December 2014 Issue

Beans and Grains: The Perfect Pairing
By Densie Webb, PhD, RD
Today's Dietitian
Vol. 26 No. 12 P. 36

Combining beans and grains in a single meal has a rich history in ancient culinary practices. Experts discuss the health benefits and how clients can boost their intake.

Red beans and rice. Black bean soup with whole grain rolls. Corn chips and bean dip. Quinoa and black bean casserole. Rice salad with white beans. What do these dishes have in common besides the fact they all contain beans? They're all pairings of beans and grains.

While these dishes are modern renditions, bean and grain combos have a rich history in ancient culinary practices, long before nutrition scientists discovered the health benefits of beans and whole grains or the protein boost provided by combining different plant proteins to get all nine essential amino acids.

"Now that these benefits are widely known, more and more of us are embracing the old ways, and letting traditional cuisines inspire new culinary trends," says Kelly Toups, MLA, RD, LDN, program manager for the Whole Grains Council at Oldways in Boston.

Traditional Bean/Grain Pairings
Beans have been a food staple in some parts of the world for 10,000 years, and they continue to be a regular part of diets today in China, India, the Middle East, and the Americas.1

Toups mentions various international examples of common pairings of beans and grains. Rice is well known as a staple crop across Asia, so it's no surprise that many traditional Asian recipes have variations of rice and beans. In China, rice sometimes is cooked down into a thick porridge called congee, and often is paired with sugar and mung beans or red beans. In India, congee often is prepared from other grains as well such as millet. These thick rice porridge dishes were an excellent way for the poor to stretch a small serving of grains into a hearty meal. In Greece, a traditional appetizer is gigandes plaki, large white beans cooked in a tomato sauce and often served with bread for dipping. In Italy, pasta e fagioli is a soup with pasta, beans, and vegetables. Traditional African cuisine makes great use of a wide variety of grains and beans. In Ethiopia, for example, bean stews are served with injera bread, a pancakelike bread made from the teff grain. Beans, especially black beans, are served with rice in various combinations throughout Latin America. In Costa Rica and Brazil, gallo pinto is a traditional rice and beans dish. Feijoada, a black bean stew served with rice and oranges, is said to be the national dish of Brazil. Tortillas, found in Mexico, and their close cousin, arepas, found in Colombia and Venezuela, are both corn-based flatbreads that often are filled with beans and vegetables.

Nutrition and Health Benefits
Beans are an inexpensive source of protein, fiber, carbohydrates, and micronutrients, including folate, which often is lacking in American diets. Research has shown that bean consumption could greatly improve the diet quality of Americans. Consuming only 1/2 cup of cooked dry beans per day results in higher intakes of fiber, protein, folate, zinc, iron, and magnesium with lower intakes of saturated fat and total fat.2 A 1/2-cup serving of beans supplies 10% or more of the DV for potassium, magnesium, and iron, and beans are low in sodium.1 However, less than 8% of Americans consume either dry beans or peas on any given day.2 The soluble fiber and resistant starches in beans may help suppress appetite and manage blood sugar.1,3,4 While the sodium in canned beans can be an issue, individuals can reduce the sodium count by 40% if they rinse the beans.1 Beans also contain oligosaccharides (short-chain sugar polymers) and resistant starch, both of which act as prebiotics in the intestinal tract, similar to the action of dietary fiber.1 Beans also are rich in antioxidants, offering greater quantities than some wines and many vegetables.5,6 Among the phytochemicals they provide are saponins, phytic acid, phenolic compounds, and lectins.7

The health benefits of whole grains, like whole grain wheat and oats, have been studied extensively and the idea that whole grains improve health dates back to Hippocrates. Research has demonstrated that consumption of whole grains improves diet quality8 and is associated with reduced risk of cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes, and improved weight management and gastrointestinal health.9 But as with beans, Americans consume very little whole grains. Less than 1% of the US population consumes the recommended intake of three servings (48 g) per day of whole grains, and about 20% report they eat no whole grains at all.9,10

A major benefit of combining beans and grains is the amino acids they provide. Both beans and grains are incomplete proteins, meaning they lack some essential amino acids. Together, they complement one another, provide all of the essential amino acids, and can take the place of high-quality animal proteins. For example, several grains are deficient in the essential amino acid lysine; beans are one of the few plant foods that provide lysine.11 On the other hand, many beans provide small amounts of the essential amino acid methionine, which is found in greater amounts in grains.12

Dynamic Health Duo
It's been suggested that the nutritional and phytochemical components of beans, when coupled with those of whole grains, may have a synergistic effect that provides significant health benefits.13 "Beans and whole grain consumption deliver complementary proteins, increase dietary fiber, and dilute energy density," says Frank Greenway, MD, a professor and chief of the outpatient clinic at Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. "Increased consumption of whole grains and beans simply represent better nutrition." Even combining beans with refined grains, such as white rice, improves the impact on blood sugar levels; the greater the ratio of beans to rice, the more the beneficial effect.14 A clinical study published in 2012 in Nutrition Journal found that beans and rice meals lowered blood sugar, compared to rice alone.13,15 Black and pinto beans were found to lower blood glucose the most. Research has demonstrated that beans regulate a number of metabolic processes, and it's been suggested that they may function similarly to the oral diabetes medication acarbose15 and may share a common mechanism with metformin, an oral diabetes medication.16 One of the most surprising suggestions to come from bean research is that consuming beans on a regular basis may have a preventive effect similar to Tamoxifen, a medication prescribed to premenopausal women who have been diagnosed with breast cancer to decrease the risk of recurrence.17

Boosting Bean and Grain Intake
"The health benefits of beans are virtually undisputed," says Robyn Flipse, MS, MA, RDN, of Nutrition Communications in Bradley Beach, New Jersey. "That's a rare claim today in which battles for diet supremacy are being waged." But, she says, "I believe whole grains have had a harder time finding a place in American diets because people don't know how to identify them. Many people can't even pronounce quinoa, let alone recognize it on the store shelf, just as they've never seen spelt, sorghum, or farro." And for both beans and grains, more is better. The more you eat, the greater the health benefit.9 RDs can help their clients and patients become more familiar with a wider variety of beans and grains and guide them to recipes that combine the two in new and interesting ways.

Mix It Up for Maximum Benefit
Many clients and patients may be most familiar with kidney beans, pinto beans, and navy beans, but there's tremendous diversity in the bean world, including adzuki, lima, cranberry, garbanzo, great northern, broad, black, and fava. According to Henry Thompson, PhD, director of the Cancer Prevention Laboratory at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, "Our research has shown that a higher-diversity diet is more effective in reducing biomarkers of oxidative damage than a diet with low botanical diversity, even when consumption of fruits and vegetables is high."

Armed with a $1.54 million grant from the National Cancer Institute, Thompson, who is also a principal investigator for Crops for Health, a research program that seeks to improve disease prevention characteristics of staple food crops, is working to breed beans that can help prevent disease.18

Wheat is by far the most widely consumed grain in the United States, and whole grain wheat is a good choice, but there's also quinoa, teff, spelt, barley, millet, amaranth, buckwheat, bulgur, and sorghum, which Thompson says will add diversity and boost the health benefits of whole grains. Corn, which often is thought of as a vegetable, actually is a grain. Research has found that whole grain corn cereals act as a prebiotic, and popcorn contributes to consumption of whole grains, bringing people closer to the recommended whole grain intake.19,20

Some of the benefits of pairing beans and grains are as follows: They can be used interchangeably to provide different shapes, colors, sizes, and textures to suit any taste. Clients can adapt to the flavor profile of both sweet and savory dishes due to their mild flavors. Beans and grains can be used for hot or cold entrées, side dishes, or salads, and they're convenient to use and store, low in cost, readily available, and nutrient dense. And, combined, they're a good source of high-quality protein, comparable to animal proteins.

Dietitians can recommend a twist on familiar recipes to clients and patients. Chili with kidney beans can become three-bean chili and include any variety. Hummus is made with garbanzo beans, but clients can make it with a blend of garbanzo beans and white beans. And bean dip typically is made with pinto beans, but any cooked, puréed bean will do.

The possible ways to combine beans and grains are endless, but if your clients and patients are at a loss for how to create their own tasty and nutritious bean/grain combo dishes, share the following bean and grain recipes to get them off to a good start.

— Densie Webb, PhD, RD, is a freelance writer, editor, and industry consultant based in Austin, Texas.



Quelling the Gas
While the oligosaccharides raffinose, stachyose, and verbacose are believed to provide health benefits, they're also a major contributor to the intestinal gas that results from adding more beans to the diet. Be sure to tell clients that increasing their intake of beans and whole grains likely will cause an increase in intestinal gas in the beginning and offer these tips for taming the gas-producing compounds in beans.

1. Mix 1/8 teaspoon of baking soda or a spoon of vinegar into the soaking water. Soak beans for eight to 10 hours.

2. Rinse beans thoroughly and don't cook beans in the water in which they were soaked because it contains the gas-causing sugars.

3. Slow cook beans in a crockpot for several hours.

4. Drain and rinse canned beans; this will significantly reduce the gas-producing oligosaccharides.

5. Add beans to the diet in small amounts in the beginning until clients get used to it.


— DW



Quinoa and Black Bean Salad

Serves 6

11/2 cups quinoa
21/4 cups water
1 15-oz can black beans, rinsed and drained
11/2 T red wine vinegar
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
11/2 cups cooked corn kernels (fresh or frozen)
1 red bell pepper, seeded and chopped
4 scallions, chopped
1 tsp minced garlic
1/4 tsp cayenne pepper
1/4 cup fresh cilantro leaves, finely chopped
1/3 cup fresh lime juice
1/2 tsp salt
11/4 tsp dried cumin
1/3 cup olive oil

1. Rinse the quinoa in a fine sieve under cold running water until the water runs clear. Put the quinoa in a pot with 21/4 cups water. Bring to a boil, then cover and simmer for 20 minutes or until the water is absorbed and the quinoa is tender. Fluff the quinoa with a fork, and transfer to a large bowl to cool.

2. While the quinoa is cooking, in a small bowl toss the beans with the vinegar, salt, and pepper.

3. Combine the beans, corn, bell pepper, scallions, garlic, cayenne, and cilantro with the cooled quinoa. Toss well.

4. In a small bowl, whisk together the lime juice, salt, and cumin. Slowly pour in the oil while whisking. Drizzle the dressing over the salad and toss well.

Note: The salad can be made one day ahead and refrigerated and covered. Bring it to room temperature before serving.

Nutrient Analysis per serving
Calories: 360; Total fat: 13 g; Sat fat: 2 g; Total carbohydrate: 47 g; Protein: 11 g; Dietary fiber: 7 g; Sodium: 260 mg

Three-Bean Soup

Serves 8


2 T canola oil
1 medium onion, diced
1 medium green pepper, diced
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 T ground cumin
1/2 to 1 tsp ground chipotle chile
4 cups fat-free, reduced-sodium chicken broth
1 14.5-oz can diced tomatoes
1 15-oz can black beans, rinsed and drained
1 15-oz can white beans, rinsed and drained
1 15-oz can red beans, rinsed and drained
1 cup lightly packed cilantro leaves, chopped and divided
1 T dried oregano
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
30 baked whole grain corn chips
1 to 2 limes, cut into wedges

1. In large Dutch oven, heat oil over medium-high heat. Sauté onion and green pepper for 3 minutes. Stir in garlic and cook until vegetables are tender-crisp, 2 minutes. Stir in cumin and chipotle, and cook 1 minute, stirring.

2. Add broth, diced tomatoes with their liquid, beans, 1/2 cup of cilantro, and dried oregano. Bring liquid to boil, reduce heat to medium, and simmer, uncovered, 10 minutes. Let soup cool for at least 30 minutes to increase flavor, then reheat before serving. Or, refrigerate soup for up to four days.

3. To serve, reheat soup and season to taste with salt and pepper. Crumble corn chips into the bottom of eight bowls. Ladle soup over chips. Garnish bowls with remaining chopped cilantro and lime wedge. Serve immediately.

Nutrient Analysis per serving
Calories: 230; Total fat: 7 g; Sat fat: 0 g; Total Carbohydrate: 32 g; Protein: 10 g; Dietary fiber: 8 g; Sodium: 480 mg


1. Winham D, Webb D, Barr A. Beans and good health. Nutr Today. 2008;43(5):201-209.

2. Mitchell DC, Lawrence FR, Hartman TJ, Curran JM. Consumption of dry beans, peas, and lentils could improve diet quality in the US population. J Am Diet Assoc. 2009;109(5):909-913.

3. Howarth NC, Saltzman E, Roberts SB. Dietary fiber and weight regulation. Nutr Rev. 2001;59(5):129-139.

4. Saltzman E, Moriguti JC, Das SK, et al. Effects of a cereal rich in soluble fiber on body composition and dietary compliance during consumption of a hypocaloric diet. J Am Coll Nutr. 2001;20(1):50-57.

5. Beninger CW, Hosfield GL. Antioxidant activity of extracts, condensed tannin fractions, and pure flavonoids from Phaseolus vulgaris L. seed coat color genotypes. J Agric Food Chem. 2003;51(27):7879-7883.

6. Wu X, Beecher GR, Holden JM, Haytowitz DB, Gebhardt SE, Prior RL. Lipophilic and hydrophilic antioxidant capacities of common foods in the United States. J Agric Food Chem. 2004;52(12):4026-4037.

7. Dry beans and human health. The Bean Institute website. Accessed October 8, 2014.

8. O'Neil CE, Nicklas TA, Zanovec M, Cho S. Whole-grain consumption is associated with diet quality and nutrient intake in adults: the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, 1999–2004. J Am Diet Assoc. 2010;110(10):1461-1468.

9. McKeown NM, Jacques PF, Seal CJ, et al. Whole grains and health: from theory to practice—highlights of the Grains for Health Foundation's Whole Grains Summit 2012. J Nutr. 143(5):744S-758S.

10. USDA, Agricultural Research Service, Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee. Report of the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee on the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2010, to the Secretary of Agriculture and the Secretary of Health and Human Services. Washington, DC: USDA; 2010.

11. Messina V. Nutritional and health benefits of dried beans. Am J Clin Nutr. 2014;100(Supplement 1):437S-442S.

12. Caire-Juvera G, Vázquez-Ortiz FA, Grijalva-Haro MI. Amino acid composition, score and in vitro protein digestibility of foods commonly consumed in northwest Mexico. Nutr Hosp. 2013;28(2):365-371.

13. Rebello CJ, Greenwy FL, Finley JW. Whole grains and pulses: a comparison of the nutritional and health benefits. J Agric Food Chem. 2014;62(29):7029-7049.

14. Mattei J, Hu FB, Campos H. A higher ratio of beans to white rice is associated with lower cardiometabolic risk factors in Costa Rican adults. Am J Clin Nutr. 2011;94(3):869-876.

15. Thompson SV, Winham DM, Hutchins AM, et al. Beans and rice meals reduce postprandial glycemic response in adults with type 2 diabetes: a cross-over study. Nutr J. 2012;11:23.

16. Thompson MD, Mensack MM, Jiang W, et al. Cell signaling pathways associated with a reduction in mammary cancer burden by dietary common bean (Phaseolus vulgaris L.). Carcinogenesis. 2012;33(1):226-232.

17. Thompson HJ. Crops for Health: Realizing the Potential of Agriculture as an Instrument in Public Health. Presented at Food 3,000. February 2014. Amsterdam, Holland.

18. Schneider C. The cancer prevention properties of beans. CSA News. 2014;59(8):4-9.

19. Carvalho-Wells AL, Helmolz K, Nodet C, et al. Determination of the in vivo prebiotic potential of a maize-based whole grain breakfast cereal: a human feeding study. Br J Nutr. 2010;104(9):1353-1356.

20. Grandjean AC, Fulgoni VL 3rd, Reimers KJ, Agarwal S. Popcorn consumption and dietary and physiological parameters of US children and adults: analysis of the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) 1999–2002 dietary survey data. J Am Diet Assoc. 2008;108(5):853-856.