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Page | Last updated: 29 Jan 2024

Legumes and Pulses

Legumes and pulses are considered an important component of a healthy diet. Their consumption is associated with a reduced risk of developing non-communicable diseases (NCDs) and with maintaining a healthy body weight. They are a rich source of nutrients; they contain dietary fibre and are a source of vitamins, minerals and essential amino acids.

The terms “legumes” and “pulses” are often used interchangeably but they have distinct meanings. Legumes refer to the plants belonging to the family Leguminosae that produce seeds in pods, whereas pulses refer to the edible seeds of the legumes used for human consumption (USADPLC 2023; HSPH 2023); the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations further defines pulses as the edible seeds of leguminous plants cultivated for both food and feed (FAO 2017). Based on the available definitions (Table 1), all pulses are considered as legumes, but not all legumes are considered as pulses. In fact, the definitions provided from across different sources generally agree that pulses are the dry edible seeds of leguminous plants; for example, fresh peas -with or without a pod- are classified as legumes, whereas dried peas as pulses.  

According to FAO, in particular, pulses are limited to crops harvested solely for dry grain, thereby excluding crops harvested green for food, as well as those crops used mainly for oil extraction and leguminous crops that are used exclusively for sowing purposes (FAO 2017). Beans, chickpeas, lentils, and peas are the most popular and commonly consumed types of pulses (FAO 2016), with FAO recognising, overall, 11 types of pulses: dry beans, dry broad beans, dry peas, chickpeas, cowpeas, pigeon peas, lentils, bambara beans, vetches, lupins and pulses (FAO 2017). Peanuts are botanically legumes but have been included in the nuts and seeds food group by the Nordic Council of Ministers (NNR 2023). Examples of definitions of legumes and pulses are presented in Table 1. 

Table 1: Selected definitions for legumes and pulses 

Legumes and pulses are a rich source of nutrients. They contain dietary fibre and are generally source of certain B-vitamins and some minerals (folate, thiamine, potassium, magnesium, iron, and zinc), as well as protein USDA 2019; Norwegian Food Safety Authority 2022) and essential amino acids, complex carbohydrates and are naturally low in total fat (NNR 2023; DGA 2020). The nutritional value of selected legumes/pulses is presented in Table 2.

Table 2: Nutritional value of legumes and pulses 

Legumes and pulses are an important component of healthy diets (WHO 2020). According to the World Cancer Research Fund International, their consumption is associated with a reduced risk of developing several non-communicable diseases and with maintaining a healthy body weight (WCRF 2018), as detailed in Table 3.

For health effects related to intake of fibre specifically, refer to the Dietary Fibre section. 

Table 3: Health effects related to legumes and pulses intake 

Table 4 showcases recommendations for legumes & pulses intake.

For more details on food-based dietary guidelines across the EU, refer to the Food-Based Dietary Guidelines in Europe recommendations for legumes in this series. 

Table 4: Dietary recommendations for legumes and pulses intake 

Data from OECD/FAO (OECD/FAO 2020) showed that the consumption of pulses (expressed on dry weight basis) in the European Union between 2017-2019 was 9.6 g/day, whereas globally, pulse consumption was calculated at 21.1 g/day. This consumption is expected to rise in 2029 to 11 g/day in the European Union and to 22.7 g/day globally.

The average intake of legumes in the EU countries is detailed in Table 5. Intake data has been extracted from the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) Comprehensive Food Consumption database (EFSA database). 

Table 5: Overview of legumes and pulses intake in European countries 

Diets low in legumes were the fourth-leading dietary risk factor for attributable disability adjusted life years (DALYs) (GBD 2019). In Global Burden of Disease (GBD) study, diets low in legumes are defined as “average daily consumption (in grams per day) of less than of 90–100 grams of legumes and pulses, including fresh, frozen, cooked, canned, or dried legumes” (GBD results tool). The GBD 2019 study estimated that globally in 2019, diets low in legumes were accountable for 24.3 million DALYs  and 1.12 million avoidable deaths from all causes, including deaths from NCDs, CVDs and ischemic heart disease (GBD results tool). In EU Member States, diets low in legumes were accountable for 2 million DALYs and 130 thousand avoidable deaths from all causes. The maps below include the deaths and DALYs attributable to diet low in legumes in the EU in 2019 (GBD results tool). 

View visualisation: DALYs and data table - diet low in legumes 

View visualisation: Mortality map and data table - diet low in legumes 

Legumes and pulses are considered an important part of a healthy diet and several Institutions have issued policy recommendations aiming at increasing their availability, accessibility and intake (FAO 2016). Table 6 includes policy recommendations regarding the promotion of the availability and consumption of pulses and legumes.

Table 6: Policy recommendations to address legumes and pulses intake 

To increase the consumption of legumes and pulses, several countries and authorities have implemented relevant policies. Table 7 presents some of the implemented policies aiming at promoting the consumption of legumes and pulses. Such examples span from guiding choices through incentives such as taxes, to school food policies and providing information through FBDG and food labelling.

Table 7: Implemented policies to address legumes and pulses intake 

References

Overview of the references to this brief