Europe is the heartland of innovation – at least when it comes to peas, beans and other legumes. Between 2013 and 2017, the number of new products containing pulses went up 39%, according to research conducted by Portugal Foods and the Catholic University of Portugal, with the UK accounting for 19% of the total NPD.
Recently, a number of companies have been experimenting with alternatives to rice made from these fibre-rich plants, hoping to springboard off the familiarity of the high-carb staple to offer a more nutritious alternative.
Once upon a time, cauliflower rice was all the rage, but now green pea grains are looking for a bite of the healthy market.
Finger on the pulse
Chickpeas and lentils are the most popular pulses at the party, with products containing the two ingredients racking up the largest growth figures in the past four years.
Both feature as part of Castagno’s new range of “rice-style legumes,” which come in a total of four varieties. Sold by Free From Italy in the UK, the products aim to trade off their organic, high-protein credentials and take a mere three minutes to cook.
It’s not the only brand-new rice-shaped pulse on the market. A few weeks ago, French food trade fair Salon International de l’alimentation (SIAL) awarded Pedon’s More Than Rice the accolade for best savoury product, praising its high-protein, gluten-free attributes. With a cooking time of nine minutes, the range builds upon Pedon’s existing pulse-based More Than Pasta, released in 2016, and mirrors Castagno’s options with packets of lentil, chickpea and pea.
So what make these products an attractive investment?
Against the grain
Legumes “are a great nutritious food,” according to registered nutritionist Dr Laura Wyness, who notes that they are common in the much-lauded Mediterranean diet.
“These products offer a convenient way to consume these beneficial foods,” she says of the rice-style pulses. “Legumes provide plant protein, fibre and a variety of minerals and vitamins such as B vitamins, iron and magnesium. These products should help give vegetables and legumes more of a presence in meals and perhaps get consumers more used to incorporating these foods into their diet.
“Higher intakes of vegetables and legumes is linked to lower risks of heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke and type-2 diabetes.”
A few years ago, cauliflower rice was on every healthy-eating blog as a better alternative to traditional grains, riding high on carb-avoidance diets. Now, companies are trying to branch out into other avenues.
Cauli Rice, which originally sold (as you might expect) cauliflower rice, rebranded as Fullgreen at the end of last year to take its offering into other rice-like alternatives, including one made from sweet potato. Food Spark has also recently noted the increased manufacture of products containing low-calorie konjac root, principally as noodles but also as rice.
Meanwhile bigger brands like Uncle Ben’s and Tilda have experimented with grain blends, but have so far held back from launching products that contain purely pulses.
Of course, the question does arise if this is just a case of marketing. Is a lentil very different from a rice-shaped lentil? Is this just a question of convenience, with traditional lentils taking longer to cook than Castagno or Pedron’s new launches?
It could be treacherous territory, too. Waitrose attempted to riff off cauliflower rice with the introduction of its celeriac rice, taking another on-trend ingredient as the basis for a grain swap. It has since been discontinued, less than a year after debuting.
So has all this leguminous talk raised Sparkie’s pulse?
The rice alternatives corner of the market was incredibly rushed. I think the good existing products within that category will last at least until someone puts some real thought into what a pasta or rice replacement should look like.
There’s no doubt that there are more sophisticated options out there than just blending vegetables into a product. It won't take too long for customers to realise that anyone with a £20 food processor can produce cauli rice en masse and save themselves £2 a go for a minute’s effort.
I doubt the retailers and brands are done testing different vegetables yet, so there are bound to be some failures in the search for success.