April 2023
Local Food
Chef Molly Beverly

Consider the Bean

What is a bean?

A bean is the seed of a member of the legume family, powerhouse nutrition for us, and an agricultural superpower.

More accurately that superpower belongs to the rhizomic bacteria that live in bean-root nodules, in symbiotic relationships with legume roots. The rhizobia grab otherwise unusable nitrogen from the air and convert it into a useful form for the plant, for the animals that eat the plant, and for the animals that eat the animals — protein! The bean’s roots also fix usable nitrogen by stashing it in the soil, where successive plants can grab it for their use. Nitrogen is used by all living organisms to make the building blocks of life, including proteins. In essence beans feed us, all living creatures, and fertilize the soil for other plants. Grains like corn and wheat are often planted in fields following crops of legumes.

The relationship between man and beans goes way back. At Shanidar Cave in Iraq researchers have found legume remains from around 70,000 years ago, when it was a Neanderthal encampment, from 40,000 years ago, when it was home to early Homo sapiens, and from 12,000 years ago, when it was occupied by modern hunter-gatherers. Beans have been the baseline for human nutrition since time immemorial.

Eat beans and live longer

Hispanic Americans have a 24% lower incidence of premature death, cancer and heart disease despite lower average incomes, education and health care. This is known as the Hispanic Paradox, a scientific quandary that has been challenged repeatedly and studied over 30 years. Hispanic Americans comprise 10% of the population but eat 33% of the beans, a few pounds per capita per month.

Another scientific study of older people in Japan, Sweden, Greece and Australia showed that of all food factors, only one was associated with sustained health and longer life: legumes. The results are deemed “plausible, consistent and significant” across all populations: an 8% reduction in risk of premature death for every two tablespoons (20 grams) of beans eaten daily! You can see videos and read about this science-based information in “The Hispanic Paradox” and “Increased Lifespan from Beans” at Nutritionfacts.org

Eat beans and save the planet

Welcome to Earth Month. What one dietary change will make a huge impact on greenhouse gas emissions? Eat beans instead of beef. How does this work?

Animal agriculture is a major cause of climate change. Envision a crowded cattle feedlot in the Amazon rainforest. The feedlot holds 38,000 cattle eating 900 metric tons of soybeans a day. The cattle convert the beans to meat, and humans eat the meat. In the process, the cattle emit greenhouse gases, they consume many more calories in beans than they yield in meat, and they cause continued clear-cutting of forests. All that would be avoided if the beans were simply eaten by people. If Americans traded beef for beans it would free up 42% of US croplands.

This is not about beef alone, but about the impact of our dietary choices. What you eat makes a difference for your health and for the health of the planet. I like to eat legumes at every meal, whether that’s toasted soy in my morning cereal, a bean burrito for lunch, or tofu pad thai for dinner. Even a small change makes a difference.

The Bean Box: Ten Major Players

International seed banks have archived over 40,000 bean varieties. Here are a few to consider.

1. Basic common beans, Phaseolus vulgaris

Native to the Americas, these beans have traveled the world and been adopted and adapted into many cuisines in many incarnations — pinto, kidney, navy, cranberry cannellini, Anasazi, black turtle, borlotti, mayocoba, flageolet, yellow eye, Santa Maria pinquito — in a rainbow of colors: red, white, brown, purple, black, spotted, striped, speckled and beyond.

2. Garbanzo beans (aka chickpeas), Cicer arietinum

These were domesticated in Turkey 7,000 years ago. Garbanzo cooking liquid, known as aquafaba, can be whipped like egg whites. My favorite incarnation is hummus.

3. Peas, Pisum sativum

Domestic peas first appeared in the eastern Mediterranean around 5,000BCE. Split peas cook up into a delicious soup in less than an hour.

4. Lentils, Lens culinaris

Native to the Middle East and found buried in ancient Egyptian tombs, they cook fast, in only about 45 minutes.

5. Soybeans, Glycine max

Soya was domesticated in China 5,000 years ago and introduced to America by Benjamin Franklin in 1770. My favorite is firm tofu sautéed in garlic and soy sauce.

6. Lima Beans, Phaseolus lunatus

Domesticated in Peru around 2,000 BCE, limas are basic for succotash, a Narragansett indigenous dish of lima beans and corn adopted by early American settlers.

7. Cowpeas or blackeye peas, Vigna unguiculata

These were among the first crops to be domesticated, in Africa. They cook in less than an hour and are delicious mixed with okra and smoked meats in gumbo.

8. Mung beans, Vigna radiata, azuki, Vigna angularis

Both of these originated in Asia. Mung beans are the common basis for bean sprouts. Sweetened azuki appear as red-bean paste in Chinese and Japanese pastries, and even red-bean ice cream.

9. Tepary Beans, Phaseolus acutifolius

Arizona’s desert bean was domesticated over 6,000 years ago in Mexico and saved from extinction by Ramona and Terry Button on Akimel O’odham land at Ramona Farms in Sacaton. This heritage bean is extremely drought- and heattolerant, a valuable resource for our climate-change future.

10. Peanuts, Arachis hypogaea

Peanuts originated in South America and were domesticated over 7,600 years ago. When the conquistadors arrived they found fields of tlālcacahuatl (now called cacahuate in Spanish). Peanuts develop underground in hulls. Peanut butter is a superfood: 100 grams include 28 grams of protein.

Online Extras


Heritage beans are available locally at Pangaea Bakery (1260 Gail Gardner Way, Prescott), 928-227-2791).

Beans and great recipes are available online from Rancho Gordo at Ranchogordo.com, or in print: The Rancho Gordo Heirloom Bean Guide by Steve Sando, Rancho Gordo Press.

Camellia Brand Beans is a hundred-year-old family company specializing in New Orleans heritage beans.  Find southern-style recipes and beans to order at Camelliabrand.com

Ramona’s American Indian Food offers heirloom tepary beans, ancient-grain corn, heritage wheat and traditional recipes at Ramonafarms.org.

Joe Yonan, food and dining editor at The Washington Post, posts really delicious bean recipes at Joeyonan.com, and offers his book Cool Beans: The Ultimate Guide to Cooking with the World's Most Versatile Plant-Based Protein, from Ten Speed Press.

Meatless Monday is a global movement that encourages people to reduce meat in their diet for their health and the health of the planet.” Strategies, resources, and recipes at mondaycampaigns.org.

“If Everyone Ate Beans Instead of Beef,” theatlantic.com

The Gas Box

Many avoid beans because of gas. If you don’t eat beans regularly, your gut is probably missing the essential enzyme to break down their long-strand oligosaccharides. Happily you can buy that enzyme (alpha galactosidase) as Beano, and a couple of tabs of Beano with your first bite of beans will take care of the problem. But you won’t need them long. Scientific studies show that gas discomfort from daily bean intake dissipates within a week or two. Your gut will adjust, and you won’t need Beano anymore.

Read the gas study yourself: “Perceptions of flatuous from bean consumption,” pubmed.gov.

Chef Molly Beverly is Prescott's leading creative food activist and teacher. Photos by Gary Beverly.