New technologies that have found a way to fractionate and use pulses in unusual ways mushroomed in 2016 after the International Year of Pulses.
“We have been in a rapid growth rate since then. Before that, pulses weren’t widely grown,” said Tim McGreevy, CEO of the American Pulse Association since 1994, and a grower of pulses himself.
Now, with COVID-19, dry peas, lentils and chickpeas, the products produced in the Upper Northern Plains, are being bought up in grocery stores, a 40 percent increase in sales, according to McGreevey.
When he joined the American Pulse Association, the total pulse crop acreage in the U.S. was 400,000 acres, grown mostly in Washington and Idaho.
At the same time, there was a shortage of pulse processing capacity in the U.S.
But by 2016, there were more than 2.5 million pulse acres, with Montana and North Dakota growers choosing to add pulses to their rotations.
“We had this huge increase in production with Montana and North Dakota coming online,” he said. Now, those two states have the largest amount of pulse crop acreage in the U.S.
According to the USDA National Ag Statistics Service, Montana growers plans to plant 495,000 acres of dry peas this year, compared to 325,000 in North Dakota and 971,000 for the U.S. Montana plans to plant 315,000 acres of lentils this year, compared to 85,000 in North Dakota and 474,000 in the entire U.S.
Through the attention brought by the International Year of Pulses, technologies that allowed pulses to be used as ingredients in human and pet foods were discovered.
Pulses made great ingredients with their high vitamin and mineral components, including protein, complex carbohydrates, and several vitamins and minerals. In addition, pulses provide iron, magnesium, phosphorus, zinc and other minerals, which play a variety of roles in maintaining good health, according to the Global Pulse Confederation.
“Now that we have built up processing capacity, our crops can go into the ingredient market,” McGreevey said.
In the ingredient market, processors are turning pulses into separate fractions and using them in foods where needed.
“The newest technologies in pulses over the past 10 years have processors and pulse product innovators involved in pulse fractionation where proteins, starches, and fibers are separated out,” he said.
“Now we are turning pulses into a protein, starch, fiber, fractions and into flour,” he said. “We didn’t really have that capacity before, but there continues to be more plants to turn these pulses into fractions.”
McGreevey said there is still a ways to go in the ingredient market, but with the new technology, it is occurring rapidly.
“We still need some more capacity because of the growth that is happening domestically,” he said. “In addition, all this product innovation and new technology in pulse ingredients are spreading around the world.”
Some consumers are looking to find more plant-based foods, which are helping push the new technology.
“There are more processors turning the pulses into fractions or to add them as an ingredient in foods,” McGreevey said.
Pea or other pulse flour and yellow pea that fractionates in processed foods has been a main focus of new product technology.
For example, technologies use the pea protein fraction as an egg replacement.
Pulses can now be found in everything from lentil flour to hummus. In addition, pulses are versatile in all kinds of recipes.
New technologies in snack foods use pulses widely.
Because of this, breeders are breeding higher protein into new varieties of pulses.
The pet food market was one use for pulses that has hit a snag – but it will come back, according to McGreevey.
“Over the past 10 years, the pet food market has rocketed, especially in the last five years,” he said.
He explained pet food manufacturers were looking for ways to use pulses as an ingredient in pet food because of the health benefits it provides.
However, the recent tariff wars did affect the pet food market, which up to that point had been an excellent market for peas.
“We had trade tariffs, and the tariffs damaged the price of pulses,” he said. That made it difficult for pet food manufacturers to make a profit with pulses in pet food.
In June of 2018, the FDA investigated dilated cardiomyopathy in dogs and correlated that to the pulse ingredients in pet foods.
“As an organization, we really support the FDA on investigations,” he said. “But we have since found out it was a problem in dogs long before grain-free pet foods came out.”
The FDA named pea, lentils, legume seeds, and potatoes in the first paragraph of the announcement about the investigation.
Then in the bottom paragraph of the announcement, the FDA correctly stated, “We don’t know the cause of dilated cardiomyopathy in dogs.”
McGreevey said, “No one reads the bottom of an announcement,” and people assumed it was true.
There is no study showing that using pulses in pet foods caused any dilated cardiomyopathy in dogs.
“We’ve been feeding pulses in pet food diets for well over 50-60 years,” he said. “It is surprising to us, as an industry, that a single ingredient in pet foods was being blamed for a pet’s health.”
The American Pulse Association appealed the decision and is supporting research looking into pulses in pet foods.
“The FDA did not have any evidence to make the announcement they did, and it has caused consumers confusion and we have lost pet food sales because of it,” he said.
The FDA recently told the American Pulse Association that they have no plans to make any further announcement until they gather scientific research.
“We, as pet owners ourselves, want to make sure dogs are healthy and are fed great diets, and we think pulses are a great part of those diets,” he said. “But the damage has been done and pet food manufacturers are walking away from pulses.”
McGreevey said he is very optimistic about the future of pulses, in any case.
“These are terrific crops for your health, for your soil health, and we’re going to come out of this because these crops are so important to agriculture,” he said.
Pulses are part of the biodiversity of the crop rotation and are vital to the regenerative ag movement because pulses fix their own N in the soil and leave N in the soil for the following crops. In addition, pulses are great for breaking up weed and disease cycles.
“I am a pulse grower myself, and my pulses are a critical part of my cropping system,” McGreevey said. “I need brassicas; I need cereal grains; and I need pulse crops in my system for good biodiversity, as well as a sustainability component on my own farm.”
Pulses are also a major part of McGreevey’s soil health program on his farm.
The International Year of Pulses was a high for the industry, and recent low prices and trade wars were a low, but according to McGreevy, it won’t last long.
“We might be sitting in the valley right now, but we won’t be here for long,” he said.
For one thing, the International Year of Pulses and the resulting technologies could be used for spurred consumer demand.
In addition, COVID-19 made dry peas, lentils and chickpeas a staple in kitchens. Pulses store well and can be used in many recipes.
New technologies have continuously shown just how versatile pulses are in foods.
Pulse spaghetti, macaroni, or corkscrew pasta made out of chickpeas, peas, or lentils are on the store shelves, and yellow peas and other pulses are found as ingredient replacements in frozen foods and many other foods.
As is a coalition of pulse industry producers, processors, exporters and food manufacturers, McGreevey says it’s the American Pulse Association’s job to lay the foundation for our future.
The organization is supporting research into new technologies for growing pulses, helping manage diseases and to handle other crop management issues.
“We want the technologies for our farmers to be able to grow the highest quality pulses that are disease-free and put N back in the soil,” McGreevey said.