The humble bean is quite the super food: packed with calcium, iron, potassium and B vitamins, plus about a quarter of the protein and half the fiber recommended daily for adults—all in a single serving. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, beans may even lower LDL ("bad") cholesterol levels, which can help boost heart health. Beans also do double-duty in the food pyramid as both a vegetable and a protein. Not to mention, beans are easy to cook with, widely available and inexpensive.|
Beans and their legume cousins (such as soybeans, chickpeas and lentils) have been cultivated and consumed for centuries as a part of many world cuisines: Black beans figure prominently in Central American and Caribbean dishes, chickpeas are a staple of Middle Eastern cooking, lentils are common in Indian and Persian recipes, and white beans are a fixture of French and Italian cookbooks.
Even though beans offer a slew of health benefits and culinary flexibility, they aren't a prominent staple of American diets—though many vegetarians routinely incorporate beans in their cooking. Perhaps it's a matter of taste or texture: By themselves, cooked beans aren't intensely flavorful (but that makes them a great foundation for other ingredients like tomatoes, peppers and herbs), and their texture can be a bit mushy if overcooked. Then there's the gastrointestinal effect that beans produce in some people. Because beans are high in both complex carbohydrates and soluble fiber, they can cause gas when they're digested in the large intestine. Rinsing canned beans can remove some of the sugars that can cause gas as well.
Beans have such compelling nutritional benefits that they're worth experimenting with in your kitchen. Here’s how.
Canned Beans vs. Dried Beans: Which Are Better?
Canned beans are super easy to use, and you'll find a number of options on your grocer's shelves. But, like many packaged foods, they can pack a lot of salt. When selecting canned beans, choose a low-sodium variety whenever possible. Scan the nutrition labels and opt for the product with the lowest sodium—levels can vary widely. For example, Eden Organic chickpeas have 30 milligrams of sodium per half cup serving, while Progresso chickpeas have 280 milligrams for the same portion. Most recipes call for draining and rinsing canned beans; doing so removes up to 40 percent of the added sodium. Also, rinsing off the starchy liquid the beans were cooked and preserved in helps keep them from getting too soggy in your recipe--and remember that it helps reduce the gassy feeling beans can cause.
Though canned beans are a quick and easy alternative to dried, it is worth noting that canned foods may contain traces of the plastic chemical BPA, which can permeate canned foods through the plastic lining inside of the can. Very few brands of canned foods are made without BPA, so if exposure to this chemical concerns you, dried beans are the way to go.
Dried beans are quite easy to prepare from scratch, but they do take more time. Using dried varieties will also allow you to control how much salt is added and to get the texture you prefer. Some people believe that freshly cooked beans also taste better than canned.
To prepare dried beans, start with a bag from your grocer (you can also buy dried beans in bulk), then rinse the beans and pick out any small stones or broken pieces. Next, place the beans in a large bowl, cover them completely with water and soak for several hours or overnight (they’ll expand, so make sure to use plenty of water). Soaking the beans reduces their cooking time. Drain the beans and place in a large pot, along with a stalk of celery, a carrot and a small onion, all cut into large chunks. Bring to a boil for about five minutes, then reduce to a simmer and cook until the beans are done to your taste. Cooked beans freeze well; simply portion them out in zip-top bags or freezer containers, spoon in a bit of cooking liquid, or drizzle with a bit of olive oil and freeze for up to six months.
Simple Ways to Bean-up Your Diet
You know they are good for you, but how do you begin to incorporate beans into your meals? Here are four simple ideas.
Nutrition Facts for Popular Beans
If you're feeling adventurous, branch out beyond the navy beans you'll find in your local stores and look for varieties like Borlotti, Scarlet Runner or Cranberry. If you're lucky, your hometown farmers market may be a good source for unusual or heirloom shelled and dried beans.