BEANS, LEGUMES BY ANOTHER NAME, ARE THE OLD FOOD THAT IS NEW AGAIN. GOOD FOR OVERALL HEALTH, THEY ARE GOOD FOR THE EARTH AS WELL — AND CAN BE REMARKABLY AFFORDABLE.
There’s a triple-win to consuming beans and their cousin legumes, peas and lentils, as well as foods that are often in the same culinary category, soy and peanuts. They are good for you, they are seriously inexpensive and they are good for the earth.
The effect of each of these foods on hair health and hair loss is small and relatively insignificant. Insofar as eating a healthy diet leads to healthier hair and skin — maximizing what you have been given by genetics — these foods in proper balance can be beneficial. But while they are good for hair and skin, they contribute to physical and mental health in many ways.
In a very general sense, beans bring nutrients that we need and which are sorely lacking in the typical American diet. But they can also displace something we eat too much of — animal proteins. A series of acclaimed documentaries in recent years (Forks Over Knives, Food, Inc., Food Matters, Super Size Me, King Corn) have examined the adverse effects on human health, environmental health and even our economic health that result from eating beef, pork and chicken in the quantities to which we’ve become accustomed. Legumes, soy and peanuts are high in protein and are generally the meat substitute relied on by careful vegetarians.
First, understand that the term for legumes that are sold in the dried form is “pulse,” as distinguished from green beans and green peas that have moist flesh. The dried pulse form is a characteristic of impact: Beans, soy, peas and peanuts are inexpensive, can be purchased in bulk and can be stored dry for a year or longer. That is the primary focus of this article, but let’s do a quick review of the health benefits of each variety of legume.
Beans. The beans that are typically available in mainstream grocery stores are black beans (frijoles negros, also called “black turtle”), garbanzos (chickpeas), great northern, navy beans, red kidney beans, lima beans and pinto beans. But venture into some ethnic stores and you’ll find Anasazi (a Southwestern U.S. variety), black-eyed peas (also called cowpeas; Southern rural ethnic), cannellini (Italian), flageolet (French country), lupini (Italian and Spanish; technically these are peas) and mung beans (Indian and Chinese). There are nutrient variations within each, and certainly each lends itself to different cuisines, but the key nutritional components are these: no cholesterol; minimal fat; lots of fiber (soluble and insoluble); and high in copper, folic acid, iron, magnesium, potassium, riboflavin, thiamin and vitamin B6. The more colorful they are (red kidney beans win this contest), the higher they are in plant phenolics, which are associated with lower incidence of chronic diseases (neurodegenerative diseases, cardiovascular diseases and cancer).
Peas. Varieties include black-eyed peas, the common green pea (dried it becomes the split pea, of the soup type) and chickpeas (otherwise considered a bean, they are alternatively named garbanzos). They are known for their phytonutrients, and green peas have a very specific phytonutrient known as saponin, which may lower the risk of type 2 diabetes.
Lentils. Technically a legume, lentils come in several varieties (distinguished by color) and deliver a high concentration of fiber along with B vitamins, protein, folic acid and magnesium, which cumulatively are associated with lower incidence of heart disease, cardiovascular problems in general and diabetes.
Soy nuts. Soy has been produced in abundance in the United States since the 1970s, when agricultural policies began to favor the product. This has led to a profusion of soy-containing products, which has led to a backlash of concern about overconsumption (soy milk, soy burgers, soy protein bars, etc.). There are unproven yet persistent concerns relating to men eating soy, because it contains plant estrogen (argued to have no effect on female and male hormone levels in humans). As with legumes, soy and soy extracts are high-protein, high-fiber, no-cholesterol foods, a nutritional profile that beats the pants off red meat (the food for which they are often substituted). Importantly for men, they have a positive effect on prostate health as compared with red meat, most often associated with prostate cancer.
Peanuts. Peanuts are technically legumes as well. They are fatty but of the monounsaturated type, which is considered heart healthy. In both whole nut form (dry, roasted) and as peanut butter, peanuts supply folic acid, protein, niacin, manganese and vitamin E as well as resveratrol, the famous antioxidant also known to be present in red wine.
According to a 2011 report by Robyn Flypse, M.S., R.D., published on the Bean Institute website, American per-capita dry edible bean consumption peaked in 2010 at 7.2 pounds per person. In descending order the most popular varieties were pinto, navy, black, garbanzo, great northern, dark red kidney and light red kidney beans. The variety that is on the rise is garbanzo, which Flypse attributes to the growing popularity of vegetarianism and Middle Eastern and South Asian (India) subcontinental cuisines (e.g., hummus). Flypse also cites a survey by bean purveyor Bush Brothers & Company of Knoxville, Tennessee, which found that only 43 percent of consumers understood that beans are vegetables.
So, who buys and eats pulse beans? The Nielsen survey group identified that bean consumption skews strongest in families with five or more members who live in a rural area, in Southern or Western U.S. states, and are of modest and sometimes distressed income levels.
The least likely to eat beans are single-member households, male, Caucasian or Asian, in white collar or professional careers and living in the East and Central regions of the United States. To their nutritional disadvantage.
Beans and complete proteins
The line on beans as a substitute for animal proteins has always been that the complete amino acid chain (what makes a “complete” protein) is not present in beans but that adding a grain to the meal — in the form of bread, corn, pasta or rice — can successfully accomplish that.
That worried many people who felt there was a precise formula that had to be maintained for optimal benefit. But according to Frances Moore Lappé, author of Diet for a Small Planet (Ballantine Books, 1991), considered by many to be the definitive vegetarian guidebook, the body more or less stores incomplete proteins until the needed amino acids become available through a subsequent meal. As long as one eats meals of variety — including other plant foods, or animal proteins, as one might choose — completing the protein chain should not be a worry.
Such a deal: Buying beans in bulk
Many people in the United States were raised on the convenience of beans sold in cans. This makes for a magnificently simple meal preparation: Open a can; heat up the contents, or serve them cold, with some spices and perhaps lemon juice or tomato sauce; then pour them on cooked rice or just add to a cool green salad.
All along, however, dried bags of beans were there in the grocery store, typically occupying a low-shelf close to the floor. Convenience-minded Americans who spot those bags might be bewildered: Why cook something that is so easy to get from a can? The answer boils down to (no pun intended) four things:
- Economical beans. The website Frugal Living NW (www.Frugallivingnw.com) determined that even an inexpensive can of black beans, about a cup, sells for $0.60. But a pound of dry beans purchased at the same grocery store for $0.90 cooks up to about six cups — that is, home-soaked and -cooked beans are about one-sixth the price of canned. Note: this does not factor in the cost of electricity or cooking gas required.
- Added ingredients to canned beans. Most canned beans are packed with water, salt, and sometimes calcium chloride and sugar. Most of this can be poured off before consumption, but not everyone does that. Soaking and cooking at home requires only water.
- Beans in scary containers? Most foods sold in cans are exposed to BPA (bisphenol A) in the can lining. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which notes that BPA has been in use for more than 40 years, recently commissioned studies to determine if it poses human health risks. Most attention is on infants’ exposure through baby bottles and liquid formula. As of July 2012, BPA is banned in baby bottles and sippy cups but still allowed in food packaging. Some food manufacturers (Eden Foods, Muir Glen) are proactively using different methods for packaging, particularly those selling organic products, and Campbell’s Soups executives promised at their 2012 shareholders’ annual meeting to go BPA free as soon as “feasible alternatives are available.” Previous market testing of selling soup in glass was unsuccessful.
- Tasty beans. While taste is subjective, devotees of the soak-it-yourself bean crowd swear by the consistency of taste and texture when they do it themselves.
And what’s the deal with soaking and cooking? Beans sold in bulk often contain dirt, so the first item on the agenda is to rinse them in a colander (and look for small stones, which sometimes are present). Presoaking is about shortening the cooking time and enabling a more consistent texture of the bean. By placing beans in water overnight (6-8 hours), the actual cooking will take less time and the outer shell will not overcook, while the inner shell will remain dense. For the impatient, overnight soaking is not absolutely necessary. Oversoaking can sometimes emit a sour gas; however, rinsing a film off the soaked beans eliminates the harmless odor.
It is possible to buy beans in bulk in the healthier food stores, including the national chain Whole Foods. This store seems to reverse the demographics of bean consumption (poorer, more rural, more people in the household), as it’s well understood the chain caters to the higher end of the income spectrum more typically found in larger metropolitan areas. Whole Foods’ website provides extensive information on the health benefits of beans and how to prepare them.
A quick online search, however, will yield several websites that sell beans in bulk by mail. It appears that many of these websites cater to survivalists, people who expect a need to be self-sufficient if and when the country comes under attack. Following are some examples of prices found on several websites:
- Beprepared.com: For $429.99 (plus shipping and handling), you get a year’s supply of wheat, rice, beans and oats, which divides by the pound by legumes (82 pounds) and grains (318 pounds). This is a recommended quantity per person.
- Bulkfoods.com: 25 pounds of red kidney beans are $50.06 (all prices plus $5 shipping and handling on orders of $75 or more), black-eyed peas are $64.25, black turtle beans are $53.15 and a bean soup mix of reds, lentils, peas, limas, pintos, navies, great northern, blacks plus cranberry sell for $57.99.
- USAEmergencySupply.com: Great northern in a 25-pound bag are $46.97, light red kidney beans are $50.97 and lentils are $40.97.
- SamsClub.com: A 42-pound pail of black turtle beans, “high-quality items for your emergency food storage needs,” according to the website, retails for $53.62. A 41-pound pail of pinto beans retails for $55.28, and a 40-pound pail of lentils sells for $51.12.
- Costco.com: A 17.6-pound bucket of parboiled (precooked) pinto beans sells for $64.99, but Costco offers no other products that qualify as strictly legumes; 40 pounds of long-grain brown rice are available for $34.99, for example, while all other beans besides the aforementioned pintos are combinations with other things, including a 15,698-serving package of grains, dairy, meats and beans for $1,999.99.
In the case of Sam’s Club and Costco, “emergency” can be interpreted in many ways. Buyers may also be disaster relief organizations — or some very large, economy-minded families.
Beans are good for the earth
In general, plant-based proteins consume about one-sixth the resources (land, water, fertilizer) of an equivalent amount of protein from beef. This fact is underscored by a study out of the U.K. at the University of Exeter. There, environmental scientists (Thomas W.R. Powell and Timothy M. Lenton, “Future Carbon Dioxide Removal via Biomass Energy Constrained by Agricultural Efficiency and Dietary Trends,” Energy & Environmental Science, June 2012) found that carbon dioxide levels could be cut by 25 ppm (parts per million) if Westerners cut their meat consumption by half. This would have the effect of limiting global temperature increase to 2 degrees by the year 2050. They note that 78 percent of the global agricultural land in use today is devoted to raising and feeding livestock, while only about 7 or 8 percent is used to raise nonanimal food destined strictly for human consumption.
Buried in these statistics is the unpleasant side effect of raising cattle, pigs and chickens. Each produces waste, which requires its own land for disposal. This waste can contaminate other resources, such as drinking water in nearby aquifers — an additional waste of resources linked to meat production. To the contrary, beans add nitrogen to the soil, something that most other crops take out.
Beans cause none of these ill effects. Sure, growing them on a commercial scale requires fertilizer and irrigation, as well as fuel consumption to ship from farms to markets. But those resources are less than those used for the same amount of beef protein by a factor of six (and half of the resources used for the same amount of poultry).
In summary, the reason we can purchase beans so cheaply tells a tale: Beans require only the minimal use of resources. Even while consumers save dollars by eating beans, the earth is saved a bit as well.