Beans. They don’t get a lot of respect in North America. Walk down the aisles of an average grocery store, and you might find a few cans of chickpeas and refried beans. Maybe a sad, dusty bag of dried red lentils on a lower shelf. It’s quite a different story in many other parts of the world, where beans are a part of everyday cuisine. In cultures as diverse as Mexico and India, dishes that feature beans and rice – which combine to form a complete protein with all the amino acids needed for human health – are staples. In Europe, elegant French lentils are easy to find in grocery stores, and beans on toast make a classic British breakfast.
2016 is the year to eat more beans. It’s the official year of pulses, according to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Office. This group of crops is more than just a good source of cheap plant-based protein and includes not just beans but also peas, lentils, chickpeas, soy and even peanuts. Here’s why you should eat more beans in 2016.
Good for you
In addition to protein, beans are a great source of fibre. They also contain health-supporting phytochemicals and antioxidants. Lentils are a particular nutrition all-star, with a high iron content, folate and other essential nutrients. Eat your beans or lentils with rice and a source of vitamin C (like tomatoes) to optimize the absorption of protein and iron.
Good for the soil
Unlike most crops, which drain nutrients from the soil over time, pulses have an almost magical ability to restore soil fertility. When used in a proper crop rotation, beans and their relatives increase the amount of available nitrogen in the soil, which is like protein for plants. I’ll spare you the nerdy science of how this works, but suffice to say, it’s fascinating and involves friendly bacteria.
Inexpensive plant-based protein
According to a recent University of Guelph study, the average Canadian family will spend $345 more on food in 2016. Beans are a great way to keep your grocery bill down, especially if you buy them dried rather than canned. Meanwhile, the growing movement towards healthy and sustainable alternatives to conventional meat makes beans an ideal ethical protein option.
Why you don’t eat enough beans
I know why you don’t eat enough beans. They can be boring. Aside from burritos and curries, it can be hard to figure out what to do with them. The cans produce a lot of waste and the dried beans require a mysterious process of soaking before they’re ready to cook. And they’re hard to digest… you know what I mean. In fact, I once thought that I was allergic to beans because they were so hard on my system and didn’t make me feel good after consumption. Turns out that I was just not preparing them properly.
Here are a few tips on bringing beans into your diet:
- Learn how to cook dried beans properly. It’s very easy once you get the hang of it. Pulse Canada has a great guide on preparing beans and their relatives.
- Buy pulses from specialty food stores. Most large grocery stores carry only a couple of kinds, but I’ve found that the smaller, quirkier stores will have way more interesting varieties, from French lentils to mung beans and more.
- Lentils don’t require soaking and are a great place to start. I’m a particular fan of the simple green lentils cooked with sauteed onions.
- Combine beans with rice, dairy, seeds or nuts to provide a complete protein. Your stomach and energy levels will feel much better this way – trust me.
- Most non-organic soy is genetically modified, so you may want to shell out the extra money for organic. Unlike other beans, soy provides a complete protein. Keep in mind that soy contains naturally occurring female hormones that some people prefer to avoid.
Ways to eat beans
Hummus, a spread made from chickpeas, is one of my favourite ways to eat beans. It’s great on veggie sticks or on crackers. Lentils are delicious in a curry or cooked with sauteed onions and a dash of balsamic vinegar. And black beans are great on top of rice with fresh salsa and cilantro.
Growing beans and other pulses
Snap peas, a member of the pulse family, are a classic feature of many vegetable gardens. The sweet, crunchy taste is unlike anything you can buy in stores. Similarly, bush and pole beans, grown for their tender pods, are a great choice for gardeners. The protein content of these crops is lower than with dried beans, so they are best to think of as a green vegetables. Can you grow your own high protein dried beans? Yes, but it’s a lot of work. I’ve grown black beans a couple of times, and when the weather is hot enough, they can be quite successful in home gardens. You need to wait until the pods naturally dry out on the plant, and then pick the beans out by hand. If you have a lot of TV to watch, it can be a fun project.