Spill the beans into your diet for good health

September 14, 2005|by LYNN F. LITTLE

Dried beans, peas and lentils - also known as legumes - have been getting high praise this year. The 2005 Dietary Guidelines made a definitive recommendation that Americans should eat more beans. On, beans are the only food featured in two different categories, both the vegetable group and the meat and beans group.

There are many good reasons why dried beans, peas and lentils are the only items included in two different food groups. Like other veggies, legumes are rich in antioxidants, folic acid and B vitamins, as well as low in fat and cholesterol-free. They also are one of the best sources of fiber. Like meats, legumes provide an excellent source of protein, along with iron and zinc.

In January 2005, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved a new health claim for bean packages and cans: "Diets including beans may reduce your risk of heart disease and certain cancers."


The plain truth about beans is that Americans aren't getting enough. Based on surveys by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, we only eat about one-third the recommended amount of legumes - one cup instead of the recommend three cups per week. Beans and peas can be enjoyed in many ways: as entrees (beef and bean tacos), side dishes (baked pintos), soups (lentil or split pea), and salads (three- or four-bean combos).

Recipes can be prepared from dried beans (soaked, rinsed and cooked) or quickly from canned beans (rinsed to remove excess sodium). Here are three simple ways to up your intake of this cheap-to-buy, quick-to-prepare and easy-to-include group of foods:

  • Spill your beans out of a can: For immediate gratification, canned beans are your best bet. Make sure that your cupboard is never bare of several kinds - and you'll be able to whip up a Tuscan Bean and Tomato Salad or Mexican Black Bean Soup from

  • Rinse your troubles away: Carefully rinsing canned beans under cold water reduces their sodium content substantially. Thorough rinsing also is the most effective way to remove the gas-producing sugar (raffinose) found in legumes. Rinsing gets rid of raffinose, sugars that lead to gas in some people. Rinsing soaked beans several times also helps wash away the gas-causing compounds.

  • Learn about lentils: For maximum taste and nutrition, explore the wide variety of legumes available in grocery stores and restaurants today. Many ethnic cuisines, especially from Asia, India, Central America and South America, have delicious, traditional bean dishes. Dal (lentils) is a staple of Indian cuisine. Give them a try and you also will appreciate their variety and versatility - in green, red, brown or black colors. Like dried peas, lentils cook quickly and are perfect in spicy combinations of garlic, onion, veggies and curry.

Take advantage of the nutrition power in dried beans, peas and lentils. Meeting your weekly quota of legumes can be a snap. It's as simple as sprinkling some chickpeas onto your plate at the salad bar or making a pot of lentil soup to reheat for lunch. For tempting bean recipes, check your favorite cookbook or go online for everything from appetizers to desserts at Many companies also offer quick and tasty recipes on packages and cans of beans, peas and lentils.

Lynn F. Little is a family and consumer sciences educator with Maryland Cooperative Extension in Washington County.

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