New pulse processing technologies meet changing world needs04/13/2015 Over the next two generations, with the world’s population is expected to grow from 7bn to 9bn, it will not be sufficient to just increase the amount of produced food. Food products will have to become more efficient, more sustainable, and satisfy new food habits. Fortunately, pulses and other foodstuffs have the potential to meet this transformation, although many issues have still to be addressed, including improving processing technologies and greater integration of the value chain.
Perhaps the first thing to appreciate is the attractiveness of pulses in the global food environment. Pulses are highly nutritious, being rich in protein, minerals and vitamins and are increasingly recommended by health organisations around the world, as part of a healthy diet to combat obesity and help address chronic diseases like diabetes and coronary conditions.
Pulses also contribute significantly to improving the environmental footprint of our daily diet. Like many plant-based foods, they are more efficient to produce than meat. Per gram, meat uses up to six times the water required by pulses. Further, pulses are a nitrogen fixing crop, which considerably reduces the need to add artificial fertilisers to the soil, which produce nitrous oxides that have nearly 300 times the global warming potential as carbon dioxide.
Regardless of these impressive nutrition and environmental advantages, pulses are often still relegated to a secondary role in the global food landscape. Pulses are a traditional crop in Asia and Africa. About 70% of production takes place in developing countries, on farms of under five acres, producing 100-300kg of pulses a day, for a return of about USD$5. More recently, production has been increasing in other parts of the world, such as Australia, America and Canada, with large-scale industrialized farms. This is partly to address growing local demand, but also for international trade.
Despite the increase in global production, pulses are still mostly used as staple food in some parts of the world, and are less commonly eaten in others. This suggests that there is considerable potential for growth in their consumption. The chances of realising their potential are heightened by the fact that pulses are very versatile. They can be eaten as whole grain, de-skinned splits, or as pulse flour. They can be part of the main meal, as in a curry, or can be a side dish like salad, soup or snacks. They can be used germinated, roasted or fermented, and can be a part of a purely vegetarian dish or cooked with meat or fish.
Pulses can be sold to consumers as ingredients for home cooking, or incorporated into manufactured foods by downstream processors, thereby adding to the value chain. Interestingly, people’s taste varies by region around the world, and the versatility of pulses means they are easily adaptable to different tastes.
The global food industry is becoming ever more aware of the potential offered by pulses to deliver innovative food products, with strong consumer attributes. Both the nutritional and environmental profile of food can be strongly augmented by including pulses in the formulation. New applications are being developed, such as the processing of pulses and their fractions into extruded or baked snacks, pasta, noodles and other protein-rich products, which can be produced in high volume for mass consumption. A significant advantage of this is that new techniques often reduce the amount of waste, so can add significantly to the overall efficiency of pulse production. An example of this is the incorporation of the hulls of de-skinned pulses into conventional products, supplementing dietary fibres.
Significantly, pulses are gluten-free and in recent years have found a new market value for end consumers avoiding gluten. However, the lack of gluten also means that pulses make poor dough, and to date have been unsuitable for bread and similar products. Food scientists and technologists are working on new solutions that will address this drawback and should in time produce whole new classes of pulse-based end products.
Pulses require accurate processing in order to be transformed into nutritious and safe food. After harvesting, they undertake a series of processing steps, including cleaning, grading, hulling, splitting, polishing and optical sorting, depending on the final form required for the particular market. This processing ensures that they are free from impurities, uniform in size and colour, nutritional, easy to cook and digest.
In the past, the processing industry was run as something of a cottage industry, based on many small, inefficient mills. This traditional pulse processing industry is now transitioning to a new form, based on two types of mill: on one side, modern high-volume mills, achieving efficiency through economies of scale to address the mass markets, on the other side, smaller specialist mills - modern, hygienic and efficient - to satisfy niche markets.
The older mills can be characterised as manually operated with high labour costs, poor energy efficiency, low yields and product wastage. Additionally, they have poor dust extraction and machinery is prone to break down. Fortunately, all of these issues are addressable, using state-of-the-art technologies. Modernised mills will be more sustainable (both economically and environmentally), more commercially viable and help to generate wealth for their local communities.
In the near future, automation will be increasingly used to ensure consistent quantity and quality of throughput. There will also be technological solutions for reducing processing time, improving hygiene, increasing productivity and enhancing nutrition. These developments can be classified as improving existing techniques and systems, but there is also considerable effort going into creating true innovation, which will drive revolutionary new solutions into the industry and open up new markets.
Besides conventional processing, further, well-established food technologies can be applied to pulses, to create innovative products, such as extrusion, baking, pasta making, roasting or pre-cooking.
The International Year of Pulses 2016 is definitely a strategic and well-timed initiative. There are a lot of recent advances to promote to potential markets, and many new avenues to explore, for which great momentum can be generated during the Year. Previous International Years have proven successful in the food industries, and other similar initiatives have helped stabilise food production in countries like India.
The changes in the food market, driven by global population and environmental trends, as well as the advantages of pulse processing, provide the perfect framework for a very successful and impactful International Year of Pulses. The challenge is now to set high targets for this initiative, and catalyse the forces of the pulse community - private sector, governmental bodies and scientific community - to achieve them. If we can do that, the ultimate goal of worldwide food security within the foreseeable future will come a big step closer to being realised.