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All photos by Kelsey Sunstrum.

Foodie Friday: Sustainable eating gets a pulse

By Kelsey Sunstrum on May 13, 2016

Three years ago, the United Nations declared 2016 the International Year of Pulses. To celebrate this initiative, the Canadian Agriculture and Food Museum has paired with Pulse Canada to showcase the versatile, healthful, yet oft-overlooked food group with Pulses: The Ideal Partner, an interactive travelling exhibition.

Thursday, May 5 marked the Pulse Feast, where guests had the opportunity to check out the exhibition, chat with nutritionist Kathy Smart, savour a variety of pulse-based goodies crafted by Essence Catering’s Chef Jason Laurin; and even learn how to make their own Chickpea & Lentil Fritters in a cooking demo with the chef.

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Pulse Feast took place at the Canadian Agriculture and Food Museum, one of my favourite places in Ottawa, also known as the Experimental Farm. The site is a popular destination for local schools’ excursions and family day trips. For many visitors, this is their only experience of a farm.

To enter the Cereal Barn where the feast was taking place, we had to trek past the outdoor enclosures of grazing cows and majestic resting horses. It was a face-to-face reminder of how disconnected we are as a society from the natural world overall ,but especially from our food sources. Important details of what we consume – place of origin, methods of production, nutritional content, economic and environmental effects, etc. – are facts of which we are unaware and, in terms of attitude, largely unaffected. As we know it, meat exists only pre-wrapped in cellophane, and fruits and veggies grow in bins at the market or neighborhood grocery store.

Before we get ahead of ourselves, a simple question: Do you know what a pulse is? Besides a sign I’m still alive and kickin’, I had no idea how else I could define the word. Apparently, this is not an uncommon response. Pulses are defined as the dried seeds of legumes. The most familiar pulses to Canadians are chickpeas, lentils, and dried peas. More and more commonly, pulses are popping up as ingredients in other food items, due to their convenient versatility and high nutritional value. They’re present in perhaps some unlikely foods, from meat and dairy alternatives, baking mixes, snacks (think crackers and chips), and even beverages, on top of many more.

Though the term “pulses” may not be in your everyday lingo, they’re much more prevalent than it seems. They are a component in most local diets. On a local scale, you’ll be surprised to learn Canada is a global leader in pulse production and exportation with 150 markets worldwide.

Comprised of five bright wheeled “pods,” the bilingual exhibition disseminates information about pulses in an easy-to-understand yet detailed manner. Interactive features like quizes and multimedia additions bring the education of the exhibit to life. You will learn about the history of pulses in Canada – did you know First Nations peoples had been cultivating them long before European settlers arrived? – their biology and nutrition, benefits to Canadian society, current uses, and more.

The new exhibition has a number of objectives. Firstly, to bring attention to an indispensable food group of which so many of us are unaware.  Building on this foundation, it is an effort to introduce pulses to more homes and into more meals. The affordability and jam-packed nutritional content of pulses already make them a great choice, but their versatility as an ingredient is another major selling point that cannot be forgotten.

Pulses can be employed as the leading lady in dips, spreads, or salsas; thickeners in soups and stews, and have even found their way into baked goods and sweets. They’ve been mainstays in vegetarian and vegan circles for a while as their taste and texture work well in the manufacturing of meat and dairy alternatives.

Author, nutritionist, and founder of Live the Smart Way, Kathy Smart, first became passionate for pulses when she was diagnosed with Celiac Disease. She found that pulses were an excellent stand-in for gluten-containing ingredients and could be easily incorporated in a number of recipes and dishes. Smart recommends pulses for gluten-loving folk, too, purely for their impressive nutritional content: Pulses are extremely high in both fibre and protein, and contain next to no fat.

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Culinary and health advantages aside, the exhibit highlights the key role pulses have in our country’s economy and environment. Revenue generated from pulse exportation worldwide is estimated at approximately $5 billion annually – not an insignificant sum.

Environmentally, pulses do not incur the same toll that other food groups, such as livestock, do. Their ability to fix nitrogen from the air reduces, and sometimes even eliminates, the need for chemical fertilizer, known to be harmful to the environment. They require relatively little water, and, even after they are harvested, leave behind nutrient-rich soil to fertilize future crops. Get it, pulses!

Finally, a last, and perhaps lofty, goal of Pulses: The Ideal Partner is to encourage conversations and critical thinking about the food sources we choose and the food production methods they uphold. The connection between our food, our health, our environment, and our economy is not subtle. In this day and age, food is definitely not without its politics and what we consume has real impacts on our world.

To learn more about pulses and their influence on Canadian life, visit Pulses: The Ideal Partner at the Canadian Agriculture and Food Museum where it will be shown for the next six weeks. For more information, check out their website.