IN the challenge to help you eat more healthfully, there’s an ancient, cheap, plentiful and at least potentially great-tasting food that often gets overlooked: the bean.
First cultivated 7,000 years ago (and sometimes even used for currency), beans are consumed throughout the world. (Chinese duck sauce, for instance, has adzuki beans as its base.) In the United States, bean consumption remains low. On any given day, just 14% of Americans eat beans or legumes, according to the US Department of Agriculture. By comparison, 41% eat cookies, cake, candy or pie daily. Those who regularly consume beans don’t go for small portions, typically eating about a cup of whole beans, about 3/4 cup for those who prefer refried beans.
Filled with complex carbohydrates, beans can feed your appetite without adding a lot of calories or producing the insulin surge that often follows consumption of other high carbohydrate foods, especially processed white bread, rice or pasta. (Whole-wheat varieties of these foods are another matter, although beans still take the prize on protein.)
In fact, beans are high in protein. How high? One cup of black beans rivals the protein in three ounces of chicken breast or a quarter-pound burger. That cup of beans has three times the protein of a large egg.
Another advantage of dried beans and lentils (also known as pulses) is that they promote satiety, because they’re filled with fibre. In fact, beans are so fibre-rich they can help keep you “regular”, as commercials put it so genteelly. One cup of beans can deliver up to 15g of fibre – a huge boost toward the 25g to 35g of daily dietary fibre recommended by various health authorities – without requiring you to munch full-strength bran.
Beans also provide folic acid (good for the heart and for reducing risk of neural-tube birth defects, such as spina bifida), iron (helps keep blood healthy), calcium and magnesium (for bone building and maintenance) as well potassium (for maintaining a healthy blood pressure).
Of course, as healthy as beans may be, you’re not going to eat them if they taste lousy. And here, too, beans seem to come up a winner. Cookbook author and chef Roy F. Guste, Jr., former proprietor of Antoine’s, a well-known eatery in New Orleans, thinks so highly of beans that he wrote The Bean Book (Norton), which is filled with recipes for everything from the traditional (red beans and rice) to the unusual (bourbon black bean pie).
Guste suggests that “beans should become imprinted in our culinary repertoire as a replacement for less nutritional starches, a food that can be used regularly in place of other less beneficial starches: white rice, potatoes, barley, grits, couscous, polenta and pasta.” (More bean recipes created by top chefs are available at www.northarvestbean.org/html/chefrecipes.cfm.)
Okay, okay, so there are some downsides to beans. Chief among them: the embarrassing problem of gastrointestinal distress and cramping. Experts say that can be addressed in several ways. The California Dry Bean Advisory Board advises a “reduced gas” method of placing beans first in hot water (10 cups per pound of beans). Heat water to boiling and boil beans for two to three minutes. Then remove from heat, cover and set aside for one to four hours. (The longer the soak time, the more sugars dissolve, making digestion easier.) Always discard the soaking water before cooking beans.
Another option: Beano, which contains an enzyme that helps break down sugars in beans. There are limited studies of Beano, which falls under a Food and Drug Administraton category called “generally regarded as safe”. Beano is sold without a prescription.
“It seems to be effective in reducing the gas and bloating associated with beans,” says Jack A. Di Palma, a spokesman for the American College of Gastroenterology. Even so, Di Palma, who is director of gastroenterology at the University of South Alabama in Mobile, says that a small number of people are still “so sensitive that they might find that they have to avoid beans” even if they use Beano.
Most people, however, can add beans to their diet without any major gastrointestinal difficulty, Di Palma says. And no, you don’t need to spend hours soaking and cooking beans to enjoy them as part of your daily regimen. Canned beans – and loads of prepared bean products from hummus, soy chips and Boca Burgers to edamame, vegetarian chili and minestrone – make beans fast food these days.
“Some people are not aware that beans can be used as a good meat alternative,” says Vincent de Jesus, a nutritionist with the USDA’s Nutrient Data Laboratory. “Also for the price, compare them to meat or anything else that you can get. They’re lower fat and you get a lot of good fibre.” – LAT-WP