Description: Beans, one of the plant foods from the legume family, are a high-fiber, low-fat, vitamin-packed source of protein. Originally, the word ‘bean’ meant the seed of the ‘broad bean’, but later included other types such as: kidney, navy, red, lima, fava, black, garbanzo (chickpeas), adzuki, mung and pinto. Today, the word bean also includes related plants such as soybeans, peas, lentils, and peanuts. Although beans are an important part of traditional diets around the world, they have become more neglected in typical Western diets. The most recent Dietary Guidelines for Americans, however, recommends a weekly intake of six servings (3 cups) for people who consume 2000 kcal/day. Beans are an inexpensive, nutrient-dense source of plant protein that can be substituted for dietary animal protein, and can help balance the metabolism. They contain phytochemicals, and are rich sources of potassium, calcium, iron, several B-vitamins, and are low on the glycemic index. Foods having low glycemic index values such as beans are less likely to raise blood glucose and insulin levels, which helps to decrease the risk of cardiovascular disease, cancer, obesity, and diabetes, yet increase the possibility of weight and fat loss.

What to look for: Select and experiment with a wide variety of beans and the other related plants such as soybeans, peas and lentils. When buying beans, look for a deep, almost glossy color; do not buy dry-looking or faded ones, which indicates a longer storage time. The longer beans are stored, the less fresh they’ll taste. For convenience, there are many varieties of canned beans available, as well as precooked, packaged and frozen items. Most of these products, especially canned, have added sodium and sometimes sugar. Be sure to rinse canned beans well for at least a minute with cold water to wash away a quarter to a third of the sodium.

Uses: Inclusion of beans is a very straightforward way to improve diet quality. Whether you prepare beans from scratch or use one of the convenience products, there are endless ways to incorporate them into your recipes and make your meals and snacks both nutritious and interesting. For example, prepare soups, stews and casseroles; use pureed beans as the basis for dips and spreads or as a sauce with pasta and vegetables; add chickpeas or black beans to salads; substitute beans for meat in main dishes; substitute beans for high-glycemic index foods like white rice or potatoes, and don’t forget those bean burritos.

Cooking Tips: To produce beans that are consistently tasty and visually appealing, follow these simple guidelines: Plan a day ahead of time for the most delicious cooked beans by soaking them the night before you are going to cook them. First rinse and drain well, transfer to a large bowl or pot, and cover with at least double the amount of water as beans. Prior to cooking, drain once again, just before putting them in the pot you are to cook them in, covering pre-soaked beans with at least three inches of fresh water. Boiling beans loosens and weakens the outer skin, so ideally for perfect beans, cook whole beans by keeping the heat at a high simmer, without boiling. While cooking, keep beans covered as sudden exposure to the air causes the skins to flake; minimize stirring which can damage the appearance of the beans; add liquid as needed. Salt, sugar and acidic foods, like tomatoes, will harden uncooked beans and therefore should be added last, after the beans have been completely cooked. Cooking times vary from one to four hours, but are substantially reduced with pressure cooking. See the recipe section for pressure cooking guidelines and how to make a great pot of beans.

Where to find: Health Food Stores, Online Resources, Organic and Natural Food Stores (if buying in bulk, make sure store is reliable source and turnover is frequent), reliable supermarkets and food stores.

Avoid: Dry beans will keep indefinitely if stored away from heat, light and moisture; but as time passes, their nutritive value and flavor degrades and cooking times lengthen. Keep unopened canned products in a cool, dry place, and they are good for two to five years. Avoid canned beans high in sodium by buying “no added salt” products. There are several methods and products available to help decrease intestinal gas, and avoid the “anti-social side-effects” of flatulence, by de-gassing your beans. Mixing 1/8 teaspoon of baking soda into the soaking water and letting set overnight before draining and cooking, will help to leach out gas-causing raffinose sugars. The power or quick soak method is to boil beans for three minutes, set aside 2-4 hours, then drain and discard water and proceed with cooking.