Legumes Are Central to the Mediterranean-Style of Eating

August 13, 2010 in Antioxidants, Blog Recipes, Diabetic Menu Item, Food Economics, Mediterranean by Joyce Bunderson

Until recently beans just magically stopped appearing our family’s plate; I think that I am in the company of many Americans, especially those younger than myself. I’ve not done any anthropological research; but my guess is that, as our country became richer, beans were not served as frequently. And after the government subsidized corn and meat, raising beef and chicken became so cheap that the extra bother associated with preparing beans ended it as a standard dinner fare.  It seems pretty easy to grab a burger – we’re talking easy.

During World War II the average bean consumption was 11 pounds per person. Then there was a steady decline. It ‘bottomed out’ in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. But then it got up to 7.7 pounds in 1997 – 99. The average bean consumption for each American during 2006 – 2008 (the latest USDA information – see Contents on the right side) is 6.5 pounds per person. That was 12 percent lower than 1996 – 98, but the same as 1986 -88. I hope this is just a little slump in the trend. But certainly 6.5 or 7.7 are still a far cry from the 11 pounds per person, at the middle of the last century.

Actually total bean consumption has increased in the United States over the past two decades (from when it hit bottom); but some of the increase is thought to be because of immigration. The Hispanic population represents approximately 11 percent of the population and account for 33 percent of all cooked dry edible beans consumption. Much of the non-Hispanic population is getting the beans that they do eat from Hispanic-style menu items like burritos and as side dish accompaniments in Hispanic food establishments.

Low-income consumers eat more than those with greater means. This is really good news, because the lower income people can eat this fairly inexpensive, but very nourishing food.  Having said that, it’s time that those with average or greater means to decide to consume beans for the wonderful nutritional benefits they contain – if not just for the taste. As consumers are becoming educated and their pallets are becoming a little more sophisticated, I hope the intake of beans will rise again to the WWII level. Don’t think of beans as recession food (unless it helps) think of it as gourmet, Mediterranean-style nutrition.

Beans always seem to evoke little poems; if you don’t know the poems you can ask your 7-year-old child or the neighbor’s; they’ll be more than glad to tell you their poem. If you’re worried about that issue try beano, or use canned beans, which seem to cause much less flatulence.  If you’re using canned beans, you can purchase low salt versions, but if you don’t find the version that you’re looking for in your market, drain and rinse the beans, it will reduce quite a bit of the sodium. So now that we’ve covered the two common ‘bean issues’, gas and salt, let’s discover why we want to be reintroduced to beans.

I never knew what a legume was until I was studying nutrition in my thirties – beans yes, legumes no. Legumes (a general word for beans, lentils, peas and peanuts) are central to the Mediterranean-style of eating; so based on that, we are not really surprised at their association with reduced risk of heart disease and some cancers. The fiber in beans (very high in fiber) may be an important part of the link between the reduced risk of heart disease and cancer (including colorectal cancer); but it’s not the whole story. Beans contain many plant nutrients that are thought to be actively involved in keeping our cells healthy.

Chili with beans was a common food when my children were growing up. Once in a great while we had 22 beans soup, usually right after Christmas when we had leftover ham. I had one daughter that hated beans (no exaggeration!) so I did not make beans as much as I might have.

When I was growing up I never had chili (too spicy for my German/French grandparents); but we did have succotash (green lima beans and corn); baked beans (loaded with ham); split pea soup with ham; and lastly, ham and butter beans. And peanut butter was never served as a sandwich. But even those legumes were not served frequently at my butcher-grandfather’s home – meat was the common fare. Those were the only ways that I knew how to use beans.

During the past decade I’ve kept reading more and more about the benefits of including legumes in the diet. I thought it was a good idea to include more beans but it was a fairly difficult habit to create. Now I have no idea why – I guess it’s just like any habit, you just keep working on it and quietly, without noticing, it finally becomes a habit.

Now we have beans fairly frequently; in soup, with brown rice and on salads. One of the easiest ways that I personally have been successful in getting beans into our diet is with hummus. Many consumers have obviously discovered humus, because it flies off the Costco shelves like hot cakes – that’s fast. Both the sun-dried tomato version and the more traditional hummus are always in high demand.  So if it’s in the big box stores, it’s got to be selling ‘big time.’ That is the good news; we’re eating more hummus (legumes) – it fits so nicely with our Mediterranean-style eating goals – progress is being made.

Ways to add beans to your diet:

  • Serve your traditional vegetable soup recipe with beans added; or make a minestrone recipe that has beans in the recipe.
  • Make a soup with beans as the primary ingredient – split peas, lentils, 22-bean soup.
  • Add a can of drained beans to your other soup recipes, or puree a can of beans to add thickening to the soup.
  • Make chili with beans.
  • Fill whole-wheat flat bread or tortillas with beans and salsa or beans and rice – see recipe below.
  • Try some ‘new to your family’ bean recipes.
  • Enjoy a peanut butter sandwich or use peanut butter as a dip for veggies.
  • Substitute beans for your starchy vegetables (potatoes, yams, corn) on some days.
  • Add any variety of canned beans to salads.
  • Try an easy Three Bean Salad recipe.
  • Beans and brown rice and mango salsa or whatever salsa you enjoy. Twice this summer, when I was in a huge time crunch, I mixed brown rice (already cooked in my fridge) and a drained can of beans and added some salsa. Heated it in the microwave. I was surprised how delicious it was – I already knew how nutritious it was.
  • My son-in-law, Sergio, makes cooked black beans at our family gatherings. His method never causes the ‘poem problem.’ I have no clue why. I called and got his directions and this is his recipe -- Sergio's Black Beans.

The Economics of Beans – this blog is generally about nutrition, but I want to mention the budget aspect of dried beans. Today I cooked black beans, following Sergio’s recipe. Except for cutting the onion and stirring every ½ hour it was essentially labor-free. For the price of one can of black beans, my one-pound package yielded the equivalent of 4 cans of black beans (about 7 - 8 cups of cooked beans.) The point is that you get $3 off the batch, if you’re comparing it to canned beans. One can is about $1.00 – one pound of beans about the same price. The difference is that the dried beans make about 4 times more.

You don’t need to be rich or poor to benefit from the little powerhouses that beans are. If you’re like an average American, and are not eating very many legumes, start working on creating a new habit using my Easy Black Beans and Rice recipe. Your goal of moving toward the Mediterranean-style of eating will be taking a big leap forward.

In this post I mentioned that hummus was the main way I’ve been getting beans into our diet; so I will share a list of ideas for hummus and some recipes in the next post – The next post will be specifically about chickpeas and hummus. Until then sprinkle some beans on your salad.