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The Unsung Meal Maker: Lentils Can Improve Cost, Environment and Nutrition of Food Products

As the demand for nutritious, environmentally-responsible food products continues to grow, so too does the interest in more plant-heavy diets. According to insight from Datassential, nearly one-third of Americans identify as flexitarian, and a majority of consumers—regardless of dietary preference— are interested in increasing the grains, nuts, and legumes in their diets.1

Developing a plant-based product that is nutritious, cost-effective, versatile and tasty can be a tall order. How can food manufacturers meet these changing consumer demands? The answer may lie in a protein-packed ingredient that has been used for centuries: lentils. A new study​ funded by​ and Pulse Canada,​ explores just how lentils can make a difference in manufacturing costs, environmental impact and nutrition.

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All About Lentils

Lentils are a type of pulse crop, along with beans, field peas, chickpeas, and faba beans. The term “pulse” is used to describe the dry, edible seeds of legumes. Lentils come in a variety of shapes and sizes, though the most commonly grown varieties in North America are red and green lentils. Lentils are relatively inexpensive, nutrient-dense, and can be stored for up to a year without refrigeration, making them a staple in dishes across the globe. From Indian dal to pumpkin muffins, lentils are ingredient champions and extremely versatile—not only can they help improve the nutrition of food products, but they can help improve the cost and environmental impact as well.

Lentils are high in protein, fiber and complex carbohydrates and low in fat and calories. They are also great sources of essential minerals and nutrients, including potassium, folate, iron, and manganese. On their own, lentils are plant protein superstars—but when added to meat-based recipes like meatballs and burgers, lentils pack an extremely powerful punch. The and Pulse Canada study found that substituting just one-third of a lean beef patty with cooked lentils results in a blended burger that is more nutritious.2​ The research found that the blended burger had an added 3 grams of fiber, 12% fewer calories, 32% less saturated and total fats and 32% less cholesterol per 4oz serving.

Incorporating lentils into food products can also help their environmental impact. The same study found that reformulating a lean beef patty with 33% cooked lentil puree reduced the burger’s carbon footprint, water footprint and land-use footprint by about 33%. About one in four Americans (27%) say they have rewarded food companies that take steps to reduce their impact on the environment by buying their products at least once in the last 12 months.3​ As food manufacturers trying to meet sustainability goals know, a 33% reduction in key environmental measures can make a significant impact.

Additionally, as a source of plant protein, lentils are particularly unique because they are carbon negative—meaning they actually remove more greenhouse gases from the atmosphere than they emit during their production. 

Not only do lentils offer positive nutrition and environmental impacts, but they can help manufacturers and their bottom lines, too. At the time of the study, and Pulse Canada found that the cost per serving for a lean ground beef burger was 65 cents while the cost for the blended burger was 48 cents per serving—a 26% reduction in production costs.4

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Market Opportunities

With 33% of Americans identifying as flexitarian, we’re already starting to change the way we think about food. The industry is swiftly adapting, already seeing a huge growth in the application of pulses. For context, in 2008, 1,500 new products with pulse ingredients were launched worldwide; in 2018, that number rose to more than 8,000.5

Our diets aren’t black-and-white anymore, and the products we purchase don’t have to be either. Even small formulation changes can have a positive impact on manufacturing and the food industry as a whole. As the flexitarian market continues to grow, more consumers will look to brands that offer products with plant blends and plant-based ingredients. Lentil blends like the lentil-beef burger provide manufacturers an opportunity to develop a host of blended food products—ranging from patties to pasta sauce—that not only address this trend, but improve their products’ nutrition, environmental impact and cost, too.