Beans are the New… Everything
Hardly a day goes by that I don’t eat beans or lentils in some form. Middle Eastern lentils and rice (mujjadara) and falafel… Mexican black beans with quinoa or rice… Indian Chickpeas with Spinach (Chana Saag)…Vegetarian Chili…Split Pea or Red Lentil Soup…Greek-style Gigante Beans (Yigandes Plaki)… these are the staples of my diet.
I am very bullish on beans.
I think they are one of the most underutilized foods in the American diet. Looking for a high-fiber, slow-digesting (low-glycemic, complex) carb to add to lunch that will keep you feeling full and satiated until dinner? Looking for a high-protein ingredient for your vegetarian meal that gives it real substance? Looking for a great source of iron without having to eat red meat? Looking for a cheap, convenient protein to keep around the house that will help you get dinner on the table in 20 minutes? There’s a bean for that.
I know that beans have their detractors. Paleos exclude them from the diet, under the rationale that legumes were not part of the paleolithic (pre-agricultural, caveman) diet during which times chronic diseases like heart disease and diabetes were not prevalent. This is one of my major beefs with the Paleo diet, as I believe this is a dogmatic principle that throws out the baby with the bathwater; including legumes on a grain-free Paleo diet would make it far more convenient to follow long term, and provide much-needed fiber and folate–two nutrients whose intake may take a nose-dive when eliminating grains from the diet. It would also provide a high-quality, vegetarian source of protein to help balance out the high levels of animal protein that are part and parcel of Paleo living.
There are some who eschew beans as being “too high carb” for weight loss or diabetic diets. This argument drives me nuts. 1/2 cup of canned beans has about 110 calories, of which 6-8g are protein and 20g are carbs. Breaking down the carb content further, 6-8g are officially from fiber (non-digestible, non-caloric carbs), leaving ~12ish grams of “net carbs.” But even these net carbs are likely inflated, as beans contain a type of starch called resistant starch. More and more research suggests that resistant starch behaves just like fiber, meaning that it, too, is not able to be digested. And practically speaking, I challenge you to eat 1/2 cup of beans with your normal lunch and then develop a hankering for something snacky 2 hours later. Impossible! The extra 110 calories of beans at a meal will likely save you from doing major snacking damage later.
Wait a Second… are there BEANS in my pasta?
Alas, I recognize that most others do not share my unbridled enthusiasm for beans. Which is why I’m quite excited to see a new wave of packaged foods that are using pureed beans or bean flours as a leading ingredient to boost up their protein and fiber content. (Or in some cases, as a gluten-free, lower-glycemic substitute for wheat flour). To me, this is SO much better than using highly-processed ingredients like soy protein isolate and inulin (chicory root fiber) to achieve the same protein/fiber credentials, or relying on high-glycemic rice flour to replace wheat for the gluten-free crowd.
Over the past few years, beans have shown up as the lead ingredient in foods like chips, cookies, pasta, and even tomato sauce! Dried beans and peas–seasoned with a variety of interesting spices– are also growing in prominence as a snack food. In my book, this little trendlet is officially here to stay. So I’ve decided to do a little product roundup and review of some great (gluten-free) products to look out for in your supermarket.
Bean Chips & Crackers
- I’ve blogged previously about Beanitos, my favorite low-glycemic, low-sodium substitute for tortilla chips. Made with bean flour and brown rice, they’re high in both protein and fiber. The Chipotle flavor rocks, and unlike other chips, they are remarkably low in sodium. Per 1 oz serving, they have 140 calories, of which 15g are carbs (though with 5g fiber, it’s really 10g of net carbs) and 4g are protein. If you can find them, I quite like Flamous Brands’ Falafel Chips as well. Made from fava, chickpea and black beans combined with whole, organic corn, each 120 calorie serving also features 4g of protein and 4g of fiber.
- In the crunchy snack department, I prefer Beanitos to the Baked Lentil Chips marketed by the Mediterranean Snack Company, as the latter blend their bean flour with higher glycemic potato or pea starch. 110 calories, 19g CHO, 4g pro, 3g fiber per serving. Still, you could do a lot worse in the chip/cracker aisle, and I would still buy these for a party to serve with my hummus and dips in lieu of standard chips and crackers.
- There are a variety of chickpea flour based chips around, though the two I encounter the most are Humbles and Plocky’s Hummus Chips. They’re pretty comparable nutritionally. A serving is about 120 calories, and they’re all baked so they have less fat (4.5g) than a typical chip. They have some iron (~6% of the daily value) and a decent amount of protein–3-4g or so per serving. Neither have much by way of fiber, though (1g or less). Plocky’s are gluten-free, but not all flavors of Humbles are gluten-free, and even the non-gluten flavors are likely to be cross-contaminated, according to the manufacturer’s website, so beware!!
- Bean thread noodles have long been on offer in Asian cuisine, but these are made purely from starch and lack much nutritional street cred. But a new version of bean-based noodles recently showed up in the Whole Foods near me: Organic Mung Bean Fettuchini (sic), by Explore Asian Cuisine. The nutrition label is a little odd, as they use a non-standard serving size, making it hard to compare to conventional pasta. When I did the math, it appears that a standard 1oz (dry) serving has about 107 calories, 11g protein, 6g carb and 4g fat. If the nutrition label is to be believed (I am always skeptical of these labels), that makes it about 20 calories less than a serving of conventional wheat-based fettuccine, with almost 3x the protein and 75% less carb. I’d like to believe this is accurate, but I’m still mulling it over. The company also offers Black Bean Spaghetti and Soybean Spaghetti.
- For even more bean action, top that mung bean fettuccine with Mama Jess’ Bean Good Organic Bean Pasta Sauce, also at Whole Foods. It’s red, its in a marinara sauce-shaped jar, and it tastes like pure tomato sauce to me! But after tomato puree, organic white bean puree is the next ingredient. As a result, each 1/2 cup serving has twice the protein (4g) of traditional pasta sauce with a comparable calorie and carb count (though the carb composition skews less toward sugar than a traditional sauce).
- Lastly, I am partial to making my own chickpea based pasta on occasion, in the form of Chickpea Spaetzle. Get the recipe here.
- While baked, seasoned chickpeas have long been a snacking staple on the Indian subcontinent, only recently have Americanized versions been showing up in U.S. markets. The Good Bean markets seasoned roasted chickpeas in sweet and savory flavors like Sweet Cinnamon/Vanilla and Smoky Chili & Lime. Each 1 oz serving is low in sugar (2-6g) and high in fiber (6g!) and protein (6-7g!). I LOVE this as a pre-workout snack or a portable snack instead of sugary, highly-processed bars. But if you’re in the market for a bar, look for their new nut-free energy bar made with fruit… and beans! It’s kind of genius. Oh yes, and all of their products are gluten-free, natch.