August 17, 2012

6 Min Read
Bean There, Done That

By R.J. Foster, Contributing Editor

Beans, believed to have originated in ancient Peru and Mexico, are referenced in the Old Testament of the Bible, played a key role in ancient Greek celebrations honoring the sun god, and have been found in Egyptian pyramids.

Today, beans have gained favor in the culinary community as integral elements in ethnic preparations. And, as people seek out more-economical or vegetarian sources of protein, they look for bean-centric dishes. Their nutritional profiles are also driving interest, with a growing list of legumes finding application throughout the food industry.

Humans beans

Beans are legumesplants whose seeds dry in the seed-pod. Beans are related to peas, lentils, soybeans and peanuts. Beans grow in many sizes and colors, but always have the same oval, or kidney," shape.

Almost half of the over 1.9 million acres of U.S.-grown beans are pinto beans. Medium in size, pintos display reddish-brown spots that dissipate upon cooking. Pintos provide a creamy texture and mild, earthy flavor. Often associated with Southwestern and Tex-Mex cuisine, pintos are most commonly used to make refried beans.

As the name suggests, black beansalso referred to as turtle, Mexican and Spanish black beansare named for their deep black color. They are medium-sized and provide a sweet, earthy taste sometimes compared to that of mushrooms. They maintain their shape through cooking, and are found in Mexican, Latino and Caribbean foods.

Another bean known for maintaining form through cooking is the kidney bean. Named for their shape, kidney beans come in dark red, light red and white varieties. The red varieties exhibit a similarly robust taste and creamy texture, while the white ones, also referred to as cannellini or fazolia beans, deliver a creamy texture and a nutty flavor.

Another white variety is the pea-sized navy bean. Sometimes called pea beans due to their diminutive size, navy beans deliver a smooth texture and mild flavor. They received the name navy" during the latter half of the 19th century when they became an integral part of the U.S. naval diet. Today, they are used in baked beans, stews and soups.

More than a musical fruit

Cheryl Borders, research manager for soy foods applications and technical service, edible beans, ADM,  Decatur, IL, explains how modern technology is moving beans beyond their time-honored applications in soups, dips, vegetarian foods, salads and stews. Beyond the traditional uses, the various bean products can be used in sheeted and extruded pasta and snacks, bakery items, and as thickening agents," she says.

In addition to functional effects, Borders notes that manufacturers are looking for various ways to offer better-for-you food items without sacrificing taste or texture. More nutrient dense than typical cereal grains and flours, beans provide notable levels of important nutrients, such as folate, thiamin, niacin, iron, potassium, zinc, magnesium, copper, choline and calcium. Typically containing 20% to 30% protein on a dry-weight basis, beans deliver around 7.5 grams of protein per half-cup serving (cooked).  Beans also provide around 6 grams of fiber, approximately one-third soluble and two-thirds insoluble, per half-cup serving (cooked).

Bean products are gluten-free, and are suitable for celiacs, as well as individuals with gluten sensitivity," notes Borders. In addition, bean products are GMO-free and non-allergenic (i.e., not on the FDAs list of the eight most common food allergens).

Edible bean products contain both soluble and insoluble fiber, which may help to slow digestion." Borders says. These fibers can contribute to providing a feeling of fullness, or satiety, which can help in weight management. Complex carbohydrates in beans can also contribute to a low glycemic index, meaning a decreased level of glucose in blood following a meal."

Busy beans

Bean products are available for commercial use in several forms, including raw, washed whole beans, pre-cooked and dehydrated. The pre-cooked products are available in a variety of particle sizes: whole, pieces, grits, noodles and powders," Borders says. "The application will determine the most-suitable particle size, and the different particle sizes offer developers a way to vary texture and appearance in a finished product."

Whole beans give the look and mouthfeel of traditional bean-containing items. Pieces provide some textural identity in situations where whole beans may be undesirable or unfeasible due to processing constraints.

The edible bean pieces can be used in applications where bean particles add to the appearance and texture of the final product, but whole beans are too large or difficult to incorporate into the matrix,"  Borders adds. Snack products would be one example."

 Noodles" are actually whole cooked beans pressed/shaped into strands that can be rehydrated with water, then seasoned and used as a refried bean product, or as a nutritional or textural component in another product.

Ground grits" behave like powders, but deliver a bit of texture and some small, yet noticeable chunks.

Bean powders enhance nutrition by adding fiber and as much as a full serving of vegetables to products. They also provide natural thickening in fluid products like soups, yogurts and dips. They can also function as natural binders in meat applications, and be extruded into pasta or snack-food items.

 Borders suggests while edible bean products are easily combined with traditional cereal grains, proteins, starches and carbohydrates, it is important to work with your supplier to ensure proper usage levels. Some adjustment may need to be made to the liquid in the formulation due to the protein and fiber content of the edible beans," she says.

The grass is always beaner

The words healthy" and snack" dont often go together, especially when describing something crunchy. A 2012 report by Technomic indicates that, as consumers increasingly seek snacks to avoid overeating at mealtime, there are increasing opportunities for manufacturers to develop good-for-you snacks as part of a healthy diet. Many of those manufacturers are turning to beans.

New snack optionsincluding Michael Seasons Popped Black Bean Crisps, and Beanfields Bean and Rice Chipslist black beans first on their ingredient declarations. Snikiddys Eat Your Vegetables line of snacks lists navy beans first on its ingredient lists.

Borders also points to the pet-food industry as another area of growing interest in bean products. Pulses are a nutritional alternative for pet food: all-natural protein, fiber and starch, low-fat, responsible, gluten-free, non-GMO, no taste sacrifice, and a vegetable protein and fiber source."

Dale Hill, Ph.D., ADM Alliance Nutrition, Inc., adds, There is interest on the pet food side of the aisle in grain-free diets as a source of protein and fiber."

R.J. Foster is a Wordsmith with a B.S. in food science from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and over 15 years of experience in the food industry. He can be reached through his website,

 For more information on beans and their use in a range of food applications, see Image Gallery: Bean Facts and Applications.


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