Kale already had a reputation as a “superfood” in late 2014, when Beyonce appeared in a new music video flaunting a chic sweater with the name of the leafy green spelled out in large varsity letters.
But Tim McGreevy said the superstar’s endorsement gave the bitter vegetable a serious public relations boost. As the chief executive of the USA Dry Pea & Lentil Council, a national marketing organization headquartered on the state line between Pullman and Moscow, McGreevy wants to replicate kale’s success.
“We are trying to get Beyonce to put a lentils shirt on, too. And my god, we’re going to make some sales if she’ll do it,” McGreevy said. “We’re reaching out. We’ll even take Jay-Z, although we’d looove Beyonce, I’m telling you.”
This would be just one part of an aggressive campaign to inject more “pulses” – the class of legumes that includes lentils, chickpeas, dry peas and dry beans – into the American diet.
McGreevy and his colleagues say pulses are versatile, affordable, nutritious and even good for the environment because they require relatively little water and fertilizer and restore nitrogen to soil. By taking advantage of plant-based food trends and partnering with major food manufacturers, those in the pulse industry are aiming to popularize new ways of consuming the crops.
Sometimes maligned as food for the poor, pulses can be used not only in hummus and split-pea soup, but also in breads, noodles, breakfast cereals and crunchy snacks. And they can be refined to create ingredients like pea protein isolate, which is increasingly found in milk and meat alternatives. Such products include the super-meatlike Beyond Burger, which has recently appeared on store shelves across the country.
“We are all about pulses and redefining this category of foods,” said McGreevy, who also leads the American Pulse Association.
Increased pulse consumption would be a boon for farmers in Eastern Washington and North Idaho. In addition to wheat – the main moneymaker on the Palouse – the region has long been known for producing lentils. The National Lentil Festival, hosted in Pullman each August, features the world’s biggest pot of lentil chili.
But the star of the moment is chickpeas, due in large part to the explosive popularity of hummus, the creamy Middle Eastern dip in which they are the main ingredient. As Americans have learned to love hummus, Whitman County has become the nation’s leading chickpea producer, providing some financial stability for growers hit hard by recent declines in wheat prices.
Chickpeas are also known as garbanzo beans or “garbs,” in farmers’ parlance. And for growers like Allen Druffel, of Uniontown, they are no longer just a rotation crop planted to improve soil health.
“There’s more money in pulse crops now than there was 20 years ago, for sure,” said Druffel, chairman of the Washington Pulse Crops Commission. “Back then, it was all about agronomics. We had to do it for the soil. But now we’re making money on them. … Now they’re a cash crop.”
What are pulses?
Pulses include lentils, chickpeas and dry green and yellow peas. They also include dry beans, such as pinto, fava and kidney beans. They don’t include peanuts, or peas or beans that are eaten fresh, such as soybeans. All pulses are legumes, but not all legumes are pulses.
For whatever reason, this use of the word “pulse” hasn’t quite caught on in the United States, although it’s common in many other parts of the world.
“People always ask: What is a pulse?” said McGreevy, whose organizations are working to bring the term into the mainstream.
The word is derived from the Greek “póltos” and the Latin “puls,” meaning porridge or thick soup. McGreevy said the history of pulse crops exemplifies how agriculture built civilization.
“Think of Roman times, when they were conquering the world,” he said. “They didn’t do it hauling a bunch of animals around. They actually had rice and a pulse crop on their backs.”
This makes sense given how much nutrition is packed into pulses. They are high in protein and fiber – helping people feel fuller, longer – as well as micronutrients including magnesium, potassium, iron and folate.
Pulses are also gluten-free, a plus for those who have sworn off wheat and barley products. And they are significantly cheaper than trendy “ancient grains” such as quinoa.
“We think of quinoa as really high-protein, and it is. But one serving of pulses is twice as high (in protein), so it’s a really significant difference,” said Becky Garrison, a dietitian and nutritionist who oversees domestic marketing for the Dry Pea & Lentil Council and the American Pulse Association.
Garrison said pulse-based foods could be key to combating obesity, diabetes and heart disease and providing better nutrition in impoverished areas. She encourages people to incorporate a “half-cup habit” into their diets – at least three half-cup servings of cooked pulses each week.
To help people meet that goal, the Dry Pea & Lentil Council has hired food bloggers and published cookbooks featuring recipes such as Moroccan lentil tagine, pea and pesto soup, and butterscotch lentil cookies.
McGreevy said pulses can be incorporated into just about anything and can be a staple of a “flexitarian” diet. That’s for people who are trying to cut back on meat but aren’t ready to declare themselves strictly vegan or vegetarian.
“Just add pulses to everything that you eat, whether it’s chocolate chip cookies or pasta salads,” McGreevy said.
The amount of chickpeas planted in the United States has exploded from about 30,000 acres in 1995 to an estimated 650,000 acres this year, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture data. McGreevy attributed this massive increase largely to the success of one company, Sabra Dipping Co., the nation’s leading hummus manufacturer.
In the mid-1990s, hummus sales in the United States barely topped $5 million, and many Americans weren’t even sure how to pronounce the name of the dip. In 2007, PepsiCo and an Israeli conglomerate called Strauss Group each bought a 50 percent stake in Sabra, which then launched an aggressive marketing campaign, sending trucks into neighborhoods in large cities to distribute free samples.
Now, domestic hummus sales are on track to top $1 billion, according to some estimates, and the dip is a must-have for Super Bowl parties and on-the-go lunches. A 2016 survey found about 1 in 4 American households keep a tub of hummus in the fridge.
“They got some big-time advertising dollars behind that effort and really put hummus on the map,” McGreevy said. “We’ve been promoting hummus forever – for a really long time – but at the end of the day, we have to have some major food manufacturers with major advertising dollars to really start ramping up consumption.”
McGreevy said the Dry Pea & Lentil Council, the American Pulse Association and their neighbors to the north, Pulse Canada, drained their coffers for a concerted marketing campaign in 2016, which the United Nations had dubbed the International Year of Pulses. Industry representatives also have met at conferences across the country focused on innovative ways to mill, cook, puff, pop, extrude and tease out the various nutrients of pulses.
Now pulses can be found throughout grocery stores, often slipped into familiar products or transformed into entirely new ones. Examples include lentil pasta, pea milk, crackers and cereals spiked with pea protein, pea protein powders and shakes, vegan mayonnaise made with frothed chickpea water, Tostitos chips infused with black beans, and a Cheetos lookalike surreptitiously named Peatos. Chickpeas and lentils have even been introduced into some types of dog food.
Interestingly, the world’s giant meat packing and processing companies have invested in startups touting plant-based meat alternatives, taking note of growing concerns about the health impacts of excess meat consumption and the environmental impacts of intensive livestock farming.
Tyson Foods announced in December it had raised its stake in Beyond Meat, the maker of the Beyond Burger. Cargill, the world’s second-largest beef producer, has teamed up with Puris, the largest North American producer of pea protein isolate. And Canada’s Maple Leaf Foods recently acquired Field Roast, a Seattle company that makes vegetable- and grain-based meat and cheese products.
McGreevy sees these investments as a good thing for pulse growers and processors.
“Meat companies are seeing that the trends are heading more toward plant-based proteins,” he said. “They’re not trying to shut it down … because they see that this is what the consumer wants.”
In Eastern Washington and North Idaho, pulse crops don’t compete with wheat in terms of volume. They’re usually planted in fields that would otherwise lie fallow, where they pull nitrogen from their surroundings and return it to the soil in a form that’s accessible for the next wheat crop.
“If you plant wheat year after year after year after year, the ground is going to get sick of wheat,” said Pat Smith, the chairman of the Idaho Pea & Lentil Commission. “And so you need to rotate those crops. And pulse crops fit in really fantastic for that.”
Allen Druffel represents the fifth generation to work his family’s farmland near Uniontown. He raises wheat, barley, oats, canola and alfalfa, among other crops. When it comes to pulses, he prefers to grow peas, which require very little water.
But this year Druffel hasn’t planted any peas. Chickpeas are again the most profitable pulse on the Palouse.
“The garb market is hot right now, and it can take the supply that we’re producing,” he said.
Druffel is actually growing two varieties of chickpeas, or “garbs.” The smaller, variously colored desi variety is used primarily in hummus, while the larger, light-beige kabuli variety is usually sold whole, either canned or dried.
“Large garbs are graded on their size so you get better visual appeal,” Druffel said. “So we’ll plant those in the best ground, and we’ll put the smaller ones in the drier stuff.”
This is also the first year Druffel has bothered to spread fertilizer on any of his chickpeas. One morning in early June, he ventured into a field and pointed out a stark line between the fertilized and unfertilized crop. The plants that received an extra dose of nitrogen were several inches taller – worth the investment, he said.
Then he retrieved a knife from his pickup truck and dug out a plant to examine its roots. He was pleased to find dozens of white nodules, indicating that a healthy bacterium had invaded the plant and was doing its part to put nitrogen back into the ground.
“We’re as excited about what’s going on below the ground as we are about what’s above it,” he said. “Soil health is constantly on my mind.”
With wheat prices down because of a global surplus, Druffel’s chickpeas are helping sustain not only his land but also his business.
“It’s nice to have other crops to turn a profit on,” he said.