Updated: Dec 8, 2020
For as long as I remember, “Jack and the Beanstalk” had been a part of my bedtime routine. My mother would sit on the side of my bed and read in a low, whispery voice, and I would shriek, cowering under the covers like a pussy cat. At the time, I thought Jack just killed a giant and got rich.
10 years later, and I re-read the fairytale. At first glance, “Jack and the Beanstalk” seems simple, childish even, including nothing more than yearning to make the most of life. Yet, I suspect a more subtle moral within the story, something a five-year-old me just couldn’t pick up.
Maybe, just maybe, “Jack and the Beanstalk” was telling us to consume less meat and eat more beans.
Think about it - a stranger convinces Jack to sell his cow for magic beans. His mother is so upset that she throws the ‘worthless’ magic beans out the window in a blind rage.
The next day, the beanstalk grows into a pillar that stretches to the sky. Jack scales it and finds a bunch of gold. He becomes affluent and lives happily ever after. Moral of the story? Drop animals for beans and you’ll get a huge payoff. While no one can magic up a fortune, one can still benefit from including legumes in their diet.
So what are legumes, these so-called, “magic” beans?
Legumes are a family of edible seed plants that include lentils, kidney beans, chickpeas, etc. As one of the world’s earliest cultivated crops, legumes have been part of our diets from as early as 4000 B.C.E.
Planted in the winter, legumes grow pods with one or two seeds. They thrive in semi-arid climates, able to survive in the most inhospitable, rugged environments. This makes legumes low irrigation - for each gram of protein, the average water footprint of pulses is only 34% of that of pork and 17% of that of beef. Given that agriculture consumes 70% of freshwater use worldwide and the demand for freshwater is likely to increase by another 50% in the next decade, legumes can contribute to a more climate-conscious form of agriculture.
Legumes also improve soil fertility with help from rhizobia or Frankia bacteria. Bacteria found on plant roots capture any atmospheric nitrogen entering the soil and convert it into ammonia (nitrogen plants can use) in a process known as nitrogen fixation. Nitrogen fixation naturally reduces our dependence on energy-intensive, synthetic fertilisers and reduces biodiversity loss from eutrophication.
But do you know legumes benefit you nutritionally too? Legumes are high in protein, a nutrient essential to growth, with an average serving holding 9 grams or more. However, like most plant proteins, most legumes lack all the essential amino acids, so it is important to consume legumes with whole grain or a dairy product to get all the amino acids you need.
Legumes are also high in soluble and insoluble fibre, both of which are essential towards a healthy digestive system. Soluble fibre protects against heart disease by binding with fatty acid and bringing down cholesterol levels. Meanwhile, insoluble fibre passes through our bodies intact, moving bulk through and preventing microbes from producing cancerous substances by balancing the acidity of the intestines. Both also contribute to the satiating effect of pulses and help manage weight.
Don’t underestimate their vitamin or mineral content either - legumes are a rich source of folic acid (Vitamin B9), iron, magnesium, potassium, and calcium, all essential for us to function well. In fact, beans are an excellent source of antioxidant, comparable to the likes of common fruits such as grapes, apples, and cranberries.
Plus, at about 98 cents per pound (Compared to $4.60/lb for beef and $3.50/lb for chicken), beans are one of the most affordable protein sources available. Dried or canned beans are shelf-stable and can stay in our pantries spoil-free for up to a year, making them a perfect kitchen staple to buy in bulk.
“But Kadence, I don’t eat beans because beans cause me to fart.” Firstly, beans cause flatulence because they contain fibres called oligosaccharides, which are non-digestible, fermentable fibres. These fibres survive the acidic stomach until the colon, where bacteria ferments them into gas. But there is an upside to this fermentation. Much of the indigestible carbohydrates in beans are prebiotic, meaning they fuel the growth of beneficial gut bacteria, microbes thought to aid in immunity and play a role in preventing allergies, Type 2 diabetes, obesity and inflammatory bowel disease. Don’t worry, you can prevent this flatulence (and the stink) in several ways:
Research has shown that adding beans to your diet at least once or twice a week reduces flatulence. If you’re new to beans, start with a small one-quarter to one-half cup preventing your gut bacteria going into overdrive. As your gut microbes adapt, they will digest the oligosaccharides with less gas.
Second, soak, drain and rinse. Use the quick hot-soak method to soften dry beans before cooking them to reduce the oligosaccharide content (Soaking twice reduces the sugars further). Just remember - don’t salt beans while you cook them; flavour them after they’re cooked. Salting cooks beans faster, but they’ll be tougher.
Three, try different legumes. Not all beans increase gas equally. For example, lentils, split peas and black-eyed peas are lower in gas-producing carbohydrates than other pulses. Chickpeas and navy beans, meanwhile, increase gas more.
Chew thoroughly. Chewing food well can help limit gas production in the intestine. Eating slowly can also prevent you from swallowing extra air, which can contribute to flatulence.
Cook with herbs or spice, such as ginger, turmeric, fennel and asafoetida. Certain herbs may help make beans more digestible by changing the enzymatic properties of the beans, thus influencing how easily we digest them.
If all else fails, consider using an enzyme tablet that breaks down oligosaccharides.
So, what are you waiting for? Why not try legumes today, and harnish the benefits for yourself?
Some recipe ideas: