Ingredients derived from lentils, a member of the pulse family, provide protein and other nutrients to any form of snacks or baked goods.

Pulses are not new food ingredients, but most people know them by their individual names rather than their collective term. That’s changing as consumers become more educated through industry efforts to communicate the value of pulses in the diet. Bakers are poised to benefit from these efforts because there are opportunities to include pulses in all types of grain-based foods.

But what exactly are pulses? They are the dried seeds of plants from the legume family, such as peas, edible beans, lentils and chickpeas. Many of these ingredients have long been used to extend meats and create meat analogs. They are included in salads, sauces, soups and side dishes to add flavor, texture and visual appeal. They have strong ties to many ethnic cuisines, most notably Indian, Mediterranean and Middle Eastern. And now, people embrace them for their “superfood” status.

Inherently gluten-free and vegetarian, pulses have special properties that make them particularly attractive to today’s health-conscious consumers. They are naturally high in protein and dietary fiber and are a rich source of minerals, including iron, zinc and phosphorus, as well as a source of B vitamins and folic acid. Pulses are considered non-allergenic proteins that are not genetically modified (non-GMO) and have a low glycemic index. They’ve been shown to reduce the risk of heart disease and diabetes, lower blood pressure and cholesterol, and help with weight loss.

“There is tremendous opportunity to educate product developers about the functionality of pulse ingredients and how they can help meet consumer needs,” said Pat O’Brien, manager, strategic business development, Ingredion. “I do think that the United Nations making 2016 the Year of the Pulses was a step in the right direction. This will help educate consumers about the general benefits and the nutrition value of pulses.”

Numerous food industry forecasts predict that pulses and plant proteins will only continue to grow in use. Between April 2014 and March 2015, the penetration of pulses into US households grew by 34%, according to consumer research based on sales data from The Kroger Co., Cincinnati. And Innova Market Insights reported a 74% increase in new product launches featuring pulses from 2010 to 2014.

Those innovations span the supermarket, with nutrition bars leading the way. Kroger’s data showed that 33% of all nutrition bars contain one or more pulse ingredients. This figure continues to climb. Other pulse-enhanced baked goods are emerging as formulators discover that pulses are easy-to-use and recipe-adaptable sources of protein and fiber.

Read on to learn about the protein content of pulses.