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What are pulses?

Pulses are the seeds of certain plants of the legume family — plants that produce seeds or grains that grow within pods, such as lentils, beans, peas and chickpeas. Pulses are legume crops that are grown for their dry seeds to be used as food or grain. The Food and Agricultural Organization definition of pulses excludes seeds grown as oil seeds (ground nut, soyabean) or consumed as fresh vegetables (green peas).

Pulses are an extremely healthy food due to their high protein content relative to other vegetables. Their other nutritional benefits include providing a source of complex carbohydrates, important vitamins and minerals such as folate and iron, and antioxidants. People eat the pulses seeds whole, dehulled or as a flour. Pulses contain as much as 25 per cent protein, no cholesterol and virtually no fat, unlike meat, poultry, fish and eggs.

Some of the first crops cultivated by humans were pulses — human beings have been growing pulses for thousands of years. Indians consume pulses whole or as split seeds (called dals). Pulses are most nutritional when consumed along with a grain or cereal to provide a good source of methionine, the level of which is low in pulses. For instance, rice is often eaten with dal, baked beans with bread, etc.

Pulses contain twice the amount of protein that other cereals and grains do. This is due to the uncommon ability of leguminous plants to fix atmospheric nitrogen in the soil. Legume plants have a symbiotic relationship with bacteria known as rhizobia that live in their root nodules. These bacteria take nitrogen, an essential plant nutrient, from the air and convert it to a form usable by plants. This allows legumes to grow in soil that is low in nitrogen content and, in fact, to add nitrogen to the soil.

Types of pulses
There are several varieties of pulses in India, most of them locally produced and consumed. The three most popular crops are chickpea, pigeonpea and red kidney bean.

Scientific name
English names Indian names
Cicer arietinum
chickpea / bengal gram / garbanzo bean chana
Cajanus cajan
pigeonpea / red gram toor / arhar
Vigna unguiculata
cowpea / blackeyed pea lobiya
Vigna mungo
urad bean / black lentil / black gram urad
Phaseolus vulgaris
red kidney bean rajma
Vigna radiata
mung bean / green gram moong
Lens culinaris
red lentil masoor

India is the biggest producer, consumer and importer of pulses. Domestic production of pulses has been more or less stagnant, making India heavily dependent on imports. India consumed 18 million tonnes of pulses in 2007–08, of which about 15.11 million tonnes were locally grown. Major pulse-producing areas are located in Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh. According to an Assocham report, per capita pulses consumption in India had fallen to 12.7kg / year in 2008, compared to 27.3kg / year in 1958–59, along with a corresponding fall in the per capita consumption of protein.

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Nitrogen-fixing nodules
from Mr TalaCrishna Sood
The real pulses problem
from Mr Pappu Singh
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