Creative plant-based formulations get a healthful boost from dried peas, beans, lentils and chickpeas.

As ancient grain products and gluten-free formulations continue to rush to market, R&D chefs are taking a closer look at the latest frontier in value-added food product development: pulses. From black bean birthday cake to lentil marinara sauce, product developers are turning to dried peas, beans, lentils and chickpeas—ancient crops in their own right—as star ingredients that meet all of the modern, better-for-you touchstones that consumers are requesting.

Pulses are generally low on the glycemic index, naturally gluten-free, an excellent source of protein, and are a low- to fat-free alternative to animal proteins. And, as it turns out, product developers aren’t the only ones touting the category of nutrient-dense superfoods. The General Assembly of the United Nations has declared that 2016 will be the “International Year of Pulses,” in recognition of the role pulses may play in sustainable agriculture, food security and healthy eating on a global scale.

These are exciting times for the edible, dry seeds of plants in the legume family, which dry naturally in the field rather than being harvested and then dried. Turning to Janet Carver, culinary group manager, national and global lead for Ingredion, Inc., Bridgewater, N.J., to shed light on the term, she cites the Latin word “puls,” meaning thick soup or porridge.

“I think pulses became popular in the gluten-free market and hummus market—but there’s a lot more for us to do,” Ms. Carver said.

Ingredion entered into an agreement with Alliance Grain Traders last year to distribute the company’s pulse flours, protein and bran ingredients for baked goods, snacks and pasta, and Ms. Carver has been working with pulses ever since. She sees that pulses fit all the product attributes—especially those sought by millennials—including providing a clean, sustainable source of protein that’s gluten-free and oftentimes non-G.M.O. Additionally, substituting pulses for soy allows consumers to avoid perceived hormonal concerns related to soy, although Ms. Carver is quick to assert that “soy is not the enemy.”

“Soy protein is great for energy,” she says, “but now pea protein isolate [is being used for] energy with no adverse effects.” Meanwhile, there’s much work currently under way with pea protein isolate as replacement for eggs in dressings, she says.

Gluten-free impetus

The strong consumer interest that has prompted the development of a range of gluten-free products has allowed pulses to shine, Ms. Carver said. “Pulses are giving us a whole new avenue for better eating quality in gluten-free products,” she said. There’s a puree for every application; for example, neutral-flavored chickpea and fava work very well in dried pasta formulas, while such coarse proteins as semolina flour may replace the texture of nuts.

For high moisture, natural sauces, she uses such starch sources as rice starch, tapioca starch and potato starch for viscosity in combination with pulse flours to replace wheat flour for traditional home-style appeal and appearance. “We’ve also done work with a chicken base sauce, but not using a stock (it’s just a broth); we’re using a lentil flour in combination with an all-natural functional native corn starch,” Ms. Carver explained.