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By BLAKE NICHOLSON
Lentils are a hot topic among gourmets these days, with recipes for them popping up in most major food magazines.
Lentil and other legume farmers hope to capitalize on this interest and convince consumers and food producers to use them in breads and cookies as well as the more traditional soups and stews. To do this, they've formed a new marketing venture aimed at promoting the health and other benefits of lentils, dry peas, garbanzo beans and other so-called "pulse" crops.
"They're barking up the right tree," said Brad Barnes, associate dean of culinary education at The Culinary Institute of America.
Growing interest in Indian and other cuisines, along with greater awareness of intolerance to gluten, a protein found in many grains, have fostered an interest in lentils and legumes, Barnes and others said. A general push toward eating healthier also has made high-fiber, high-protein, low-fat legumes more appealing, said Tina Ujlaki, executive food editor at Food and Wine magazine.
"I think a lot of people are trying to move meat to the side of the plate rather than the center of the plate," Ujlaki said. "More people are trying legumes, vegetables. Also, people are trying to cut costs, and these ingredients are not that expensive.
"There's big bang for your buck moneywise and healthwise."
The interest comes at a good time for farmers, who have seen production of lentils and dry peas rebound after drought ravaged the 2008 crop in the top two producing states of North Dakota and Montana. The U.S. had record crops last year, producing 1.7 billion pounds of dry peas and 590 million pounds of lentils, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Right now, most of the market for the two crops is overseas, with two-thirds or more of U.S.-grown peas and lentils being exported, said Eric Bartsch, general manager of Bismarck-based United Pulse Trading Inc. Much of the demand has been in drought-ridden areas of India and other parts of South Asia as well as Turkey.
"Demand in the U.S. is still not huge, but it is growing," he said. "We see it as definitely becoming a major part of our markets in the future."
Domestic demand has increased with the growth of ethnic minorities, but Barnes said more people of all races have become interested in Indian and other foreign foods. The Internet has made it easier to research international foods and find ingredients.
"With the information pipeline out there, it's certainly easier for someone interested in food to discover Morocco," he offered as an example.
"Global flavors and perspective in food and the culinary arts are growing every day," he added.
Farmers hoping to capitalize on this interest have formed the American Pulse Association, a joint venture of the USA Dry Pea and Lentil Council and the US Dry Bean Council. Chief executive Tim McGreevy said he expects new research and other efforts "will have a huge impact on domestic consumption here in the next five years."
One priority for his group is encouraging research to support ideas about legumes' health benefits. Another focus is getting the crops used more often in mainstream food manufacturing.
"We're heavily weighted toward traditional uses of these products, which is soups and stews," McGreevy said. "There hasn't been extensive research done on how these pulse flours can be worked into breads, tortillas ... muffins, cookies."
Industry leaders held a planning session last week, in Beltsville, Md., with about 50 science and industry experts. After they come up with specific plans on how to proceed they will seek funding from agencies such as the Agriculture Department and the National Institutes of Health, McGreevy said.
Ujlaki and Barnes said products made with legume flour would probably be attractive to people who are allergic to gluten or have celiac disease, a digestive disorder triggered by proteins found in wheat, barley and rye.
"If you go to a health food store, you'll see half the cookie aisle is gluten-free, half the crackers are gluten-free," Ujlaki said.
The final part of the American Pulse Association's plan is to promote legumes' environmental benefits. Unlike corn and other crops that require a lot of expensive fertilizer, legumes put nitrogen back into the soil.
Beau Anderson, who farms in northwest North Dakota and teaches farm management at a Williston college, said they fit in well in crop rotation plans farmers use to protect soil and stem off plant diseases. They also require less work with emissions-spouting farm equipment, McGreevy said.
"The United States and the world are crying out for improvements to our health and to our environment," said Cindy Brown, vice chairwoman of the American Pulse Association. "Pulse crops offer tangible solutions to these problems."