Beans have been around for many years and continue to play an important role in our diets. First cultivated in Peru and Mexico around 8,000 years ago, advances in technology mean they are now cultivated worldwide.
High Nutritional Value
Beans, alongside chickpeas, peas, lentils, peanuts and soybeans, are collectively known as legumes. Legumes are praised for contributing to a healthy diet and research has shown that regularly including them in your meals can help protect against some chronic diseases.
Beans are a good source of protein, fibre, vitamins and minerals and are low in fat and salt. Their high fibre content means that beans can help to slow down digestion, helping to keep us feeling fuller for longer and helping to keep blood sugar levels stable, as opposed to eating a highly processed, sugary meal.
Beans are often an important source of protein in vegetarian and vegan diets. It is believed that the health benefits of beans are most obvious when used to replace meat in the diet. The “Meatless Monday” movement in recent years has helped to celebrate the humble bean.
Beans As A Functional Food
A functional food is a food that provides additional benefits above its nutritional value. Examples include probiotic and prebiotic yogurts, fortified breads, omega-3 enriched eggs and beans.
Beans can be considered a functional food because they contain polyphenols. Polyphenols are compounds found naturally in beans, as well as in fruits, vegetables, herbs, spices, nuts, wine, olive oil, tea, coffee and chocolate. Research has shown that polyphenols in beans act as antioxidants to protect against heart disease, obesity and diabetes.
There are different groups of polyphenols (flavonoids, phenolic acids, stilbenes and lignans), each with their own benefits. The health-promoting effects of polyphenols is dependent on the quantity consumed, i.e. the greatest health benefits are seen when beans are consumed regularly. If you include beans in your diet, try to choose a mix of the different types of beans as the different colours represent different polyphenols within, e.g. the polyphenol content of kidney beans, black beans and butterbeans would all vary slightly.
Cooking with Beans
Beans are one of the most versatile and most commonly eaten foods around the world. Beans are naturally gluten-free, dairy-free, lactose-free, vegetarian and vegan-friendly. However, if you are buying beans with sauce, be sure to read the label first for potential allergens.
Adding More Beans To Your Diet
My favourite way to include beans at breakfast it to have hummus on corn cakes. To make a quick hummus, simply mash tinned chickpeas (drained and rinsed) with lemon juice and seasoning.
I love adding beans to soup. Most recently I made a vegetable soup and added a tin of butter beans (drained and rinsed) for added protein and fibre.
Beans are often associated with meals of south American origin, such as in Mexico. Vegetarian nachos or chilli con carne are a creative way to add kidney beans to the dinner table.
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Amy Meegan, BSc (Hons) Human Nutrition, UCD