Tag Archives: beans

Why do beans make us gassy?

Beans contain high levels of raffinose, a type of carbohydrate that our bodies can’t really digest. However, bacteria in our guts can consume it through fermentation, a process that releases quite a lot of gas into our gut. And it has to get out somehow.

Image via Pixabay.

Nothing is quite as American as apple pie, the saying goes. But nothing says American settlers quite like pork and beans. This probably means the New World was quite a windy place during the time, especially as Native Americans also ate these pulses quite a lot. Jokes aside, we all know that beans can definitely make us gassy. So what is it about beans that causes such a ruckus in our stomachs, and why don’t other foods do the same?

Well, to be fair, beans aren’t the only food that can cause flatulence, but they are the most infamous for doing so. And we’re going to learn all about it.

Getting to the bottom of it all

The main culprit here is a type of sugar molecule — a trisaccharide known as raffinose. It’s by no means exclusive to beans. Sugar beets, the main raw ingredient in many refined sugars today, actually contain quite a lot of raffinose. But beets are heavily processed to yield their precious sugars, a process that breaks down or removes raffinose from the end product. Beans, on the other hand, are simply cooked, which does not remove all the raffinose.

Every one of you here probably has a basic grasp of the process of digestion. Food goes in your tummy where it gets broken down, either to fuel us or to become us. But our bodies aren’t capable of digesting everything we eat. In fact, our bodies and that of pretty much every other animal rely on symbiotic bacteria to help us along. They help us get more bang for our burgers, and our bodies provide a safe and cozy place to live in.

Cows, with their four-chambered stomachs, are a prime example of such an arrangement. Grass is very hard to break down due to its high content of cellulose — humans can’t digest it at all, for example. The multi-chambered stomachs of ruminants (including cows) allow its processing through specialized mechanisms, including quite a rich microbial community that attacks and degrades cellulose.

Our guts work the same way, even if we only have one stomach. Raffinose is resistant to our digestive fluids. We know of one enzyme, alpha-galactosidase, that can break down raffinose, but it isn’t present in our stomachs. However, several species that live lower in the gut (“beneficial bifidobacteria and lactobacilli, Escherichia coli, Enterococcus faecium, and Streptococcus pneumoniae) can process raffinose, and generate gas as a side-effect.

The exact ratio of gases released in our bowels depends, unsurprisingly, on exactly what we ate. Generally, however, whenever you fart, you’re producing a mixture of nitrogen, methane, and carbon dioxide.

Do we even need farts?

Hydrogen sulfide and ammonia from the lower intestine give flatulence its pungency.

To be alive is to be flatulent — for the most part. Pretty much every organism out there with a digestive system resembling our own will pass gas at one point or another throughout their lives. It’s simply part and parcel of the kind of chemical reactions and biological processes that underpin digestion in the first place.

To put it all into perspective, animals all over the world emit enough gases to have a meaningful impact on the planet’s climate. Cows are responsible for an estimated 4.6 gigatons of CO2-equivalent per year, mostly in the form of methane released directly through flatulence, or indirectly, from the breakdown of manure. That’s over two-thirds of the annual emissions of the entire United States.

Ruminants such as cows are a special case, on account of their diet and anatomy, but even we, as a species, fart a lot. According to Healthline, your average person passes gas 5 to 15 times every day. With almost 8 billion people alive today, that adds up to a lot of gas.

Diet obviously helps reduce them, but overall, we probably won’t do away with farting any time soon. It’s a natural process that has an important role to play in keeping us alive: flatulence prevents gas build-up in our guts from becoming dangerous and allows digestion to work as intended.

Can we get rid of some of it?

While we can’t pacify the beans entirely, there are some tricks you can employ to reduce how much bloating they cause.

We’ve talked a lot about raffinose, but beans, other pulses, and legumes in general, are quite rich in fiber. If your diet doesn’t generally include such items, and then you chow down on nothing but beans and lentils for a whole day, you will get quite gassy. However, gradually mixing them into your diet will produce much less explosive results, as it gives your microflora (the bacteria in your gut) time to adapt to the change and better help you digest your food.

Soaking the beans overnight also seems to help, although it is a pretty contested topic. However, I was able to find reliable, peer-review data in support of soaking your beans. The study looked at how soaking before cooking impacted the levels of gas-inducing compounds in the beans. They used either plain water or water mixed with baking soda, soaking the beans in each for either 6 or 12 hours. Soaking them for 12 hours removed the most gas-inducing compounds, the team explains, in either solution. It could be that longer soaking periods might yield better results. All this being said, however, they caution people against using the water they soaked the beans in for cooking — throw it out.


Replacing beef with beans on Americans’ plates might be the fastest way to cut CO2 emissions


The United States is the second biggest greenhouse gas polluter in the world, after China. At the same time, it’s the most powerful country in the world and much of this prosperity is owed to burning copious amounts of fossil fuels over the past 150 years. In other words, the United States has a social responsibility in front of all the citizens of the world to 1) reduce it’s greenhouse emissions fast and 2) help other nations — particularly the fast rising developing nations — achieve the same goal by transferring technology and funds.

While most Americans believe climate change is real and an immediate threat, when it comes to doing something about it opinions become mixed. And if you say the ‘T’ word, you better run for the hills. No, not Trump — I mean ‘taxes’. But the single, fastest way to cut the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions might not be stripping a tax on the industry or the gas pump. According to researchers from Loma Linda University led Helen Harwatt, giving up on beef in favor of beans would have the most immediate impact on our emissions.

“Given the novelty, we would expect that the study will be useful in demonstrating just how much of an impact changes in food production can make, and increase the utility of such options in climate-change policy,” Harwatt said.

If Americans ate beans instead of beef, the U.S. would realize 50 to 75% of its 2020 GHG-reduction targets

Right now, most of our protein comes from livestock meat, 70% of which is produced in factory farms. This is a highly energy-intensive industry that responsible for 14.5% of greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs); more than all the cars, planes, ships, tanks or any kind of transportation in the world. But not all meats are equal. Beef, for instance, is the most resource-intensive kind of meat to produce  Depending on where it’s grown, one pound of beef uses 1,800 to 2,500 gallons (56 tons to 70 tons) of water and releases 22.3 kg of carbon dioxide equivalent GHG emissions per kilogram. And that’s not counting land use and other resources.

A 2011 report by the Environmental Working Group found that eating one fewer burger every week for a year was the equivalent of taking your car off the road for more than 500 kilometres, and if everyone in the U.S. ate no meat or cheese just one day a week for a year it would be equivalent to taking 7.6 million cars off the road.

Simply put, eating beef driving a lot of global warming and pollution — not only in this country but all around the world. At the same time, beef is an excellent source of protein for millions of people.

So are beans, though.

beans vs beef

Credit: Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine

A 2015 study carried out by a team from the University of Minnesota asked 14 men and 14 women to eat two test lunches which included a ‘meatloaf’ made of either beans or beef. Both meals were matched in calories and total fat. The beef meal provided 26 grams of protein and three grams of fiber while the bean meal provided 17 grams of protein and 12 gram of fiber. All participants didn’t report differences in appetite between the beef and bean meals over the course of 3 hours following their lunch. These findings support the idea that plant-based proteins with high fiber may offer similar appetite regulation as animal protein.

Researchers from the University of Copenhagen performed a similar study and came up with even more interesting findings. Their study which involved 43 young men not only found beans fill the belly better than beef,  they do it on fewer calories. A typical fast food meat patty tallies up about 230 calories but bean burgers, by contrast, average just 115 calories.

The takeaway would be that beans offer a very similar intake pound-for-pound with beef, with the added benefit of being more satiating which helps you lose weight. Beans are also a lot cheaper and contain lots of fiber as opposed to beef. Foods naturally high in fiber lower cholesterol, control blood sugar, regulate bowel movements, help prevent type-2 diabetes, reduces the risk of heart diseases, and more.

“While more studies are needed for a definitive proof, it appears as if vegetable-based meals – particularly those based on beans and peas – can serve as a long term basis for weight loss and as a sustainable eating habit,” concluded th estudy’s lead author Anne Raben in a University of Copenhagen press release.

Let’s spill the beans

The most important thing at stake when switching beef with beans, however, is the wellbeing of our planet, though it’s good to know our waistline is also taken care of.

“The nation could achieve more than half of its GHG reduction goals without imposing any new standards on automobiles or manufacturing,” said  Joan Sabate, a co-author of the new Loma Linda University study which assessed the environmetal impact of switching beef in favor of beans.

Substituting beans for beef would also free up 42 percent of U.S. cropland currently under cultivation. That’s a staggering 1.65 million square kilometers or 400 million square acres. This free space can then be used to grow more plant-based foods, including beans, of course, to support a rising population.

All of this sounds rational to most people, I take it, but when confronted with the choice in the real life who can we count on? Americans love beef, especially burgers, so it’s understandable why this might look like a lost cause. That’s not necessarily the case. In 2014, 400 million fewer animals were killed for food because people, mainly Millenials in the United States, chose to eat less meat. Moreover, according to Professor Harwatt, a third of American consumers are now buying meat analogs — plant-based products that resemble animal foods — and the trend is growing. So, there’s a lot to be optimistic about. Besides, people don’t need to give up beef or meat, in general, entirely. That just sounds like too much of a sacrifice and such decisions need not sound like that. Instead, even replacing meat-based meals one day of the week with plant-based products can have a huge impact.

At least, beans are better than another alternative: insects. Previously, a group from the University of Edinburgh, UK, found replacing half of the meat we eat worldwide with crickets and mealworms would cut farmland use by a third, consequently vastly reducing greenhouse gas emissions. There’s also promising progress being made in the field of artificial meats. The price of a lab-grown burger has dropped to $11.36 down from $325,000 in 2012. 

“Given the scale of greenhouse gas reductiotens needed to avoid the worst impacts of climate change, are we prepared to eat beef analogs that look and taste like beef, but have a much lower climate impact?” Horwatt asks. “It looks like we’ll need to do this. The scale of the reductions in greenhouse gas emissions needed doesn’t allow us the luxury of ‘business as usual’ eating patterns.”

Findings appeared in the journal Climatic Change.

legumes fight against diabetes

Consuming legumes is associated with a lower risk of diabetes

If you still needed an extra reason to get that five a day, you should know that researchers just released a study concluding that legume consumption is associated with a lower risk of diabetes.

legumes fight against diabetes

Compared to individuals with a lower consumption of total legumes — lentils, chickpeas, beans and peas — individuals with a higher consumption had a 35 percent lower risk of developing type 2 diabetes. Image credits: CSIRO

Legumes such as beans, chickpea, or lentil, are a significant source of protein, dietary fiber, carbohydrates and dietary minerals. They contain no cholesterol and little fat or sodium. In case you don’t know what this means, it means that legumes are really good for you. Researchers write:

“Legumes, a low-energy, nutrient-dense and low glycemic index food, have shown beneficial effects on glycemic control and adiposity. As such, legumes are widely recommended in diabetic diets, even though there is little evidence that their consumption protects against type 2 diabetes.”

They analyzed 3349 participants at high risk of cardiovascular disease but without type 2 diabetes. After four years, individuals who ate more legumes (28.75 grams/day, equivalent to 3,35 servings/week) had a 35% lower risk of developing type 2 diabetes. Lentil was especially highlighted, with people who consumed less than half a serving per week being 33% more likely to develop type 2 diabetes than those who ate up to a full portion a week.

Of course, correlation doesn’t imply causation. As the paper itself states, it’s very difficult to establish a cause-effect relationship between legumes and diabetes, but the idea that legumes fight diabetes is being supported by more and more evidence. This is not a new idea — this idea has been embedded in popular belief for a long time, but surprisingly little scientific evidence has confirmed it so far.

Even something as small as replacing half a serving/day of foods rich in protein or carbohydrates (eggs, bread, potatoes with lentils, chickpeas, dry beans and fresh peas) can have a major effect. Especially in the context of a Mediterranean diet (characterized especially by a high consumption of vegetables and olive oil and moderate consumption of protein), legumes make a big difference. Researchers conclude:

“A frequent consumption of legumes, particularly lentils, in the context of a Mediterranean diet, may provide benefits on type 2 diabetes prevention in older adults at high cardiovascular risk.”

Because they are a low-glycemic index food containing sizeable amounts of fibre and rich in B vitamins, legumes are a healthy source of nutrients and energy for humans. In fact, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) declared 2016 as the international year of legumes to raise people’s awareness of their nutritional benefits. While this study is a bit late to that part, it’s still an important finding which shows just how important legumes are. The fact that a healthy diet protects against chronic diseases should surprise no one, but I’m happy when a study like this comes along and just underlines that fact even more.

Journal Reference: Reference: Becerra-Tomás N, Díaz-López A, Rosique-Esteban N, Ros E, Buil-Cosiales P, Corella D, Estruch R, Fitó M, Serra-Majem Ll, Arós F, Lamuela-Raventós R.M, Fiol M, Santos-Lozano J.M, Diez-Espino J, Portoles O, Salas-Salvadó J, PREDIMED study investigators. “Legume consumption is inversely associated with type 2 diabetes incidence in adults: a prospective assessment from the PREDIMED study”. Clinical Nutrition (2017). http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.clnu.2017.03.015.

Mixed legume and cereal crops don’t need fertilizer to yield a lot of food

Planting legumes alongside cereals could improve crop yields and reduce the environmental impact of farms, researchers have found.

Image credits Hans Braxmeier / Pixabay.

Following the Green Revolution and the wide-scale implementation of intensive farming, nitrogen fertilizers became vital for the way we grow crops. It has become essential to maintain high crop yields, with cereal crops usually getting around 110 kg of nitrogen fertilizer per hectare. But this nitrogen is usually derived from fossil fuels and it has a huge carbon footprint. The work of Dr Pietro Iannetta of the James Hutton Institute on intercropping could drastically reduce or remove our need for such fertilizers altogether. The findings were presented at the British Ecological Society’s annual meeting in Liverpool last week.

Intercropping is the practice of growing two or more types of crops on the same soil at the same time, as opposed to the intensive farming practice of planting a singe crop per field at a time.Dr Iannetta’s work shows that adopting this method of farming could cut greenhouse gas emissions by reducing the need for fertilizers, while boosting biodiversity, food security, and widening markets for local food and drinks at the same time.

A peas of cake

Dr Iannetta grew trial crops of peas and barley together at a 50-50% rate and found that despite using not nitrogen fertilizer, he could produce a total yield in excess of what barley alone would produce. This happens because peas and other legumes fix their own nitrogen — when grown with other crops such as barley, the peas supply the cereal’s nitrogen requirement.

Related story: Make your own compost.

Not only cheaper and more efficient, but this approach is also cleaner. Dr Iannetta estimates that emissions could be reduced by 420,000 tonnes of CO2 equivalent if the UK planted its spring barley alongside legumes and used no fertilizer. That’s the equivalent CO2 that over 420,000 trees process in a year. And, since agriculture makes up around 15% of global greenhouse emissions, this approach could make a huge difference.

Western agriculture currently relies on a narrow range of crops — it’s wheat, barley, and potato heavy. By growing more legumes alongside these staples, intercropping would boost diversity and help make farming more resilient to environmental factors, crop diseases, and pests. It would also help diversify farmers’ produce, and the wider range of locally-available crops would stimulate new markets for sustainable foodstuffs. To this end, Dr Iannetta is also working on developing new ways to brew peas and beans into alcohol. With the help of Professor Graeme Walker of Abertay University working on the enzymes involved in fermentation, Barney’s Beer in Edinburgh, and Arbikie Distillery in Arbroath, he’s working on developing a beer made from 40% whole faba beans.

“Beans are notoriously difficult to ferment, but we have discovered a way of doing this by neutralising the fermentation inhibitors,” he explains.

“Tundra [the beer] is a wonderful, heavily hopped American IPA. By turning pulse starch into fermentable sugars and alcohol from 40% beans intercropped with 60% barley — we have produced a beer using 40% less artificial fertiliser.”

Such research is particularity relevant in countries with little arable soil, those who can’t afford fertilizers, or countries with a heavy tradition in brewing. Scotland, for example, uses 60% of all non-grazing arable land to grow barley, around half of which is for malting and distilling.

“Minimising the amount of artificial nitrogen used to grow barley would save carbon, save money and deliver Scottish whisky — the UK’s greatest export and tax revenue resource — in a more sustainable way.”

“The public wants healthier food that is grown more sustainably. It’s great that shops are now selling grain legume-based crisps and bread, but I wish they used more home-grown legumes. There is a huge opportunity for small growers to diversify and shorten their supply chains by developing their own high-quality legume-based products.”

The by-product of the fermentation is also high in proteins, which can be used as feed in fisheries. Dr Iannetta hopes to have commercially available green beers and neutral spirits by the end of 2017.

“These will have been produced using no human-made fertilisers, and give co-products that provide sustainable and profitable protein production for the food chain,” he concludes.

Legumes are more filling than meat, better for your waist and the planet

Legumes such as beans and peas are more filling than pork and veal, a recent study from the University of Copenhagen’s Department of Nutrition, Excercise and Sports found. The results have several implications for health and agriculture: not only is this practice more sustainable as meat requires far more resources to grow, but it may also help with weight loss.

Image credits used HomeMaker / Pixabay.

Christmas is just around the corner which can only mean one thing: it’s time to eat, and eat hard. Of course, no holiday meal could be complete without meat cooked in a myriad dishes. In a way, this ties in quite neatly with numerous modern dietary recommendations, which encourage protein consumption. Proteins are quite filling but release comparatively little energy when metabolized (calories) and these diets claim to help combat obesity and sustain muscle mass.

Regardless of these diets’ effectiveness, however, the fact remains that producing meat is a far greater environmental burden than growing vegetables. So what can you do to get your holiday fill, share of protein, and satisfaction that you saved those penguins all in one?

Chow on legumes

Until now we didn’t know very much about how legumes compare to meat in sheer filling power — how well they satiate hunger. But the study shows that participants found protein-rich meals based on beans or peas are more filling than protein-rich dishes based on veal or pork. The 43 participants were all normal-weight to moderately overweight males between the age of 18 and 40 and free of any chronic health conditions. They were served three different meals heavy on patties consisting of either beans/peas or veal/pork.

Participants who ate the meal based on beans and peas consumed 12% fewer calories during their next meal compared to those who had eaten a meat-based meal.

“The protein-rich meal composed of legumes contained significantly more fiber than the protein-rich meal of pork and veal, which probably contributed to the increased feeling of satiety,” said head researcher Professor Anne Raben of the University of Copenhagen’s Department of Nutrition, Exercise and Sports.

The study also found that a less protein-rich meal of beans and peas was reported to be as satiating and pleasurable as the protein-rich veal and pork-based meals.

“It is somewhat contrary to the widespread belief that one ought to consume a large amount of protein because it increases satiety more,” she added.

“Now, something suggests that one can eat a fiber-rich meal, with less protein, and achieve the same sensation of fullness. While more studies are needed for a definitive proof, it appears as if vegetable-based meals — particularly those based on beans and peas — both can serve as a long term basis for weight loss and as a sustainable eating habit.”

So this Christmas, put a healthy serving of pork and beans or mushy peas next to the holiday roast — it’ll help keep both your waist and climate change in check.

The full paper “Meals based on vegetable protein sources (beans and peas) are more satiating than meals based on animal protein sources (veal and pork) – a randomized cross-over meal test study” has been published in the journal Food and Nutrition Research.

Boston baked beans

How a new generation of climate change resistant beans could save millions

Some 30 new bean varieties have been cross-bred by researchers in order to make these more resistant to rising temperatures. Often called the ‘meat of the poor’, more than 400 million people around the world depend on beans for their daily protein intake. Being particularly vulnerable to temperature means that bean farms, whether large or home subsistence gardens, could be obliterated by climate change this century. The new beans can withstand temperatures three to four degrees Celsius greater than those currently grown by farmers, enough, the researchers say, to keep yield losses to a minimum.

Boston baked beans

Boston baked beans. Image: Wikimedia

Nestled deep in the Columbian countryside, some 300 international scientists stationed at the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) in Valle de Cauca are working around the clock to keep the world fed. At CIAT, researchers have garnered seeds from around the world for their seed bank. Curated by Daniel Debouck, CIAT now boasts the largest beans collection in the world, numbering more than 36,000 bean samples in all shapes, colors and sizes. This isn’t some collector caprice, but a genuine public service. Millions around Africa and South America depend on beans to make end’s meet. Rwandans, for instance, each consume on average 60kg of beans per year.

Previously, CIAT distinguished itself as a vital research institute for mankind after it released wheat and rice varieties that dramatically increased yields in China and India. This was the 1960s, and at the time the two countries were on the brink of disaster threatened by widespread famine. Not only did the population recover, but India is now a major rice exporter. Most recently, CIAT developed some bean varieties that are adapted to certain African environments and now feed some 30 million people. In the face of climate change, however, efforts had to be stepped up.

Daniel Debouck and his beans collection. Credit: Neil Palmer, CIAT

Daniel Debouck and his beans collection. Credit: Neil Palmer, CIAT

Beans are most vulnerable during night time under high temperatures. If these cross 18 or 19 degrees Celsius, then the vegetable’s flowers can’t pollinate. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, global temperatures could rise by 3 to 5 degrees by the end of this century, which puts billions of tonnes of beans at risk each year. According to a model made by CIAT, the area suitable for growing beans could diminish by 50% as a result of climate change. That would be catastrophic.

“Small farmers around the world are living on the edge even during the best situation,” said Steve Beebe, the head of CIAT’s bean breeding programme.

“Climate change will force many to go hungry, or throw in the towel, sell their land and move into urban slums if they don’t get support.”

Beebe, Debouck and other colleagues examined the thousand of bean varieties stored in their bank. They hoped to find some suitable varieties that could be crossed with modern ones. They eventually hit the jackpot with the  tepary bean and put the traits into others such as pinto, white, black and kidney beans. The tepary bean, though low yield, is a hardy survivor endemic to northern Mexico and the American southwest which has been cultivated since pre-Columbian times. After crossing the tepary bean with the modern kind, the researchers came up with results that exceeded their wildest hopes:  the new varieties could handle a 3°C rise, while others seemed able to withstand 4°C or more.

CIAT’s gene bank fridges. Beans are kept at -18°C to preserve them from decay.(Neil Palmer, CIAT)

CIAT’s gene bank fridges. Beans are kept at -18°C to preserve them from decay.(Neil Palmer, CIAT)

Bean growers in Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa – including Nicaragua, Haiti, Brazil, Honduras, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo may sleep better at night. The updated model found that 95% fields planted with the new beans could survive.

To me, this is a success reminiscent of CIAT’s success in the 1960s, further consolidating the institution’s role as a global food watchdog. But this success couldn’t had been possible were it not for CIAT’s seed bank of wild varieties. Only 5% of the wild relatives of the world’s most important crops are properly stored and managed. CIAT’s findings should serve as an example that might attract more support for wild flower and vegetable banks.