August/September 2022 Issue
By Joanna Foley, RD
Vol. 24, No. 6, P. 38
These versatile, nutrient-rich legumes have been used in recipes for thousands of years and continue to grow in popularity as clients and patients find new ways to incorporate them into their weekly meal planning.
The growing trend in the consumption of plant foods—and, more specifically, plant-based proteins—has fueled demand for dried and canned beans like never before. Recent data show sales of dried beans are skyrocketing as consumers look for more nutrient-dense and budget-friendly products. During the pandemic, people also increasingly stocked their kitchens with nonperishable items such as canned beans.
The beans that play a starring role in these kitchens are black beans, which have become high-protein staples in many American households. In 2021, the market for black beans grew at a steady rate, and it’s expected to increase over the coming years.1 According to data from early 2020 through early 2021, sales of dry black beans were up 207%.2 “As consumers became more educated on sustainability and the large role the food system plays in issues like climate change, the popularity of low-impact protein sources has increased,” says Whitney English, MS, RDN, CPT, a Los Angeles–based dietitian and coauthor of The Plant-Based Baby & Toddler. “Black beans and pulses in general require a fraction of the resources to produce and can feed a much larger number of people compared with animal foods such as beef or chicken.”
Jessica Steinbach, MPH, RD, a dietitian in San Diego who works for Taylor Wolfram, LLC, a vegan and antidiet nutrition therapy practice, says, “Beans in general are becoming more popular due to their versatility, availability, and access. They’re a wonderful source of protein, fiber, and micronutrients and are often more shelf-stable and affordable than other protein sources.” As a result of beans’ popularity, food manufacturers are incorporating black beans in their products more frequently to meet consumer demand.
Today’s Dietitian takes a further look at the history of black beans, their health benefits and culinary uses, and how RDs can counsel clients on how to include them when preparing meals.
Origins of Black Beans
Black beans belong to the Fabaceae plant family, which includes other legumes such as lentils and peas. Black beans are pulses, the edible seeds of legumes. They’re native to the Americas, including Central and South America.3 Consumption of black beans dates back more than 7,000 years, when they first became a staple in the diets of Central and South American cultures. Black beans continue to be a common ingredient in many Latin American countries, such as Mexico, Peru, and Colombia. It’s believed that black beans didn’t start gaining popularity in North America until the late 1900s.
Like other beans, black beans grow from seeds. Their lifecycle includes planting, seed sprouting, flowering, ripening, and harvesting. Black beans grow in pods, and the bean seeds are then harvested from the pods about 95 to 105 days after planting. Beans are a warm-season vegetable and grow best between spring and fall.
Black beans are a nutrient-dense food, containing about 8 g protein per 1/2-cup serving. “Black beans are a good source of protein and an excellent source of belly-filling, microbiome-supporting fiber,” English says. “They also contain important nutrients for growth and immunity, such as iron, zinc, and calcium. Black beans also have a high content of phytochemicals with antioxidant properties, including anthocyanins and flavonoids such as quercetin,” English adds.
A 1/2-cup serving of cooked black beans contains 115 kcal, 0.5 g fat, 20 g carbohydrate, 8 g dietary fiber, 8 g protein, 1.8 mg iron (10% DV), 305 mg potassium (6% DV), 60 mg magnesium (14% DV), 23 mg calcium (2% DV), and 128 mcg folate (32% DV). Note that the exact nutrient profile will vary depending on the variety and brand of black beans and whether they’re canned or cooked from dry beans.
In addition to these nutrients, black beans may positively impact the following:
• Heart health. One recent review and meta-analysis of clinical and randomized controlled trials found that the consumption of beans was associated with an 11% reduced risk of CVD and a 22% decreased risk of coronary heart disease,4 English says. The fiber in black beans can help lower LDL cholesterol and triglyceride levels, thus improving a major risk factor for heart disease and other cardiac conditions.
• Blood glucose. Black beans provide just over 30% of the recommended daily intake of fiber for women and about 20% of the recommended daily intake for men. This fiber helps slow down blood sugar response, leading to a more stable rise rather than a quick spike, as is the case for low-fiber foods.5 Even if someone eats two meals that contain the same number of carbohydrates, the meal that contains more fiber won’t raise blood sugar as much. Blood sugar management is especially important for preventing diabetes and mitigating its potential health effects, such as kidney and heart disease, nerve damage, vision loss, and fertility issues.6,7
• Digestion. The fiber in beans not only helps promote normal bowel function but also fuels the gut lining and serves as a prebiotic to feed probiotics, helping to balance the good and bad bacteria in the gut. Getting enough fiber by eating beans can help prevent and manage both diarrhea and constipation, as well as other digestive disorders, such as irritable bowel syndrome, diverticular disease, and colon cancer.
Are Antinutrients a Concern?
Some people have been hesitant to consume certain plant foods such as beans due to certain compounds they contain called antinutrients. These include lectins, tannins, and phytates, which are thought to interfere with mineral absorption and possibly alter gut function.
However, soaking and cooking beans reduce antinutrient content.8 Most research concludes that the benefits of consuming beans within the context of a balanced diet far outweigh the risks.9
Culinary Uses Around the World
Throughout the world black beans are used in a variety of ways.10 Here are some examples of uses from different countries:
• In Mexico, people use black beans in traditional dishes such as tacos, enchiladas, and burritos, and as a side dish to any meal.
• Peruvians make tacu-tacu, a thick pan-fried cake of rice and beans that’s often topped with a fried egg.
• In Venezuela, individuals serve mashed black beans with arepas (thick corn cakes).
• Brazilians make feijão com leite de coco, which is puréed black beans with coconut milk and dendê oil.
• In the United States, “Black beans can be eaten with rice, in salads, tacos, arepas, stews, burgers, [and] even in baked goods,” Steinbach says. They also can be used in egg scrambles, in grain bowls, as a meat replacement, and more.
Are All Created Equal?
While black beans are quite versatile, as with all foods, quality can vary depending on the brand and method of preparation and storage. Canned beans are cooked before being canned, and the canning process helps preserve them for long periods, making them shelf-stable. Canned black beans have the convenience of being ready on demand for any recipe.
Using dry beans may be a fresher way to prepare beans that offers a slightly different taste profile. Dry beans aren’t as convenient or quick to prepare, but they give people the flexibility to cook in bulk, are less expensive, and enable individuals to choose whatever ingredients they’d like to add to them to complete a dish.
Organic black beans are free from GMOs, pesticides, and herbicides. According to the Environmental Working Group, beans and legumes frequently are sprayed with the herbicide glyphosate right before harvest, which may be harmful to health.11 However, glyphosate concentrations may not be high in all beans, so buying nonorganic black beans is still a great option.
Counseling Recommendations for RDs
Due to their health benefits and versatility, it’s easy for dietitians to encourage clients to include black beans in their diet. Black beans can fit into many different dietary patterns, including vegan, vegetarian, gluten-free, plant-based, and low-carb.
“RDs can encourage clients to either swap other sources of protein for [black] beans or simply add them to the plate,” English says. “A handful of black beans can be tossed into a salad, sandwich wrap, or breakfast scramble for an easy protein and fiber boost. They can be used as is in place of meat in tacos or burritos, or ground up with walnuts using a food processor to make a mock meat substitute. Black beans also make a delicious hummus alternative when blended into a bean spread and mixed with olive oil and spices,” English says.
Steinbach says dietitians should be intentional about recommending recipes that are culturally appropriate and accessible to clients.
However, there are a few caveats RDs should be aware of when counseling patients. Canned beans tend to be high in sodium, so dietitians should advise clients to purchase low-sodium varieties and drain and rinse them before use to further remove excess sodium.
Moreover, dietitians should learn of any medical conditions that may prevent individuals from eating black beans or other bean varieties. For instance, if someone must restrict fiber intake, the RD may need to recommend another healthful food or provide guidance on portion size. Finally, RDs may need to advise clients who aren’t used to eating a high-fiber diet to increase intake gradually and drink plenty of water while doing so to avoid digestive upset.
— Joanna Foley, RD, is a freelance writer based in San Diego. She’s the author of two cookbooks and provides expert health content for numerous health and wellness brands and websites. Learn more about her writing services at joannafoleynutrition.com/press.
1. Canned black beans market share 2022 global size, leading players update, forthcoming development, business strategies, new investment plans, and regional analysis forecast to 2027. Market Watch website. https://www.marketwatch.com/press-release/canned-black-beans-market-share-2022-global-size-leading-players-update-forthcoming-development-business-strategies-new-investment-plans-and-regional-analysis-forecast-to-2027-2022-04-19. Published April 19, 2022.
2. Crawford E. A dream deferred: Bean sales soar as shoppers seek nutrient-dense, plant-based & diet-friendly foods. Food Navigator-USA.com website. https://www.foodnavigator-usa.com/Article/2021/03/05/A-dream-deferred-Bean-sales-soar-as-shoppers-seek-nutrient-dense-plant-based-diet-friendly-foods. Updated March 5, 2021.
3. Sandborn D. Plant science at the dinner table: black beans. Michigan State University Extension: Food and Health website. https://www.canr.msu.edu/news/black_beans_and_the_science_behind_them. Published December 1, 2021.
4. Nchanji EB, Ageyo OC. Do common beans (Phaseolus vulgaris L.) promote good health in humans? A systematic review and meta-analysis of clinical and randomized controlled trials. Nutrients. 2021;13(11):3701.
5. How does fiber affect glucose levels? Joslin Diabetes website. https://www.joslin.org/patient-care/diabetes-education/diabetes-learning-center/how-does-fiber-affect-glucose-levels. Published July 12, 2021.
6. Manage blood sugar. Center for Disease Control and Prevention website. https://www.cdc.gov/diabetes/managing/manage-blood-sugar.html. Updated April 28, 2021.
7. How sugar impacts your fertility. Shady Grove Fertility website. https://www.shadygrovefertility.com/article/how-sugar-impacts-your-fertility/. Published December 23, 2016.
8. Deol JK, Bains K. Effect of household cooking methods on nutritional and anti nutritional factors in green cowpea (Vigna unguiculata) pods. J Food Sci Technol. 2010;47(5):579-581.
9. Petroski W, Minich DM. Is there such a thing as "anti-nutrients"? A narrative review of perceived problematic plant compounds. Nutrients. 2020;12(10):2929.
10. Beans in Latin cuisine. The Bean Institute website. https://beaninstitute.com/beans-in-latin-cuisine/
11. Four lesser-known foods high in pesticides: the answer may surprise you. Environmental Working Group website. https://www.ewg.org/foodnews/five-lesser-known-foods-high-in-pesticides.php. Published March 25, 2020.