Beans, Beans, The Magical Fruit

Or is it musical?

Do you find you're gassy when you eat beans? For some folks, there's a real food intolerance, or even allergy, but for most of us, that occasional gassy-ness can be easily avoided!

Two things I want to write about, about beans. First thing: why do beans make some people gassy, or bloated? Second thing: why do I love beans so much?

Why do beans make some folks gassy? Typically this has to do with how the beans are prepared (or, rather, how the beans weren't prepared). In brief, just like those grains we talked about a couple weeks ago, legumes are seeds! That means they too contain enzyme inhibitors. As with the grains, if those enzyme inhibitors are not deactivated in the beans when you eat them, then you're eating active enzyme inhibitors. These enzyme inhibitors will continue to act in your body, impeding your body's natural digestive processes (they will inhibit your body's digestive enzymes); and, because these enzyme inhibitors are active, the seed (the bean, legume) is more difficult for your body to digest because it's still, technically, dormant. All of this is causing stress on the digestive system - not to mention undigested bean parts - and the result?...gas!

So how do we deactivate these enzyme inhibitors in beans? It's pretty simple, I'll say, but it's not quick. Good things in life take time, don't they say? The answer: soaking.

To properly prepare dried beans for meals, it is best to soak the beans in ample water (I usually soak at least 2 cups of beans at a time - you might want to soak more if you're feeding a family - in 4-6 cups of water) with an acidic medium - lime juice is best - for 24 hours (or at least a minimum of 12 hours). If you have the time and the foresight, you might even rinse the beans once or twice in those 24 hours and replace with fresh water and fresh lime juice. Not too difficult, right? Once the beans have soaked for 24 hours, rinse them once again, replace with fresh water, and then cook on a simmer for 30-60 minutes, or until the beans are soft (I suggest such a long time range because different beans will cook at different rates...and all stove tops are different too; check the beans after 30 minutes to determine how soft they are.)

So what's the difference between re-hydrating my own beans and buying those already-cooked canned beans?

Truth is, probably not a whole lot. With the canned beans it's more difficult to guarantee that the beans were soaked properly. That's one major caveat. The other is the typical sodium content of canned beans. Salt has historically been a very common preservative, and continues to be today. Not a problem, really, but just know that if you consume a lot of preserved, packaged, and prepared foods, you are likely taking in more sodium (salt) than you really need. The recommended intake for the average, healthy person (what does that even mean!?) is 2400mg of sodium per day. I'm not a numbers cruncher; instead I tend to stick with whole, fresh foods that contain minimal amounts of sodium; I then saltify my own foods using large-grain sea salt that I crack myself. So, if you prefer to skip the bean soak, try the canned beans; BUT, be sure to buy low-sodium or sodium-free canned beans. Better yet, try both, and keep a little food record - note your flatulence symptoms after eating canned beans compared to your flatulence symptoms after eating your own re-hydrated beans. Does one work better for you?

Ah, yes, and one last piece. Always there is the argument that "eating healthy" is so expensive. Let me be the umpteenth person to say that dried beans are one of the cheapest, most nutritious foods available to us human creatures. Canned beans are inevitably more expensive than dried beans. But yes, soaking and cooking the beans inevitably takes more time than opening a can, even if you're the worst can opener in the world. A little bit of planning can go a long way, literally! So the choice is yours there. What do I do? I do a little bit of both. I generally soak and cook my own beans, but sometimes when I'm in a pinch, I'll pick up a can of beans for a quick meal.

On to my second question: why do I love beans so much? That one's a little harder to answer. But I think it has to do with how nourishing beans are to the human body. Beans provide a very healthy dose of soluble fibers. These lovely fibers absorb water in our digestive tract, allowing our stool to bulk up (which makes it much easier to pass the next morning!), and act as a food source for the beneficial bacteria that live in our intestines. Ever heard of pre-biotics? More on this to come, but, really quickly: pre-biotics serve as the "food" for beneficial bacteria (much like how sugar serves as the "food" for the opportunistic, or harmful, bacteria) in our guts (aka digestive tract, colon, large intestine). This means that when we eat pre-biotic foods we are helping the beneficial bacteria multiply; these bacteria are beneficial because as they digest things like soluble fibers, they release short-chain fatty acids that our bodies can use for energy, and they release other molecules that help enhance our immune system.

Beans are also an excellent source of protein, iron, manganese, folate, molybdenum, phosphorus, magnesium, and vitamin B1. Many of these micronutrients play a big role in energy production in our bodies, and help to maintain our nervous system in good health. Because of the complex carbohydrates found in beans, beans are also an excellent source of that necessary glucose molecule - excellent because digestion of complex carbohydrates is slow (something "complex" would require more time and more effort to break down, or digest), meaning that as the carbohydrates in beans are slowly digested down to glucose, those glucose molecules are released slowly into the blood stream. This is crucial for good health, because it ensures a neutral blood sugar level, and ensures a reliable, longer-lasting source of "fuel" from our food.

I could probably talk for days about beans. But I'm gonna keep this one brief (ish). Lately beans are topping my list of pre-race foods - primarily because they are a rich source of protein, complex carbohydrates, and micronutrients that are critical for energy production. They're also one of my favorite pre- (and post-!) race foods because I usually prepare them with antioxidant-rich garlic, onion, herbs, and spices (these come in handy for immune health, which can be especially important when we demand so much from our bodies physically and mentally).

You'll see my list of bean recipes fluff up pretty quickly. For now, here's my most recent bean meal:

Find the recipe for Easy Black Beans here.

For further readings on beans, check these out:

Zanovec Michael, O'Neil Carol E, Nicklas Theresa A. Comparison of Nutrient Density and Nutrient-to-Cost between Cooked and Canned Beans. Food and Nutrition Sciences, 2001; 2: 66-73.

Greger, Michael. Beans and Gas: Clearing the Air.; 2011.

Black Beans. The World's Healthiest

Czapp, Katherine. Putting the Polish on Those Humble Beans. Weston A Price Foundation; 2007.