Besides the fact that this is bean harvest season, it's a good time to think about incorporating this highly nutritious and health-promoting food into our meal plans.
Beans are legumes – plants with seeds split into two halves. (Peanuts are legumes as well.) I was surprised to learn that dry beans like pinto, black and great northern are produced from the same plant species as green beans. Dry beans are allowed to mature and dry in their pods before being harvested, explain bean growers. Green beans are harvested when the beans inside are still tiny. So we are really eating the pods when we eat green beans.
Beans are further defined by experts as "dried edible beans" – the mature edible seeds of the bean plant. Here are some reasons why we might want to include them in our diets:
They're cheap. Personally, I consider these inexpensive nutrient powerhouses as the best nutritional buy in the whole supermarket.
They're bursting with nutrients. One cup of cooked beans provides as much protein as two eggs or 2 ounces of meat, fish or poultry. Beans are naturally low in fat and rich in antioxidant substances that fight off the effects of premature aging and disease.
They help regulate blood pressure. Largely due to their provision of potassium and magnesium, beans and other legumes are an integral part of the DASH diet – Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension. Research shows that eating small servings of beans (along with seeds and nuts) 4 or 5 times a week lowers blood pressure, especially when combined with a low-sodium diet.
They help lower blood cholesterol levels. Beans are rich in a certain type of dietary fiber called soluble fiber. This type of fiber literally helps pull extra cholesterol out of the body on its journey through the digestive tract.
They can help control diabetes. Almost half the carbohydrates in beans is in the form of dietary fiber, an indigestible substance that does not contribute to blood sugar spikes.
They are versatile. Besides my appreciation that you almost can't overcook beans, they work in a variety of dishes. Use them as your primary protein source or as a vegetable in salads and side dishes. They can also be incorporated into appetizers, breads and desserts.
They last a long time. Properly stored (cool and dry) beans can be stored safely for a year, according to the California Dry Bean Advisory Board.
About the "other" issue...According to the Nebraska Dry Bean Growers Association, when undigested carbohydrates in beans reach the large intestine, they are fermented by bacteria and form gas. On the positive side, the more we eat beans, the less frequent these side effects become. Soaking beans and discarding the water several times before cooking can also help.
(Barbara Quinn is a registered dietitian and certified diabetes educator affiliated with Community Hospital of the Monterey Peninsula. She is the author of "Quinn-Essential Nutrition" (Westbow Press, 2015). Email her at to email@example.com.)