The latest diet Baer-Sinnott and her colleagues have created is called African Heritage and is based on the traditional cuisines from the African diaspora. Oldways teaches a curriculum on this diet in more than 100 African-American communities. The course covers recipes and cooking techniques, and teachers receive scales, blood pressure cuffs, and tape measures. Baer-Sinnott told the audience that students have reported benefits such as weight loss and improved blood pressure and have changed their cooking habits to include more vegetables. "Heritage is a really great motivator for change. Diabetes is really not a part of [cultural] heritage, and neither is heart disease," Baer-Sinnott said. A related program for supermarket dieticians also helps promote heritage recipes in stores.
A question of taste
Richard Black presented the perspective of a major player in the food industry, PepsiCo. As one of the world's leading food and beverage companies, PepsiCo is focused on understanding the reasons people choose particular foods. He explained that the roles taste and nutrition play in food decisions change with different types of meals and times of day. At breakfast, most people value taste and nutrition about equally. Taste becomes more important at lunch, and even more so at dinner. Snack choices are almost entirely about taste. "The challenge then is trying to make products that are good for you that people are going to want to consume," Black explained.
Sometimes, meeting that challenge simply requires better marketing. Black cited the example of a low-salt line of Ritz brand crackers. Initially, the company labeled the crackers as "Low Sodium," and the crackers were a commercial flop. In a last-ditch effort to save the idea, the marketing team suggested changing the label to "Hint of Salt." The new package—containing the same product—was a huge hit.
Besides good salesmanship, better supply chains will be needed for pulses to succeed. As earlier speakers had explained, most of the world's beans are grown on small farms from diverse strains of seeds. Such a system cannot provide the thousands of tons of highly consistent inputs that a major food processing operation demands. Black explained that the only way to remedy that problem is to form public–private partnerships to ensure that the needs of farmers, food companies, and consumers are met.
All together now
Laurette Dubé described the Pulse Innovation Partnership she and her colleagues have formed at McGill University. The goal of the partnership is to include pulses in healthier processed foods, a project that requires cooperation among food companies, producers, health researchers, and consumers. It's a tall order.
"The type of multi-stakeholder partnership that we need to address this, we are asking partners that don't necessarily want to work together to [collaborate]," Dubé said. In particular, health researchers often distrust the food industry, which many see as a major contributor to current unhealthy eating patterns. Nonetheless, Dubé explained that the industry's understanding of consumer behavior and business needs is crucial for change.
Partnership participants also need to account for changing tastes. Dubé provided an overview of the major generational differences in North America, from the aging Baby Boom population to the Millennials who are eclipsing them. Each group has its own priorities for food choices. Meanwhile, other continents have unique demographic divisions to which products sold globally must adapt. The McGill partnership seeks to bring behavioral science to bear on global food production and consumption. "Let's all work together in making commercially successful products, but also ... healthy pulse-based diets," Dubé said.
Simply promoting work that has already been done could also help. Dubé pointed to projects that have tried to integrate food recommendations into clinical practice to prevent and reverse diabetes. Unfortunately, those efforts have not been publicized widely. The partnership is now publishing articles and organizing webinars to do so.
After the presentations, Amanor-Boadu led a discussion with the panelists before opening the floor to the audience. Panelists bemoaned the interlocking problems of supply and demand: companies cannot make pulse-based products without a reliable supply of inputs, but growers are reluctant to increase bean production until the market demands it. The group agreed that all stakeholders in the pulse community will need to work together to break this impasse.
Members of the audience contributed additional ideas, such as building websites to distribute pulse recipes. In places like India where pulses come from millions of small farms, co-ops and other market mechanisms could help these small operations deal with large food companies, participants suggested.
Meeting organizer Julianne Curran closed the symposium with a call to action. "Achieving the ambitious goals of the International Year of Pulses will require a broad tapestry of efforts and partnerships and dedication and passion, and I think there's no shortage of those in this room," she said.
What market mechanisms will best allow small bean farmers to serve large food companies?
To what extent can better marketing change eating habits in developed countries?
Does increased pulse consumption promote a better gut microbiome, or just a different one?
What would motivate big food companies to develop new pulse-based products?
Will pulses show the same benefits in long-term dietary studies as they have in shorter ones?
Would improved strains of beans prompt more farmers to grow these crops?