Beans and peas are the mature forms of legumes. They include kidney beans, pinto beans, black beans, lima beans, black-eyed peas, garbanzo beans (chickpeas), split peas and lentils. They are available in dry, canned, and frozen forms. These foods are excellent sources of plant protein, and also provide other nutrients such as iron and zinc. They are similar to meats, poultry, and fish in their contribution of these nutrients. Therefore, they are considered part of the Protein Foods Group. Many people consider beans and peas as vegetarian alternatives for meat. However, they are also considered part of the Vegetable Group because they are excellent sources of dietary fiber and nutrients such as folate and potassium. These nutrients, which are often low in the diet of many Americans, are also found in other vegetables.
Because of their high nutrient content, consuming beans and peas is recommended for everyone, including people who also eat meat, poultry, and fish regularly. The USDA Food Patterns classify beans and peas as a subgroup of the Vegetable Group. The USDA Food Patterns also indicate that beans and peas may be counted as part of the Protein Foods Group. Individuals can count beans and peas as either a vegetable or a protein food.
Green peas, green lima beans, and green (string) beans are not considered to be part of the beans and peas subgroup. Green peas and green lima beans are similar to other starchy vegetables and are grouped with them. Green beans are grouped with other vegetables such as onions, lettuce, celery, and cabbage because their nutrient content is similar to those foods.
History of Beans
Beans have played a vital role in the nutritional health of many cultures from ancient times to the present. Evidence on the extent of their cultivation and consumption abounds: from the royal tombs of ancient Egypt to the classical Greece of Homer’s Iliad to the Old Testament. The use of legumes as a basic dietary staple can be traced back more than 20,000 years in some Eastern cultures, while the common bean, the lima bean and the pinta, or cranberry, bean were cultivated for the first time in the very earliest Mexican and Peruvian civilisations more than 5,000 years ago, being popular in both the Aztec and Inca cultures.
Ten thousand-year-old lentil remains have been uncovered on the banks of the Euphrates River in what is now Northern Syria. In ancient Gaul, chickpeas appeared as an ingredient in vegetable soup as early as the 7th century B.C. Homer, in the “Illiad,” compared arrows bouncing off Menelaos’ breastplate to chickpeas being thrown by a winnower. On the far side of the Mediterranean, chickpeas were found in Bronze Age deposits in Jericho and Babylon.
Lentils are known to have been favored by the ancient Egyptians – the remains of a paste of lentils was found in 3rd Century B.C. tombs at Thebes and a 2nd Century B.C. fresco shows lentil soup being prepared in the time of Ramses II – but less well regarded in ancient Greece where they were thought of as “poor man’s food.”
The botanical name for chickpeas, Cicer arietinum, from Aries, refered to the ram’s head-like shape of the seed. Cicer was the latin name for the crop and it has often been assumed that the Roman rhetorician and philosopher Cicero was so named because he had a wart on his nose the size of a chickpea. Whether or not this was the case, chickpeas and warts remained inextricably linked, at least where Italian is spoken; the Italian “ceci” means both wart and chickpea.
Cultivation and consumption of chickpeas and faba beans gradually spread throughout Europe. In the 9th century, as Charlemagne tried to restore productivity to lands ravaged by war, he ordered that chickpeas be one of the crops planted on the pilot farms of his domains. The Italian writer and academic, Umberto Eco maintains that the cultivation of beans in Europe during the Middle Ages was of enormous importance, saving Europeans from the tragic fate of malnutrition and possible extinction.
By the 16th Century, with ships fanning out across the globe, Europeans began to be introduced to some of the exotic foods the New World had to offer, among them the common bean. So called because of its scientific name Phaseolus vulgaris, the name “common bean” refers to the seeds of many different beans, including the dry varieties that the English dubbed “kidney beans” in order to distinguish them from their Old World cousins. These hardy New World legumes soon became a poular crop in Europe because they were both highly nutritious, and easy to grow and store. And because of their nutritional value and ease of storage, they became a primary food for sailors, which is how the Navy bean got it’s name.
Gianbattista Barpo, the 16th Century author of the weighty agricultural and gastronomical volume “Le Delizie,” wrote about the health and nutritional benefits of bean consumption. And he created quite a stir when he suggested that beans were not only beneficial to the kidneys and spleen, but their consumption would enhance male sexual peformance.
Italian Renaissance gourmet Bartholomew Scappi described dishes of beans, eggs, cinnamon, walnuts, sugar, onions and butter in his cookbooks. Catherine d’ Medici of Florence was supposedly so enamoured of the beans that grew in her native land, that she smuggled some to France when she married Henry, Duke of Orleans, later to become King Henry II of France. If this story is to be believed, we can thank Catherine for the invention of cassoulet, a “French” delicacy made with goose fat, duck or lamb and white beans.
Despite occasional nods from royalty, beans were seen as a meat substitute for the poor and rarely graced the tables of the upper classes. During times of hardship like the Great Depression in the United States, beans were promoted as a source of protein, as meat was scarce and expensive. World War II increased the demand for beans as they became a staple in the C-rations used by United States servicemen around the world. After the war, as the United States’ food relief efforts around the world intensified, so did dry bean production.
In the United States, with its increasingly health-conscious society, beans are a welcome addition to the mainstream pantry. They are one of the most nutritionally complete foods available; in fact they are the only food to fit into two groups on the USDA Food Guide Pyramid: vegetable and protein. Studies confirm that a diet incorporating beans, with their low caloric count and high fibre content, helps to lower cholesterol. The combination of indisputable health benefits and incredible variety of flavors and textures ensures the bean’s prominent place at the modern table.
Varieties of Beans
Snake or Chinese beans
These may be called yard-long beans, asparagus beans or long podded cow peas. These green beans are similar to regular green beans but are very long (30-50 cm). Supply is limited. They are used traditionally in Asian and Indian cooking.
They are usually 10-15 cm in length and 1 cm in diameter with rounded pods. The pods are quite tender so it is not necessary to remove any strings. The complete pod is eaten although the ends can be trimmed if desired.
Similar in shape to regular green beans but they are very pale yellow/cream colour. The complete pod is eaten although the ends can be trimmed if desired.
French or flat Beans
Usually about 15 cm in length, they are a flat pod with slightly ridged sides. Most newer cultivars have very few, if any strings, so the complete pod is eaten, although the ends can be trimmed.
Pole beans will grow as a climbing vine that may reach up to 15 feet tall. Therefore, pole beans require a trellis or staking. Bush beans will spread up to 2 feet, but do not require support.
Do not start seeds indoors; they may not survive transplanting.
Seeds can be sown outdoors anytime after the last spring frost; minimum soil temperature is 48 degrees F. Plant 1 inch deep in normal soil, and a little deeper for sandier soils. Cover soil to warm if necessary.
Bush beans: Plant 2 inches apart.
Pole beans: Set up trellises, or “cattle panels,” and plant 3 inches apart.
If you like pole beans, an easy support for them is a “cattle panel” portable section of wire fence 6 feet long and 5 feet tall. The beans will climb with ease and you won’t have to get into contorted positions to pick them.
For a harvest that lasts all summer, sow beans every 2 weeks. If you’re going to be away, skip a planting. Beans do not wait for anyone.
Rotate crops each year.
Bush beans germinate in about 7 days, pole beans in about 14. It’s important to maintain even soil moisture during this period and also when the plants are about to blossom. If the soil dries out at these times, your harvest may be drastically reduced. Water deeply at least once a week when there is no rain, being careful not to hose off any of the blossoms on bush beans when you water. Apply several inches of mulch (after the seedlings emerge) to conserve moisture, reduce weeds, and keep the soil cool during hot spells (high heat can cause blossoms to drop off).
Beans generally don’t need extra nitrogen for good growth because the beneficial bacteria that live in nodules on bean roots help to provide nitrogen for the plants. To speed up growth, give beans particularly long-bearing pole beans or heavy-feeding limas a midseason side-dressing of compost or kelp extract solution.
Harvesting green beans is an ongoing task and the more you pick, the more beans the plants will set. You can start to harvest anytime after the beans form, however gardeners usually wait until the beans begin to firm up and can be snapped, but before you can see the seeds inside bulging. They are generally about as thick as a pencil, at that point.
Don’t wait too long, because beans can become overgrown and tough almost overnight. Harvest by gently pulling each bean from the vine or by snapping them off the vine end.
Facts About Beans
- Beans are the only cultivated plants that actually enrich, rather than deplete, the soil during the growing process. How is this possible? Legumes have nodules on their roots that add nitrogen to the soil instead of using it up.
- Cooked beans can be frozen for up to six months. Thaw them overnight in the fridge before reheating.
- Bean carbohydrates have been proven to drastically improve the stability of blood sugar levels in diabetics. Many adult-onset diabetics have been able to greatly reduce or eliminate their dependence on insulin through diets containing substantial amounts of beans.
- In ancient Rome, so esteemed were legumes that the four leading families took their names from them: Lentullus (lentil), Piso (pea), Cicero (chickpea), and Fabius (fava).
- India, Canada, Turkey, Australia, Nepal, the United States, Bangladesh, and China are the world’s top lentil producers.
- Beans, their skin, and the products made from them—such as tofu and tempeh—are the most concentrated source of plant-based protein in the world. Between 6 and 11 percent of a cooked bean’s weight is protein.
- Some ancient cults who believed in reincarnation, most notably the monastic followers of Pythagoras, thought human souls traveled through the stems of bean plants to Hades, where they were then transmogrified for their next lives; it was, therefore, a sin to eat beans or even walk among bean plants.
- The mischief-maker behind the bean’s reputation as a musical fruit is a group of complex sugars called oligosaccharides. Oligosaccharides cannot be broken down by our digestive enzymes; instead, our intestinal bacteria ferment them during digestion, causing most of the gas attributable to beans. Luckily, it’s possible to mitigate the gas-making effects of beans through controlling factors such as cooking method and duration, complementary ingredients, and the variety of bean used.
- A 1907 resolution introduced by Minnesota Senator Knute Nelson states that while the Senate is in session, bean soup must be served daily, regardless of the weather.
Health Benefits of Beans
Cardiovascular Disease: Green beans can help reduce the risk of heart disease due to their high levels of flavonoids. Flavonoids are polyphenolic antioxidants that are commonly found in fruits and vegetables. They have high levels of flavonoids and these antioxidants have certain anti-inflammatory properties. Test subjects with high flavonoid levels experienced anti-thrombotic results, preventing blood clots in the arteries and veins. Cardiovascular disease, heart attacks, and strokes are commonly caused by thrombotic activity, which means that a healthy volume of green beans and flavonoids in a diet can help prevent some of these conditions.
Eye Health: Certain specific carotenoids that are found in green beans can also prevent macular degeneration, which is a decrease in vision and eye function. Lutein and Zeaxanthin are focused at the macula on the eye, and play a key role in preventing any stress to the inner workings of the eye. Ensuring that these carotenoid levels stay strong to prevent vision deterioration is one of the many benefits of including green beans in your balanced diet.
Diabetes: These power-packed legumes have been shown to help manage and regulate diabetes symptoms in many patients. Certain studies have shown a definitive hypoglycemic influence on patients with diabetes. Diabetes is a condition that requires constant maintenance of blood sugar levels at a normal level so the body can perform necessary tasks. Natural regulators of diabetes are rare, and the connection of beans and similar plants to the control or early prevention of diabetes is great news for many people.
Read about other vegetables