What are Beans?
The word “bean” and its Germanic cognates (e.g., Bohne) have existed in common use in West Germanic languages since before the 12th century, referring to broad beans and other pod-borne seeds. This was long before the New World genus Phaseolus was known in Europe. After Columbian-era contact between Europe and the Americas, use of the word was extended to pod-borne seeds of Phaseolus, such as the common bean and the runner bean, and the related genus Vigna.
The term has long been applied generally to many other seeds of similar form, such as Old World soybeans, peas, chickpeas (garbanzo beans), other vetches, and lupins, and even to those with slighter resemblances, such as coffee beans, vanilla beans, castor beans, and cocoa beans. Thus the term “bean” in general usage can mean a host of different species.
Seeds called “beans” are often included among the crops called “pulses” (legumes), although a narrower prescribed sense of “pulses” reserves the word for leguminous crops harvested for their dry grain. The term bean usually excludes legumes with tiny seeds and which are used exclusively for forage, hay, and silage purposes (such as clover and alfalfa). According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization the term bean should include only species of Phaseolus; however, enforcing that prescription has proven difficult for several reasons. One is that in the past, several species, including Vigna angularis (adzuki bean), mungo (black gram), radiata (green gram), and aconitifolia (moth bean), were classified as Phaseolus and later reclassified. Another is that it is not surprising that the prescription on limiting the use of the word, because it tries to replace the word’s older senses with a newer one, has never been consistently followed in general usage.
Included in this category are black, haricot, kidney, lima, mung, Pinto, and string ( French or snap) beans. These are all different varieties of the common bean (note that unless otherwise designated they are variants of (Phaseolus vulgaris). Common beans are quite versatile, as they can be prepared in a variety of ways.
Types Of Beans
Black beans are about the size of a pea, oval, and jet black. They have cream-colored ﬂesh; a mild, sweet, earthy taste; and a soft texture. Black beans are widely used throughout Latin America, the Caribbean, and the southern United States.
Haricot beans are pea-sized beans that are creamy white in color. They are mild—ﬂavored, dense, and creamy.
Just as its name suggests, the kidney bean is shaped like a kidney. Since these dark red beans hold their shape during cooking and readily absorb tag, surrounding ﬂavors, they are a favorite bean to use in simmered dishes. Kidney beans that are white in color are known Pinto Beans as cannellini beans.
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Lima Beans (Butter Beans)
The lima bean (Phaseolus limensis) is thought to be named after Lima, Peru, the area where it was ﬁrst cultivated. Lima beans are most often associated with succotash, a traditional Native American dish that combines this delicious bean with corn. While there are many varieties of lima beans, the ones that are most popular in the United States are the Fordhook, commonly known as the butter bean, and the baby lima bean. Likewise, the most common lima bean in the U.K. is the butter bean.
The pod of the lima bean is ﬂat, oblong, and slightly curved, averaging about 3 inches/7 centimeters in length. Within the pod reside two to four ﬂat kidney-shaped seeds, which are what we generally refer to as lima beans. The seeds are most often cream or green in color, although certain varieties have white, red, purple, brown, or black seeds. Lima beans feature a starchy, potato like taste and a grainy, yet slightly buttery, texture.
The mung bean (Phaseolus aureus) is native to India but has been cultivated in China and Southeast Asia for more than 7,000 years. Most mung beans are consumed as bean sprouts. Supermarkets often have a ready supply of fresh mung bean sprouts, or you can sprout your own. Mung bean sprouts are most often used in salads, with stir-fried vegetables, and in Asian dishes.
Pinto beans have a beige background strewn with reddish brown splashes of color. They are like little painted canvases, hence their name “pinto, which in Spanish means “painted.” When cooked, their colored splotches disappear and they become a beautiful pink color, with a delightfully creamy texture.
String Beans (Snap or French Beans)
The string, French or snap bean is different from the other members of the common bean family in that the entire bean, both pod and seed, can be eaten. String beans vary in size, but they usually average 4 inches/ 10 centimeters in length. They are usually deep emerald green in color and come to a slight point at either end. They contain tiny seeds within their thin pods.
History of Beans
All of the varieties of Phaseolus vulgaris originated in Peru more than 7,000 years ago and were spread by migrating bands of Native Americans into Latin and North America. The early European explorers and settlers of the ﬁfteenth, sixteenth, and seventeenth centuries were introduced to these beans by the natives.
In fact, the basic recipes for Boston baked beans and succotash were derived from those used by Native Americans. Common beans were then introduced into Europe in the ﬁfteenth century by Spanish explorers returning from their voyages to the New World. They were subsequently spread to Africa and Asia by Spanish and Portuguese traders.
As common beans are a very inexpensive protein source, they have become popular in many cultures throughout the world. Today, the largest commercial producers of dried common beans are India, China, Indonesia, Brazil, and the United States.
Nutritional Highlights of Beans
The key nutritional beneﬁts of common beans are quite similar to those discussed above for soybeans except that they are much lower in fat content—usually only 1 to 2 percent. Their protein content and quality are quite similar, though.
Common beans also offer an excellent source of complex carbohydrate and ﬁber. They are a very good source of folic acid and molybdenum. They are also a good source of phosphorus, iron, protein, magnesium, manganese, and potassium.
Dry Beans Provide Complex Carbohydrates
- Complex carbohydrates, also referred to as dietary starch, are made of sugar molecules strung together like a necklace. Complex carbohydrates are typically rich in fiber.
- The majority of the calories in dry beans come from carbohydrates in the form of starch, resistant starch (digested by beneficial bacteria in the gut), and small amounts of non-starch polysaccharides (also digested by beneficial gut bacteria).
- Being rich in complex carbohydrates, as well as a good source of protein, beans have a low glycemic index. This makes them an ideal food for the management of insulin resistance, diabetes and hyperlipidemia. (Foster-Powell, 2002; Rizdalla, 2002)
- Beans contain some complex sugars called oligosaccharides (all-uh-go-SACK-are-rides), which are non-digestible, fermentable fibers. They are broken down by beneficial bacteria in the colon, which may result in gas production and flatulence. There is increasing research and attention about the health of the gut or gastrointestinal (GI) tract, and how certain foods benefit or harm the gut (Zanteson, 2012). Beans may be a very important food for a healthy gut!
Dry Beans Provide Beneficial Dietary Fiber
- Dry beans are rich in both soluble and insoluble fibers. (Tosh, 2010)
- Soluble fiber traps dietary cholesterol inside the digestive tract. The cholesterol is then excreted versus being absorbed, which helps to lower blood levels of LDL cholesterol, especially if LDL cholesterol levels were high to begin with.
- Dry beans also provide substantial amounts of insoluble fiber, which help attract water to the stool and keeps you regular. This may help to combat constipation, colon cancer, and other digestive health conditions (Lanza, 2006).
Dry Beans Are A Source of Plant-based Protein
- Dry beans are a good source of plant-based protein and have therefore been identified as a meat alternative by the USDA My Plate food guidance system (USDA Dietary Guidelines, 2010).
- Beans contain between 21 to 25% protein by weight, which is much higher than other sources of vegetable protein. (U.S.D.A. Nutrient Database)
- Regular intake of dried beans is extremely important worldwide as they provide a good source of protein at a low cost compared to animal protein sources like beef, pork, and chicken.
Dry Beans Contain Essential Vitamins and Minerals
- Most types of beans are good sources of potassium, a mineral that promotes healthy blood pressure levels.
- Beans are excellent sources of copper, phosphorus, manganese and magnesium—nutrients that many Americans don’t get enough of.
- Most types of dry beans are rich sources of iron, which makes them important for vegetarians and vegans who do not get an animal source of iron.
- Dry beans are an excellent source of the water-soluble vitamins thiamin and folic acid and a good source of riboflavin and vitamin B6.
Reduces Iron Deficiency
Iron deficiency is one of the most common deficiencies in people and the leading cause of anemia. Beans are rich in iron, where half a cup of cooked lentils contains 3.3 mg of iron.
Low in Fat
Most beans are around 2% to 3% fat, and contain zero cholesterol, unless they are processed or prepared with other fatty ingredients like lard. To avoid buying fatty beans, it is best to thoroughly read the labels prior to buying the product.
Health Benefits of Beans
The major health beneﬁt of common beans is their rich source of cholesterol-lowering ﬁber. In addition to lowering cholesterol, the high ﬁber content of beans prevents blood sugar levels from rising too rapidly after a meal, making these beans an especially good choice for individuals with diabetes, insulin resistance, or hypoglycemia.
Common beans’ contribution to heart health lies not just in their ﬁber but in the signiﬁcant amounts of antioxidants, folic acid, vitamin B6, and magnesium they supply. Folic acid and B6 help lower levels of homocysteine, an amino acid that is an intermediate product in an important metabolic process called the methylation cycle. Elevated blood levels of homocysteine are an independent risk factor for heart attack, stroke, and peripheral vascular disease and are found in 20 to 40 percent of patients with heart disease.
According to studies conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, richly colored dried beans offer a high degree of antioxidant protection. In fact, small red kidney beans are rated the highest, just ahead of blueberries. Beans are also protective against cancer. In one analysis of dietary data collected by validated food frequency questionnaires in 1991 and 1995 from 90,630 women in the Nurses’ Health Study II, researchers found a signiﬁcantly reduced frequency of breast cancer in the women who had a higher intake of common beans or lentils.
That was not surprising; what was surprising was that only beans and lentils seemed to offer protection. Intake of tea, onions, apples, string beans, broccoli, green pepper, or blueberries had no protective effect. Eating beans or lentils two or more times per week was associated with a 24 percent reduced risk of breast cancer.
1. Regulates Blood Sugar Level
If you are in danger of developing diabetes or are already diabetic, you will be happy to hear that beans have a low glycemic index. This means that they won’t cause blood sugar levels to spike the way refined grain products can. Since the nutrients present in beans are released into the body slowly, they prevent us from feeling hungry over a longer period than many other foods, while providing energy to keep us going.
2. Improves Heart Health
Beans contain fiber for a constant supply of energy. They are also rich in water soluble vitamins, especially thiamine, riboflavin, niacin, and folacin. Folate is vital for lowering homocysteine concentrations, and without enough folate in your diet, your homocysteine level increases and can damage your heart and your blood vessels. Besides, folate beans also contain a good amount of potassium, calcium, and magnesium, all of which are healthy electrolytes and minerals, which when combined, can help minimize the risk of heart disease and high blood pressure.
3. May Prevent Cancer
Beans are packed with antioxidants, which protect the body against free radicals that could harm your cells and result in cancer. A study published in The Journal of Cancer Research found that women who ate 4 or more servings of beans a week had a lower occurrence of colorectal polyps, a precursor found in both rectal and colon cancers.
4. Boosts Enzymes
Beans contain copper, which is a key mineral when it comes to optimizing the function of several enzymes, which in turn helps make skin pigment and connective tissues.
5. Prevents Birth Defects
Folate is a mineral that is a must-have for pregnant women or ones who are considering having children. That’s because eating beans can help the baby grow strong in the womb.
6. Improves Eye Health
In terms of eye health benefits, so many beans consist of zinc, vitamin A and bioflavonoids. Zinc is a vision supporting nutrient that benefits the health of our eyes. Its main role is to convert beta carotene into vitamin A in a form that is usable by visual system and the body. Bioflavonoids are antioxidants that increase eye health by neutralizing free radicals that harm healthy eye cells.
7. Controls Your PMS
In a clinical study, women who ate high quantities of beans experienced fewer mood swings and cramps than those consumed the lowest amounts. Flat, yard-long, and yellow-green beans are all amazing sources of manganese, so make sure to incorporate a large handful in your next stir-fry.
8. Takes Care of Your Joints
Beans are rich in vitamin K, low levels of which are linked with a higher rate of osteoarthritis in your knees and hands.
9. Reduces Depression
Meeting daily folate needs may help cope with depression better. Adequate consumption of folate can prevent a boost in homocysteine production in your body. Too much of this hormone can decrease your blood flow and other key nutrients from traveling to the brain, which in turn can disrupt the production of dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin, which regulate sleep, appetite, and mood.
10. Aid Weight Loss
Beans are fiber-rich, which is why they can keep you satiated longer. Because you feel full for longer, you are less likely to graze between meals and that in turn can help keep your weight in check if you eat healthy during main meals.10 As a food with low glycemic index, it brings about a slower rate of increase of blood sugar. This means energy is released more gradually, which fuels your body longer too.
Researchers have found people who eat beans have a smaller waist size, reduced risk of obesity, and lower body weight than those who did not consume beans.
Hormone leptin when present in lower concentrations (as opposed to high levels) is better at regulating your appetite. A diet rich in legumes reduces circulating leptin concentrations in the body. Which means your body will manage its appetite better, aiding weight loss or helping you stay at your ideal weight once you’ve hit your targets.
11. Relieve Constipation
If constipation plagues you, eating your beans could help. The fiber in them, when consumed along with adequate fluids (plain old water will do just fine!), can help keep your bowel movements more regular. This fiber also keeps you satiated. And as you’re probably aware, our diets don’t normally deliver even half of the recommended level of 14 gm of fiber per 1000 kcal. If you’re someone with a gluten allergy, this becomes even more important, because many traditional sources of fiber like whole grain wheat, barley, and some forms of oats contain gluten. If you’re picking between beans, choose the dry beans like pinto beans as these contain more fiber than fresh beans.
13. Beans Help Strengthen Bones
The calcium and magnesium in kidney beans can strengthen the bones and prevent osteoporosis. And the folate in the beans helps maintain joint health – thereby reducing the risk of bone diseases.
Some research also shows that kidney beans might be good for individuals with gout – due to their protein content (even though they contain moderate amounts of purines)
How to Select and Store Beans
Some beans, such as lima beans (butter beans) and string beans (French or snap beans), are available dried, fresh, or frozen. Obviously, fresh in their pods is preferred. Choose those that are ﬁrm, dark green, and glossy; free of blemishes, wrinkling, and yellowing. If lima beans have been shelled, you should inspect them carefully, since they are extremely perishable.
Look for those with tender skins that are green or greenish white in color and do not have any signs of mould or decay. If you choose to purchase frozen beans, shake the container to make sure that the beans move freely and do not seem to be clumped together, since the latter suggests that they have been thawed and then refrozen.
Dried black, haricot, kidney, lima (butter), mung, pinto, and string beans are generally available in prepackaged containers as well as in bulk. Just as with any other food that you purchase in the bulk section, make sure the bins are covered and that the shop has a good product turnover rate.
Whether purchasing dried beans in bulk or in a prepackaged container, make sure there is no evidence of moisture or insect damage and that the beans are whole and not cracked. Store dried beans in an airtight container in a cool, dry, dark place, where they will keep for up to twelve months.
All of the common beans can be found canned in most markets. Look for those that do not contain extra salt or additives. Cooked beans will keep fresh in the refrigerator for about three days if placed in a covered container.
Tips for Preparing Beans
- Before washing dried beans, spread them out on a light-colored plate or cooking surface to check for and remove stones and damaged beans.
- After this process, place the beans in a sieve and rinse them thoroughly under cool running water. It is important to follow the packet instructions regarding the soaking and cooking of kidney beans to ensure that the toxins contained within them are removed.
- To shorten their cooking time and make them easier to digest, dried common beans should be presoaked.
- To cook dried common beans, you can either cook them on the stove or use a pressure cooker.
- For the stove top method, add 21/2 to 4 cups of fresh water or stock for each cup of beans. The liquid should be about 1 to 2 inches/21/2 to 5 centimeters above the top of the beans. Bring the beans to a boil and then reduce to a simmer, partially covering the pot. If any foam develops, simply skim it off during the simmering process.
Quick Serving Ideas of Beans
- Combine cooked kidney beans with black beans and white (haricot) beans to make a colorful three-bean salad. Mix with tomatoes and spring onions, and dress with olive oil, lemon juice, and black pepper.
- Serve cooked beans over a piece of corn bread and top with grated cheese.
- In a food processor or blender, combine cooked beans with garlic, cumin, and chili peppers for a delicious spread that can be used as a crudité dip or sandwich ﬁlling.
- Make tacos with a vegetarian twist by using cooked beans in place of minced meat.
- Mix puréed cooked beans with chopped garlic and your favorite fresh herbs. Use this spread as a sandwich ﬁlling or a dip for crudités.
- The heartiness of common beans makes them great soup beans, especially when added to a soup that features root vegetables, such as carrots, turnips, beets, and swedes.
- Blend cooked beans and sweet potatoes together. Serve this tasty dish on a plate accompanied by your favorite grain and fresh vegetable.
- Add cooked and cooled beans to a salad of leeks and chard, and top with rosemary vinaigrette.
Versatile, Healthy Nutrition
It’s impossible to even guess how many bean recipes exist on this planet. One thing is for sure – the number is in the hundreds of thousands and most likely the millions. If I assigned you the task of listing 100 different bean recipes, you could certainly do it. So in an effort to reinforce their versatility, here are some major headings:
- Bean Main Dishes: beans are in stews and casseroles; they’re baked with meat; in some cultures, like that of Mexico, they’re unique dishes that are served constantly [think tacos, enchiladas, chalupas]; cattle drives moved across American eating huge pots of beans at every meal; Indian tribes ate beans for thousands of years.
- Vegetarian Bean Main Dishes: vegetarians like me frequently fix main dishes without meat, using beans as the filling ingredient, rather than animal products. I frequently make chilis with beans and baked beans are common. With a salad and crusty bread, they’re yummy!
- Baked Beans: are the most famous bean dish and they’re baked with all kinds of different ingredients: onions, garlic, barbecue sauce, cranberries, mushroom, pineapple – even Dr. Pepper and beer.
- Bean Salads: everyone has eaten cold beans in salads. I recently ate a cold bean, mandarin orange and purple onion salad that had me threatening mayhem to the person of the hostess if she didn’t hand over the recipe. 🙂
- Bean Soups: there are bean soups in cultures all over the planet from Cuban black bean soup to Mexican spicy soups to French Canadian pea soup and my favorite, our American Senate Bean Soup.
- Bean Dips: are a favorite of most people and are quite popular at all kinds of social gatherings and surely go well at a Super Bowl party with a huge bowl of chips.
- Chili With Beans: chili without beans is simply a total flop. Actually, the beans are more important than the meat because there are meatless chilis but virtually no chilis without beans. Some folks cook the beans and meat in a separate pot and mix them together when served.
- Bean “Breads”: beans have become so popular that there are many bean flours available these days, and they can be used like grain flours to make bread, pasta, muffins and loaves.
- Bean Desserts: while not as common, there certainly are bean desserts. Asians often eat a red bean ice cream and there are other goodies like a Pinto Bean Pie and an orange garbanzo cake.
Bean with Bacon
- 1 (16 ounce) package dried navy beans
- 9 cups water 1 pound bacon
- 2 onions, chopped
- 2 stalks celery, chopped
- 4 teaspoons chicken bouillon
- 1 bay leaf
- 1/3 teaspoon salt
- 1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
- 1/8 teaspoon ground cloves
- 1 (16 ounce) can diced tomatoes
- 4 cups water
Prep Cook Ready In
15 m 2 h 20 m 2 h 35 m
- Boil the beans in 9 cups of the water and then let sit for one hour. Drain and set aside.
- Cook the bacon to your desired texture (it can be soft or crisp, whatever you prefer) and drain except for 1/4 cup grease. Coarsely chop the bacon.
- Add the onions and celery to the reserved grease and bacon and saute until soft, do not drain. Add the chicken base or cubes, 4 cups water, beans, bay leaf, salt, pepper, and cloves, and simmer for 2 hours.
- Stir in the tomatoes with their juice. Serve.
Negative Effects Of Beans
Beans can raise blood pressure
If you take a monoamine oxidase (MAO) inhibitor to treat depression, avoid fava beans because they can interact with your medication and raise blood pressure.
Beans can interfere with vitamin absorption
Some beans, like soybeans, contain substances that interfere with the absorption of betacarotene and vitamins B12 and D. The heat from cooking inactivates most of these substances, making vitamin absorption more likely. But it’s still smart to compensate for potential vitamin loss by consuming plenty of fresh fruits and yellow or dark green veggies (to up your betacarotene) and lean meat (for vitamin B12).
Beans can trigger gout
If you suffer from gout, talk to your doctor about your bean consumption. People with gout are often advised to forgo dried peas, beans, lentils, and other legumes because of their high purine content. In susceptible people, purines increase levels of uric acid and can precipitate a gout attack.
Beans can make you gassy
While not technically a health risk, beans can cause an embarrassing flatulence problem, particularly dried beans, lentils, and peas. Help reduce gas production by changing the water several times during the soaking and cooking process, and always rinse canned beans. Adding herbs like lemon balm, fennel, and caraway, or combining cooked legumes with an acidic food, might also help prevent flatulence.
Beans can cause migraines
Some legumes can trigger migraines or an allergic reaction in some people. If this happens, talk to a doctor and eliminate the culprit from your diet.
Common beans can cause severe allergic reactions in sensitive individuals. Common beans also contain moderate amounts of purines. Since purines can be broken down to form uric acid, excess accumulation of purines in the body can lead to excess accumulation of uric acid. As such, individuals who are susceptible to purine-related problems, such as gout and kidney stones, may want to limit or avoid intake of common beans.
Lima beans (butter beans) also contain large amounts of oxalate. Individuals with a history of oxalate-containing kidney stones should avoid over consuming them.