Susan Bowerman, MS, RD, CSSD
There's a lot to be said for beans. They're delicious, they're economical and they're so good for you. They can be used in any course of a meal, ranging from appetizers to desserts. So why don't we eat them more often? Some people think they take too long to cook, or don't know how versatile they are, but it's probably their reputation as gas-producers that keep many people away from beans.
But with so much going for them, it's a shame that we let a little gas stand in the way. They're terrific sources of fiber, potassium and B-vitamins, and a cup of cooked beans can have as much as 16 grams of protein. And, like all plant foods, they're naturally cholesterol-free and low in fat and sodium. They're also the only foods that get two spots on the USDA Food Guide Pyramid; in the protein group, and in the vegetable group.
Their flavors vary from mild white beans to stronger-tasting limas, and their textures vary a lot, too, which is why it's fun to experiment with them. Although hummus is traditionally made with garbanzo beans, you can puree any bean into a dip for raw veggies or as a spread on a sandwich. And don't laugh, you can also use pureed beans to replace some of the fat in baked goods, like cakes, muffins and brownies. Mixed with diced vegetables and dressed with vinaigrette, bean salads are delicious when they're first made, but even better the next day. And of course, a can of beans can be turned into a soup or chili for a quick, healthy meal.
Soybeans are unique, since they're the only complete protein in the plant world, and we find soy in so many forms. Fresh boiled soybeans (edamame) are great for snacking, but they're also good in soups and stir-fries. Tofu - basically cheese that's made from soy milk comes in textures ranging from very soft to very firm. Soft tofu can be whipped into a thick smoothie with fruit, while firmer tofu can be marinated and grilled for a tasty meat substitute. You can also freeze firm tofu. When it thaws and gives up its liquid, its crumbly texture makes a great stand-in for ground meat.
Like other plant foods, beans have some indigestible carbohydrates that can give you gas. While you may not have the enzymes to digest them, the bacteria in your intestines are able to break these carbohydrates down for you. However, they do produce gas in the process.
Smaller beans, like lentils and split peas, seem to be less gassy than larger ones, like limas or kidneys. And, soaking them first does help to reduce their gassiness. The best method is to bring dried beans to a boil, cook them for 2-3 minutes, then remove from the heat, cover and let them stand for a few hours. Most of the indigestible carbs end up in the water, so drain, and then cook the beans in fresh water. Rinsing the liquid from canned beans will help remove some of the tough-to-digest carbs, too.
So don't let the "gas price" of eating beans keep you from enjoying these tasty, healthy foods. And keep in mind that if you eat beans regularly, your system will adjust and you'll gradually produce less gas.