Dietary fiber is very much in the nutrition news these days. Fiber has been identified as one of the biggest deficiencies in the American diet, and dry beans and peas are the best sources of fiber, the USDA says. They also contain significant amounts of other nutrients Americans are not getting enough of – magnesium, iron, zinc and folate – and are high in protein.
In the original Dietary Guidelines, released in January, “legumes” were grouped with vegetables and were in the “food groups to encourage” category. In the recently released MyPyramid healthy eating icon, beans share the second-narrowest slice with meat and nuts. Critics say, on the surface, beans, fish and nuts don’t get a fair shake in this omnibus category, but the detailed information of MyPyramid suggests, “Choose dry beans or peas as a main dish or part of a meal often.”
Beans are full of fiber because they usually are consumed after they are thoroughly mature, allowing most of the carbohydrates to transform to fiber. Green baby beans or peas don't have as much fiber, and their carbs are usually sugar. The amount of fiber varies with variety and growing conditions. Beans that are eaten in their pod are even richer in fiber.
|Barilla USA recently debuted two pastas that use a legume flour blend of lentils and chickpeas, as well as oats, spelt, barley, ground flaxseed and wheat fiber.|
While fiber is helpful simply in reducing caloric intake, it also appears to have other roles in maintaining good health. The particular mix of fiber, complex carbs and nutrients in beans is credited with having a role in controlling cancer, improving cardiovascular health, maintaining healthy levels of insulin and other positives.
There was, of course, one major drawback for all beans: the inability of the human digestive system to break down the small sugars (stachyose, raffinose and some other small polymers) in the upper digestive system, leading to bloating and flatulence in the lower gastrointestinal tract.
While the result of eating lots of beans in any form was hilarious in the 1970s movie “Blazing Saddles,” only Mel Brooks would think the actual symptoms funny. Processed beans have changed since then. Research has found several ways of eliminating the effect of those small sugars, making soy and its brother beans useful for a lot of reasons.
USDA’s list of “dry beans and peas” includes this dizzying array: adzuki beans, baked beans, black beans (turtle beans), black-eyed peas, chickpeas (garbanzo beans), cranberry beans, dark- and light-red kidney beans (Mexican beans), Great Northern beans (white beans), green and red lentils, soybeans (edamame), kidney beans, lentils, lima beans, navy beans (pea beans), pink beans, pinto beans, small red beans (Mexican red beans), split peas, tofu (soybean curd) and yellow-eyed beans. Solution for gluten intolerance
In addition to beans’ use as a plated food item, there is increasing interest in their use as an ingredient. In particular, bean flours of various types are now appearing in the marketplace. Bean flour provides protein, some carbs and a lot of fiber, as well as additional nutrients – and they can be substituted in many applications that use wheat and other traditional flours. An added benefit is bean flours can be eaten by people with celiac disease, whereas wheat products (as well as rye, barley, and to a lesser extent, oats) cause trouble.
Also known as gluten intolerance, celiac disease is a genetic disorder that affects one in 133 Americans, especially people of northern European descent. Those affected suffer damage to the villi in the intestines when they eat certain food-grain antigens (toxic amino acid sequences) that are found in wheat, rye and barley, according to the Celiac Foundation. That cuts out a lot of the traditional flours. There is a cascade of symptoms, including early onset osteoporosis, constipation, bloating, fatigue, irritable bowel syndrome and vitamin deficiencies.
There isn’t a cure, per se, according to celiac disease expert Dr. Joseph Murray of the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. “Lifelong adherence to a gluten-free diet is necessary to maintain health. The gluten-free diet is restrictive, but it doesn’t have to be uninteresting.” With the current interest in whole grains, the development of ingredients from beans of all types, lentils, garbanzo beans, and similar legumes, means greater variety for the celiac disease sufferer. Many companies working with beans as an ingredient note their low glycemic index, useful for diabetics.
Bean production has been on a slight decline for years, and was just more than 21 million lbs. in 2004, according to USDA. However, the bean crop in Canada appears to have increased. In the U.S., they are mostly grown in California and the northern tier of states. For farmers in the Grain Belt, beans provide a useful alternative crop to corn and other high nitrogen-using plants. By alternating corn with beans, the application of nitrogen, which is expensive and has environmental implications, can be reduced.
Because of the volatility in soybean prices, “edible” beans, as they are called by farmers, are a welcome addition to salable crops. Kidney beans, small red beans, pinto beans and navy beans often are sold to canning companies. Bush Brothers & Co., Knoxville, Tenn., has built a small empire on beans. In addition to its famed baked beans and chili beans, Bush’s canned products include black beans (the key ingredient in many Cuban, Mexican and Puerto Rican dishes), blackeye peas (a staple in the South) and cannellini beans (brings a meaty flavor to traditional Italian dishes).
Beans as an ingredient meant soybeans a decade ago. Soy flour, meal, isolate — these ingredients usually were chosen for the protein they added. But between the small boost given legumes of all types by the new Dietary Guidelines for Americans and consumers’ growing appetite to try new things, beans of all varieties may be poised for a renaissance.