Beans just might be the Rodney Dangerfield of the food world. To paraphrase the comedian, they just get no respect. Beans are the butt of many jokes because they have a reputation for causing flatulence. But new research may be able to set the record straight in defense of the bean: Not all beans are equally gassy, and even those that may cause gas really aren’t so bad.
The study, performed at Arizona State University in Phoenix, was actually a combination of three trials that examined the association between beans and cardiovascular disease risk.1 The health benefits of beans are many and well established, such as lowering blood pressure, regulating the colon, and improving blood glucose levels. In two of the studies considered, participants consumed half a cup of pinto beans, black-eyed peas, or baked beans every day for an eight-week period. The control groups of both of those studies consumed canned carrots each day instead. Half of the volunteers in the third study ate half a cup of pinto beans for 12 weeks, while the other half ate a serving of soup.
The participants were asked to report on any type of digestive problems during the study period, including flatulence, bloating, and any changes in their elimination process or products. In the first week of the study, less than 50 percent of the volunteers eating pinto or baked beans experienced more gas than usual. Only 19 percent of those who ate black-eyed peas reported gas problems. Of all the subjects in the three studies combined, at any given point, between three and 11 percent of them felt their flatulence had increased. But this was the case even for the carrot-eating group.
This clearly shows that flatulence and other stomach-related issues are not a major cause of discomfort for most people when eating beans. Beans really don’t deserve their reputation for gassiness. It’s possible that some types may affect certain people more than other types do, so if you want to increase your intake of beans, you might want to try a few different kinds to judge how your body reacts to each. But beans are a terrific food nutritionally and can be a valuable addition to the diet. Beans are a great source of protein, fiber, and an array of vitamins and minerals. Plus, the fiber content of beans helps fill you up, enabling you to eat less at a meal and still feel satisfied.
The three studies also found that the subjects eating beans daily experienced a substantial decrease in their cholesterol levels, both overall and for LDL cholesterol. This confirms the findings of previous research. The medical community says that elevated cholesterol is a risk factor for several health problems, including stroke and heart disease, but that connection isn’t as absolute as you might have been led to believe.
If you would like to introduce more beans into your diet and are still concerned about gas issues, you might want to consider taking digestive enzyme supplements with your meals — but look for a formula that contains alpha galactosidase, which can specifically reduce gas production.2 Supplementing can do the trick for our bodies, and the results are immediate. In addition to relief from gas and bloating, taking enzymes with meals can provide a significant reduction in indigestion and heartburn, improved digestion of dairy products caused by lactose intolerance (if the supplement contains lactase), diminished food allergies due to more complete protein digestion, greatly reduced flatulence due to more complete carbohydrate digestion, and more.
On the other hand, there are two arguments against the use of beans that carry more weight than gas — lectins and phytic acid — but can be easily overcome. Lectins are a class of sugar-binding proteins that can cause allergic reactions in the body — sometimes even fatal. But the lectins in beans are fairly easily neutralized by cooking. In fact, hard cooking presoaked beans for 15 minutes pretty much eliminates all traces of lectins in beans. Phytic acid, on the other hand, is a problem because it binds with minerals and prevents them from being absorbed in the intestinal tract. Soaking beans overnight, the standard approach, will remove some of the phytic acid, but the best approach is to soak your beans for 12 hours and then germinate them for three to four days before cooking them. That pretty much removes all of the phytic acid.
In any case, if used properly, beans can be an important part of your diet — providing numerous health benefits, great taste, and not as much gas as you might have thought.
1 Winham, Donna M. and Hutchins, Andrea M. “Perceptions of flatulence from bean consumption among adults in 3 feeding studies.” Nutrition Journal. October 2011. BioMed Central. 15 December 2011. <http://www.nutritionj.com/content/pdf/1475-2891-10-128.pdf>.
2 Helga George. “What Is Alpha Galactosidase?” wiseGEEK. (Accessed 16 Dec 2011.) <http://www.wisegeek.com/what-is-alpha-galactosidase.htm>