© Kat Morgenstern September 2009, all rights reserved.
We have been talking a lot about food, hunger, agriculture and the development of civilization. But this discussion would not be complete without a thorough investigation of beans. 'Why beans?', you may ask.
Well, for lots of reasons they deserve a special place on our tables. But, let me start at the beginning.
Beans belong to one of the most widespread and diverse botanical family, known as Fabaceae, or Leguminosae, which occurs throughout the world - as bushes, herbaceous shrubs, herbs and trees. It is estimated that there are about 619 genera with about 18815 species (depending on whose authority you accept). Naturally, not all members of this large family are edible, but it must be said that a very large number are valuable in one way or another, as food, medicine, dye plant etc. Furthermore, many Leguminosae are able to fix nitrogen in the soil (with the help of a bacteria) - a definite boon, as this atmospheric gas is necessary for plant life, but mostly unavailable to plants unless it is fixed in the soil.
Edible members of this huge family come in an infinite variety of colors, shapes and sizes. Peanuts, carob, lentils, chickpeas, green and yellow peas, kidney beans, green beans, broad beans, black beans, mung beans - and, economically probably the most important bean of all: the soy bean - to name but a few.
Pulses are among the oldest domesticated plant species: beans, peas, chickpeas and the like. According to the archeological record, the history of their cultivation both in the Old and the New World goes back 5000 - 6000 years (some claim even earlier dates). Botanists talk mostly about two different genera, the members of the Vigna family (Old World) and the Phaseolus species (New World). They have become so much adapted to our needs that they have lost the ability to disperse their seed naturally. Originally seedpods were designed to 'explode' upon ripening and drying. But if you have ever grown peas or beans, you will be aware that modern varieties no longer do this. This is convenient for us, but seriously endangers the plants survival independent of cultivation.
What makes pulses so important as a food stuff is their high protein content. There are plenty of plants that provide carbohydrates in the form of sugar and starch, but not very many that provide a decent amount of protein. This is particularly important in places where other sources of protein (meat) are not readily available or not utilized due to religious or ethical considerations. In conjunction with another staple, such as wheat, corn or rice beans provide practically all our protein requirements (some pulses have a better protein profile than others).
It is also the reason why pulses have long suffered the stigma of being peasant's food. While the rich could afford to eat meat, peasants ousually had to make do with beans and rice as their main source of protein. Another reason why beans may have long been denied a place on the table of polite society is most likely their 'musical'(and smelly) nature. Interestingly, only dried beans produce this effect - green beans are innocent and accordingly, were eagerly adapted to haute cuisine and high society.
Rice and beans, refried beans, dhal, black-eyed beans etc. are regarded as 'soul-food', the sustenance that provides the foundation of many ethnic cuisines. In view of our growing problems of hunger and population growth, it may turn out that beans will save the day.
At present a large percentage of grain and pulse production goes into feeding livestock, but this proves to be a highly inefficient way to fulfill the world's protein requirements - it takes 7kg of grain to produce 1 kg meat. Land could be used far more efficiently if it was used to grow food for direct human consumption.
However - this would mean a reduction of cattle farming just at a time when growing numbers of people are wealthy enough to be able to afford meat on a regular basis. If trends in Japan can be regarded as indicative, the demand for meat will grow rapidly with the emerging middle classes of developing countries. In Japan (traditionally a fish eating culture) meat consumption increased 360 percent between 1960 and 1990 (Shah and Strong 1999:19). Due to religious taboos, this trend may be less pronounced in India, but not elsewhere. Most people, once they have developed a taste for it, don't want to give it up. It will take some very serious soul searching (and lobbying) to change popular attitudes towards meat so we can make more sustainable use of th land. (Incidentally, livestock produces 14% of greenhouse gases, second only to energy production and even more than what is put out by all means of transportation put together. Further more, methane is a more dangerous greenhouse gas than CO2).
America, Oceania and Europe are still the top meat consuming regions of the world, on average consuming 3 times as much meat as, say Asia. Yet, in the West, there is a budding trend towards a more health conscious, meat reduced diet, since consumption of pork, then red meat has been associated with a variety of health problems. Vegetarianism has begun to spread, even in affluent, hitherto meat-eating countries.
Here, pulses have experienced a kind of revival as an excellent source of protein, and soy in particular has been riding a wave of success. This is odd, as in countries that have traditionally used soy products this bean is only considered edible in a fermented or processed state (e.g. miso. Soy sauce. Tofu).
Soy is one of the 5 top crops worldwide, along with wheat, maize, rice and potatoes. It is also one of the most widespread genetically engineered crops. By now it has become difficult to find any truly organic soy. The reason the food industry loves soy is because it is incredibly versatile. Soy proteins and oils are used in an incredible number of things (not just food). It is therefore immensely profitable. However, apart from their GM prevalence, there are a number of other concerns which imply that Soy may not be the solution to all our woes. (see The Perilious Progress of the Soya Bean
It would go beyond the scope of this article to discuss each edible member of the Fabacaea family separately. Suffice it to say that there are enough varieties to try a different type each day.
In closing I just want to highlight some nutritional and medicinal aspects that are not commonly discussed.
For those who seek to lose weight by cutting down on meat, pulses are a great source of protein. In addition to their excellent protein profile (17 - 25%) they are also rich in fibre, which helps to reduce cholesterol, and contain very little fat and no cholesterol at all. Thus, they are an excellent option for a 'heart-health' diet. Many beans can also be sprouted and added to soups, sandwiches or salads as a crunchy green.
Black beans are rich in anthocyanins, a powerful antioxidant. Researchers have found, that the darker the bean coat the higher is the proportion of antioxidant compounds. Thus, black beans lead the pack, followed by red, brown, yellow, and white beans.
Beans, to varying degrees, are rich in vitamin B1, folate, molybdenum, manganese, tryptophan, magnesium and iron. Soy is also rich in calcium. However, there are some concerns over unfermented soy as a food source. Health issues related to Soy products partially arise due to the fact that what ends up in numerous processed food items are isolated soy compounds, such as isoflavones, which act as endocrine disruptors and are considered detrimental to thyroid health, amongst other problems they may cause. Caution is advised.
Medicinally, the shells of the Phaseolus species are more important than the fruit. Dried bean shells are strongly diuretic, to the point that they can dissolve small gravel and stones. The decoction is recommended for edema, especially where this is due to general kidney or heart weakness. Old herbals claim this to be the most effective remedy to release excess water from the body. Similarly, it is recommended as an excellent remedy to flush out uric acid crystals and other metabolic waste products. This is interesting, as beans contain purins, (also found in meats and other foods), which the body breaks down to form uric acid. Thus, the shells provide a remedy for one of the health concerns associated with excessive consumption of beans. This decoction is also said to be useful in controlling blood-sugar spikes associated with diabetes and hypoglycemia. Beans themselves are also a good food for diabetics as their energy is released slowly and steadily (low glycemic index due to high fiber content) rather than in one big rush as common with simple carbohydrate foods.
Mucuna pruriens, also known as cowhage or velvet bean, is usually not used for food purposes, although the young shoots and seeds can be eaten if prepared correctly. This interesting bean contains L-DOPA, a precursor of the neurotransmitter dopamine. It is occasionally used as a natural remedy for treating Parkinson's disease, which is characterized by reduced dopamine levels. However, self-medication is not recommended as dosing can be difficult.
The plant also contains dimethyltryptamin and it has been used as an ingredient of ayahuasca preparations. In traditional ayurvedic practice it has a reputation as an aphrodisiac and in studies involving rats it was shown to raise testosterone levels. Indian medicine also uses it to treat cholera, delirium, impotence spermatorrhoea, urinary troubles and for expelling roundworms. An infusion of the hairs covering the pods is reportedly used to treat liver and gall bladder diseases and is applied externally as a local stimulant and mild vesicant.(Parrotta:2001). It also occasionally used for the practice known as 'lucid dreaming'.
Although mostly harmless, there are two diseases that are associated with the consumption of beans: favism and lathyrism.
Lathyrism is a condition that causes paralysis to the lower limbs, which can be permanent, as a result of excessive consumption of Grass or Indian Pea (Lathyrus sativa). This is not usually a problem when the pea is consumed as part of a normal diet, but in times of draught or scarcity when other foods are less available. The grass pea is extremely resistant to draught so under such conditions it may be the only thing that is available plentifully.
Favism is an acute anemic condition which usually results from eating partially cooked or raw broad beans Vicia faba and has even been reported in association with inhaling pollen from the plant. Curiously, the condition only affects males of Mediterranean origin (Pythagoras may have suffered from this condition as he vehemently rejected beans as a source of food, though this could also have other reasons, partially religious - Orphism maintained that beans are sacred to the Goddess and that each bean housed a soul, and partially classist, as beans, even then, were regarded as a peasant food.)
The flatulence associated with bean consumption only occurs with dried beans due to the fact that the human digestive system finds hard to break down the oligosaccharides (a complex carbohydrate) which form in the drying process. The effect can be lessened if the beans are soaked and the soaking water is changed once or twice before you start to cook them. (soak, drain, soak again, drain, add more water then boil ). It is also reduced when adding certain herbs and spices, such as epazote (Mexican favorite), fenugreek, cumin, coriander etc.
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