Nutrition Column – Beans: a Nutritional Powerhouse

What food is high in protein, virtually fat free and has more fiber than many whole-grain foods? The answer is beans!

To help bring this fact home, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration recently authorized a new food-labeling message for packages and cans of dry beans designed to promote the fact that including beans in the diet may help reduce the risk of heart disease and certain cancers. The new dietary guidance message about beans comes on the heels of the release of the 2005 Dietary Guidelines for Americans report which recommends that Americans consume three cups of dry beans each week, more than three times the amount currently being consumed.

Why recommend more beans, especially for a nation that already consumes more calories than needed for good health? Because beans deliver great nutrition per calorie. Dry beans are an excellent, non-fat source of protein. Just one cup of beans provides as much as 16 grams of protein. Dry beans are also loaded with complex carbohydrates. Unlike the carbohydrates found in many high-sugar foods, the carbohydrates in beans have a low glycemic index. This means they are released more slowly into the bloodstream to help provide sustained energy without the spikes in blood-sugar level.

In addition, dry beans are full of soluble fiber, the kind found to lower LDL cholesterol (the "bad" cholesterol responsible for some kinds of heart disease) in the blood. Soluble fiber also is helpful in keeping blood sugar levels in check and may help protect against certain cancers. One cup of cooked beans provides 3 to 4 grams of dietary fiber, the amount you’d find in 10 slices of whole wheat bread, 5 cups of oatmeal, five oat bran muffins or 3 to 4 cups of cooked vegetables.

Dry beans also provide their share of several important vitamins and minerals. These included potassium, zinc, magnesium, calcium, iron and B-complex vitamins. For example, one cup of cooked beans provides around 25 percent of the Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) of iron for women and 50 percent for men. Finally, dry beans are a relatively low-cost source of protein. One cup of cooked beans contains about 240 calories and provides 25-35 percent of the RDA for protein.

Although dry beans could be called the original convenience food because they do not require preservation and are easy to transport, one of the concerns busy cooks today have with dry beans is the length of cooking time required. This can be reduced by pre-soaking the beans, pressure cooking or cooking in the microwave oven. Or, you may select to simply open a can and reheat.

For more information about the nutritional benefits of dry beans and to access a great collection of recipes using dry beans, check out the American Dry Bean Board Web site at

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by Pat Kendall, Ph.D., R.D., Food Science and Human Nutrition Specialist, Colorado State University, Cooperative Extension