skip to content

Cambridge Global Food Security

An Interdisciplinary Research Centre at the University of Cambridge

The ‘Pulses for healthy guts (and healthy environment)’ workshop, held on 25 March, was attended by a range of academics and industry figures. The workshop was held to build networks between academics and industry, within and beyond Cambridge, in order to link expertise across the broad area of pulses and human health. These networks will develop opportunities for research and innovation across the chain from agriculture through manufacturing to health.

The conceptual background to this workshop (and any further research and innovation projects that develop from it) is based on the premise that ‘plant-based foods’ is a subject that is rapidly expanding: from supply chains and environmental conservation to understanding and influencing consumers’ eating behaviours and habits. Plant protein foods from fibre-rich pulses (such as beans and lentils) can be a healthy substitute for meat. The challenge is thus to find out how innovation can lead to more sustainable agriculture and a healthier population.

The workshop was introduced by Francesca Re Manning and facilitated by Professor Paul Dupree. Paul began the workshop with a presentation that looked at how the gut microbiome is influential in factors such as mental and physical diseases, and the contribution that food makes to microbiome health. Pulses are an important plant for both the environment and human health because they reduce the need for fertilizer and are a source of protein and fibre for human beings. Paul also expanded on the advantages of having stakeholders from multiple research disciplines, agriculture, and industry working towards fulfilling the workshop’s aims.  

  • Starting the workshop's 'Challenges' section, Dr David Bulmer, from the University of Cambridge, expanded on intestinal disease and the inhibitory effect that certain pulses might have on disease causing pathways in the gut microbiome.

  • Nick Saltmarsh, one of the founders of Hodmedod’s, described the work done by Hodmedod’s to increase local consumption and production of pulse foods.

  • Co-founder of 3FBio, Craig Johnston provided an overview on how protein can be made sustainable, the various methods of doing this with different protein sources, and 3FBio’s production methods and projects.
  • Dr Shiv Kumar Agrawal of ICARDA started the workshop’s ‘Global Opportunities’ section by looking at some of the factors that lead to unhealthy diets, the environmental and human health advantages of cultivating and eating pulses, and ICARDA’s work with pulses.    
  • Dr Tom Wood, from NIAB, emphasized the importance of pulse crops, and discussed the limited use of pulse products for human consumption in the UK. Tom’s discussion also included NIAB’s research on pulses, how to add value across the pulse supply chain, and the usefulness of working collaboratively.
  • Isabelle Privat, from Nestle, spoke on the necessity of defining who pulse consumers are, how the benefits of consuming pulses should be tailored to different audiences, and the importance of plant-based products’ sensory properties and affordability.
  • Dr Arjan Geerlings, from Herba Ingredients, enlightened the workshop on Herba Ingredients’ history, products, and production methods. He also discussed the wide use of pulse products, and Herba Ingredients’ pulse product lines.

At the close of this section, Paul and some of the panellists and participants reflected on the knowledge needed to understand pulses’ role in the health of the gut microbiome, how to get customers to see the health benefits of pulses on the gut microbiome, the regulations that stipulate how health benefits are advertised on consumer products, how to make health benefits on food labels more interesting and relevant to consumers, and whether future technology could assist consumers to be more in control of their nutritional requirements.

This was followed by three facilitated breakout groups, with the main discussion points listed next.

Healthy Foods – the role of pulse fibre:

  • Understanding how food additives that increase fibre availability can be used/developed for the gut microbiome;
  • How different metabolites might have an effect on human health, such as anti-cancer properties;
  • Whether there are sensors that measure the permeability and detection of metabolites and biomarkers in samples, and the need for collaborations in order to identify these metabolites;
  • How fibres can be lost during the processing of foods; and
  • What the effects of fibre compounds are on microbial make-up, how to simplify this complex process, and how to understand breakdown pathways.

Developing appealing foods with high pulse content:

  • The different directions that the project could go in, e.g. whole pulses versus pulses processed down into their component parts;
  • Pulses both as a protein substitution as well as an alternative carbohydrate;
  • Nutrition, and the importance of taste (a key factor in making foods appealing to the public); and
  • The complexity of factors such as food consumption behaviours.


  • Impact: the idea that people would be eating pulses for all occasions; convenience for the consumer; food producers making products that contain pulses; and needing a pull/demand from consumers that all different levels of the supply chain feed into each other (which could be driven by a retailer).
  • Who benefits: smallholder farmers, people with pre-diabetes or overweight, nutrition of the general public, undernourished children, and environmental sustainability.

Pulses for sustainability:

  • Increasing the efficiency of pulse value chains by trying to identify the current challenges that exist in the supply chains and how to tackle those problems;
  • Unreliability in the supply chain for the farmers and further down the line – first remove the unreliability because farmers need confidence in the supply chain if they are going to invest in growing pulses;
  • Inspiring farmers’ confidence with the provision of, and education about, high quality seeds;
  • Introducing economic support for pulse farmers, similar to the protection offered to cereal farmers against bad harvests; and
  • Sustainability – how mechanization affects the supply chain, the sustainability of growth processes, losses in the supply chain, how many pulses are being used in replacement products (for example, if a manufacturing process places 20 ingredients in a meat replacement product, then questions can be raised about where the ingredients originate from, the amount of water used in production, how the ingredients are transported, whether the number of ingredients can be reduced by using a higher quality pulse, and so forth).               

Paul’s closing comments included: the strong interest he evidenced in the workshop to make it possible to increase the amount of pulses in our diets; more work that needs to be done in the area of health and fibre due to the variability of fibre across different pulses; how to increase the value of pulses, and fibre in pulses, as seen by the public and industry; and how to bridge the knowledge gaps that exist between pulses and human health (specifically, knowledge on pulses’ role in gut microbiome health).


Disclaimer: This workshop was funded by the University of Cambridge Knowledge Exchange Network Pump Priming Funding, and was coordinated by CambPlants Hub and Cambridge Global Food Security IRC.