Not long after joining the College of Agricultural Sciences in 2003, Henry Thompson was walking on a campus sidewalk when now-retired professor Mark Brick approached him about collaborating on research around the health benefits of dry-beans, also known as a variety of pulses. Thompson was intrigued by the unexpected request and happily agreed.
“That was the best decision I ever made,” remembers Thompson, director of the Cancer Prevention Laboratory in the Department of Horticulture and Landscape Architecture. “An informal invite on a sidewalk. A never-planned-for conversation. It woke me to this whole story, and now I literally go around the world telling the story [of pulses]”
For the uninitiated, pulses are edible seeds of legume plants, most-often recognized in the form of dry-beans, dry-peas, chickpeas and lentils. According to Thompson, they were a staple ingredient in the diet of humans for 10,000 years, and while they’re still common in parts of the world like the Mediterranean, they’ve drastically fallen out of favor over the last 60 to 100 years.
Pulses are known as being highly beneficial to human health. According to Thompson, if you consume enough, they act as an anti-obesogenic, meaning they can help with weight control. Obesity is a gateway disease that increases risk of type-2 diabetes, heart disease and various types of cancer. Literature currently shows that high pulse intake can reduce the incidents and progression of those diseases, which account for 60-percent of deaths globally, including the United States, says Thompson. And even though they’ve fallen out of favor on the plate, he believes that our long history of consumption instilled an inherent understanding of their health benefit.
“So, COVID-19 happens—you go to the stores back when we all had to stay home and you couldn’t find a bean, a lentil, or a chickpea on the shelf,” says Thompson. “Somehow people instinctively knew they were the right thing to buy and they were gone. When COVID happened, people knew what to do. The question is, how do we sustain that because that is an extremely healthy behavior.”
While you can do your part by donating cans of pulses during the annual Cans Around the Oval, Thompson is trying to bring pulses back to the table by bringing more people into the conversation. Thompson is offering a seat at that table to everyone in the public health community, agricultural community, and general public willing to listen.
“We need better answers to inform the public health community about the decisions in agriculture that affect what moves from the field to the table—hence the birth of the mantra: Agriculture should be an instrument of public health,” says Thompson. “Why are agriculture and public health on two sides of a fence? How do we work together to help assure plants are healthy, people are healthy, and the folks that make the food get a profit so they can sustain their activity.”
Thompson has developed a strong elevator pitch to intrigue farmers, health-practitioners and researchers, and it boils down to this: Pulses are environmentally sustainable, they’re important for health, and they have culinary versatility.
“Here’s something that’s good for the planet, good for the people, and they taste great,” says Thompson.
Recently, Thompson was named a Nutrien Distinguished Scholar and he’s using part of the funding that came with the award to work with Maria Muñoz-Amatriain on the health benefits of cowpeas, another variety of pulses. And it’s a fitting full circle considering Muñoz-Amatriain replaced the retiring Mark Brick in 2019, the very person who started Thompson on this journey.