If there’s one thing you can do to instantly improve your diet and keep food costs down, it’s to eat more legumes. This healthful group includes lentils, peas and a wide variety of beans—adzuki, black, cranberry, garbanzo, kidney, lima, navy, pinto, soy and white, among others. We’ll refer to them all as just “beans” here and provide bean-buying tips to help you make good choices.
Most Americans know beans about beans. People in many other countries not only value beans more highly but are more creative in using them, so look to ethnic recipes for the most enticing flavors, such as those from Latin America, India and Africa. They also know that beans are a bargain, cost-wise, at the grocery store. In fact, such foods have one of the lowest costs per nutritional value, which means you get more nutrition bang for your buck. When buying beans, keep these pointers in mind.
Beans and your health
Beans, which are an integral part of the heart-healthy Mediterranean diet, are bursting with nutrients. They are rich in B vitamins, particularly folate (about 80 to 150 micrograms per 1⁄2 cup, depending on the variety; lentils have even more—about 180 micrograms per 1⁄2 cup, which is nearly half of the daily recommendation). Minerals abound, especially copper, but also calcium, iron, magnesium, manganese, phosphorus, potassium, selenium and zinc. And they provide phytosterols, plant compounds that may help lower blood cholesterol. All that, with little fat and low cost. What’s not to like?
Supplying about 8 grams of protein per 1⁄2 cup, beans are among the best plant sources of protein. Though the protein in beans is not “complete” (it lacks some of the essential amino acids), other foods you eat over the course of the day supply the missing amino acids, so you end up with complete protein. Combination dishes, such as the classic rice and beans, accomplish this in a single meal.
Beans are also full of fiber (6 to 10 grams per 1⁄2 cup), both soluble and insoluble. Soluble fiber blunts the body’s normal blood sugar spike after eating, which helps keep blood sugar levels on an even keel. The insoluble fiber speeds intestinal passage, which improves regularity and limits the time that potential carcinogens remain in contact with the intestinal wall.
Another newly appreciated component of beans (and other starchy foods) is resistant starch, which resists digestion in the small intestine but then gets broken down and fermented by the bacteria that normally live in the large intestine. Resistant starch is believed to act as a “prebiotic” that can help fuel the growth of beneficial bacterial in the large intestine, contribute to better control of blood cholesterol and make it more difficult for pathogens to survive, among other potential health benefits.
Understanding bean products
There are many types of beans, peas and even lentils. The major differences are in their taste and texture and the time it takes to cook them. Some, such as cannellini (white) beans, dark red kidney beans and brown lentils, retain their shape well after cooking. Green split peas and red lentils do not, so they’re best for soups and pureés.
Is it okay to use canned beans for convenience? Definitely. They provide all the same nutrients as dried beans, but are fully cooked, so they save a lot of time. The only drawback is their sodium content—about 400 to 600 milligrams per 1⁄2 cup. You can buy low-sodium canned beans, but if you find them too bland, try this trick: Drain regular canned beans in a strainer or colander and rinse under running water. This can lower the sodium content by as much as 40 percent.
Hummus, a Middle Eastern spread traditionally made from chickpeas (garbanzo beans), is easy to find in supermarkets these days in the refrigerated section. It is fairly high in fat, because there is some fat in the chickpeas, plus two of the added components—tahini (sesame paste) and olive oil—are high in fat. But the fats are mostly healthful monounsaturated fats. Some hummus products are now made from black beans and soy beans.
Beans: good-to-know facts
- If you’re not used to eating beans regularly, it’s time to rethink your meals. Bean, peas and lentils are naturals for soups and stews, but don’t stop there. You can also serve them as a side dish instead of potatoes or rice, or mix them with brown rice. Salads are heartier with the addition of beans, or you can use beans as the main ingredient, as in a three-bean salad. Dried beans keep for up to a year in a tightly closed container in a cool, dark place, so you can stock up on a variety and combine them, as needed, for more interesting meals.
- Snacks can also be bean “opportunities.” Some supermarkets sell bean chips and roasted soybeans, which provide good amounts of fiber and protein. Another easy snack idea is to roast chickpeas yourself using canned chickpeas. Blot them with a towel to remove excess water, toss them with a little olive oil, then season them with cayenne pepper, cumin, paprika or other spices. Spread the chickpeas on a baking sheet and roast them in a 450°F (230°C) oven for 30 to 40 minutes, or until slightly browned and crunchy.
Healthy grocery shopping tips for beans
- Choose a variety of dried beans, from white to red to black. Lentils also come in different colors—green, red, yellow and brown. Edamame (green soybeans) come in or out of the pod and make a delicious side dish, stir-fry ingredient or quick snack.
- Canned beans are a convenient option—but compare labels for sodium content. Many companies offer low-sodium beans (no more than 140 milligrams of sodium per 1⁄2-cup serving); “no-salt-added” beans are also available.
- If you like baked beans, note that they’re often prepared with pork fat or other animal ingredients. If you are a vegetarian, or simply looking for a more healthful option, choose a can labeled “vegetarian.”
- If you’re a fan of refried beans, there are now fat-free canned versions.
- Try hummus. With all the varieties now available—from roasted garlic to wasabi—it should be easy to find one you like. Compare labels for lower sodium. Hummus pairs well with whole-wheat pita bread and veggies.
- Bean soup mixes are a handy way to get a variety of beans without having to buy many larger bags of beans you may not want (be sure to check sodium content, though). But the convenience of smaller packages usually comes at a premium price. Of course, you can mix different beans yourself—a cheaper option in the long run if you eat beans regularly.