Healthy cooking on a budget? Beans are economic nutritional stars

Organic pulses, including lentils and beans, lie in glass cylinders on display at the 2013 Gruene Woche agricultural trade fair on January 18, 2013 in Berlin, Germany. Sean Gallup / Getty Images

LONDON, Ont. – In the world of fine dining and sexy, sophisticated foods, dry and canned beans probably don’t rank very high, if at all.

But for home cooks who value nutrition and economy, beans are stars, even called a “superfood” in some quarters.

Collectively, dry peas, edible beans, lentils and chickpeas (or garbanzo beans) are called pulses, defined as “the edible seeds of plants in the legume family” by Pulse Canada, a Winnipeg-based umbrella organization for Canadian bean growers. This does not include soybeans, which are classed as a grain, or green beans and green peas, which are vegetables.

Nutritionally, they are high in protein and fibre, says Deb Campbell, a professional home economist from Exeter, Ont. “And within themselves, there’s not the fat content that we have from animal protein sources.”

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Beans also have high levels of minerals such as iron, zinc and phosphorus, plus folate and other B vitamins.

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There’s not much difference in the comparative nutritive value of various types of beans, says Campbell. Nor is there much difference between dry and canned beans, except for the higher sodium content of the canned products.

“But you can eliminate a lot of the sodium of canned beans by “simply putting them in a sieve and running them under cold water.” This also prevents the dark sauces on canned black beans or red kidney beans from affecting the colour of the food you’re cooking, she says.

In terms of the budgetary benefits of beans, Campbell sums it up in one word: “Brilliant.

“Because you’re looking at plant-based protein, it’s not nearly the same cost as animal-based protein. Beans are extremely economical.”

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The shelf price of beans is “fairly stable throughout the year,” says Erin Morgan, general manager of Ontario Bean Growers in Stratford, Ont. Another advantage is that most of the beans sold in Canada are grown and processed here. The 2013 crop, harvested last fall, is starting to show up in grocery stores now.

Ontario’s specialties are white beans (also called navy beans), black beans, three types of kidney beans (white, light red and dark red), two Japanese varieties (adzuki and otebo), cranberry or romano beans (white with a pink speckled pattern) and small red beans, Morgan says.

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Crops that prefer dryer conditions – field peas, lentils and chickpeas – are primarily grown in the Prairie provinces. About 75 per cent of Canadian pulse crops are exported, according to Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada.

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Versatility is also a hallmark of beans, Campbell says. They can be used to create appetizers and dips, in main courses, added to soups, stews, pizza or chili and even to make desserts.

Adding 125 millilitres (1/2 cup) of mashed cooked lentils to a chocolate chip or oatmeal cookie recipe adds fibre and “will boost the nutrition of the cookies,” she says. And nobody has to know they’re there.

Dry lentils and split peas should be rinsed before cooking but do not have to be soaked. Dry beans, whole peas and chickpeas must be soaked as their “coats do not readily absorb water,” says the Pulse Canada website (

There are three soaking methods, each requiring 750 millilitres (three cups) of water for every 250 millilitres (one cup) of beans.

First remove any shrivelled or broken beans and any foreign matter and rinse under cold running water. Then the beans can be soaked for 12 hours or overnight in the refrigerator.

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For a “quick soak,” bring beans and water to a boil in a saucepan. Boil gently for two minutes, remove from heat, cover and let stand for an hour.

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For a microwave soak, combine beans and water in a microwaveable dish, cover and microwave on high for 10 to 15 minutes. Let stand for an hour.

In all cases the soaking water should be discarded and the beans rinsed well under cold running water before cooking.

To cook dry beans that have been soaked, combine them with water and five millilitres (one teaspoon) of oil to prevent foaming. Seasonings can be added, but acidic ingredients such as tomatoes or vinegar should not be added until the beans are cooked. You need a large, heavy saucepan because the beans will double or triple in size when cooked.

Bring the pot to a boil, cover tightly and reduce heat to a simmer. As a general guide, beans will take 45 minutes to an hour, whole green lentils 30 to 45 minutes and chickpeas one to 1 1/2 hours.

Of course, when you’re talking beans, the elephant in the room is that they cause gas and bloating for some people.

But according to Pulse Canada, if you eat them more often, your insides “adapt to the higher fibre and carbohydrates, decreasing these effects over time.”

Other steps you can take to mitigate the problem include changing the soaking water once or twice during a long soak, not using the soaking water to cook with, cooking the beans thoroughly as undercooked starch is harder to digest, thoroughly rinsing canned or presoaked beans before cooking or using a commercial anti-gas product.

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Tips and facts about beans

  • There are many varieties, shapes and colours of beans or pulses, as they’re collectively known, including lentils and chickpeas.
  • Boiling can cause skins to split, so simmer beans gently.
  • Cook beans until just tender if they are to be cooked again in a recipe (they will double or triple in size).
  • 500 ml (2 cups) dried beans is equal to 1.25 to 1.375 l (5 to 5 1/2 cups) cooked.
  • 454 g (1 lb) dry beans is equal to 500 ml (2 cups) dry beans.
  • Cooked beans can be kept four or five days covered and in the fridge and up to six months when frozen in airtight freezer containers.
  • Stored dry beans are best used within one year because they lose moisture over time and take longer to soak and cook.
  • Dry beans should be stored in a dry, airtight container at room temperature and not in the fridge.
  • Bean flour is gluten-free.
  • Canned beans in water or sauce are already cooked and therefore only need to be reheated.

Source: Ontario Bean Growers,

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