The use of beans as an ingredient has been trending strongly lately. And, while a lot of this interest has to do with their being a primary source of plant proteins, they also are well-known sources of fiber and gluten-free/non-GMO carbohydrate.

As functional ingredients, beans allow formulators to swap out less-desirable ingredients and add texture and body to a range of developed products. With the rise of vegetarianism, veganism, and flexitarianism, consumers are turning to meat and dairy alternatives with growing frequency.

Beans offer the benefit of a clean label and are a remarkably sustainable crop. Beans add nitrogen back to the soil, and take fewer resources to produce than animal protein sources, making them an appealing food to environmentally minded consumers.

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Most legumes are clean-label, non-GMO, gluten-free, and vegan, making them an ingredient that addresses the major food concerns on the minds of consumers. “That is what we are seeing with the advent of bean flours… American consumers are really starting to appreciate the nutritional benefits of beans, so ‘sneaking’ them into products makes foods from chips to pastas into superfoods,” says Hannah Kullberg, owner and founder of The Better Bean Co.

It’s no secret that consumers have had issues with eating beans on a regular basis. “The one thing that keeps people from eating beans and enjoying all those health benefits is fear of bloating and gas,” admits Kullberg. “This is because most people have had bad experiences with undercooked or over-processed beans. Those can cause bloat.”

Another cause of the g.i. distress is simply that American consumers traditionally eat low-fiber diets. A sudden influx of high fiber is a shock to the system. However, for most of the consumers who include the recommended 25g or more fiber in their daily diet, such issues are uncommon.


Good Start

The past few years have witnessed an influx of an impressive range of bean-containing and bean-based products. The aforementioned clean-label attributes have food companies jumping on the bean bandwagon. 

Beyond chips and pastas, the retail market now includes bean-based salad dressings, sandwich spreads, dessert spreads, and even beverages. Accompanying the rise in gluten-free formulations are bean-inclusive breads, batters, and coatings.

Beans come in a variety of forms, from whole dried to canned, from puréed to flakes and powders. This gives product developers a variety of options for incorporating beans into formulations.

Dried beans have the benefit of long shelf life, storage space economy, and cost optimization. However, traditional dried beans often are soaked in water before cooking. This can result in downtime on a fast production line while waiting for the beans to hydrate. Dried beans also require cooking, further increasing the wait time to get to the finished product.

The Global Bean

One of the great things about beans and pulses is their global appeal. Legumes are among the oldest and most universally cultivated plant food known. There isn’t a single culture that doesn’t have some type of bean in regular rotation. In the US, the most familiar use of beans is in Southern, Southwestern, and Central and South American cuisines. Yet Mediterranean and Middle Eastern fava and garbanzo recipes also have been taken up by many chefs of late, especially in spreads such as hummus and North African-style stews. Beans are a staple in many other kitchens, making options for development unlimited. Their neutral flavor also makes them a great foil for all sorts of flavor profiles.

However, the economy and increased control over product quality led The Better Bean Co. to start from scratch with dried beans. “We soak our beans before cooking, which we believe makes our end-product tastier and the nutrients in the beans easier for the body to access during the digestive process,” says Kullberg. “Soaking also cuts down cooking time slightly, but it doesn’t make much difference for us, as we cook our beans for a long time.”

Another issue with dried beans is age. Beans can develop what is termed HTC (hard-to-cook) factor. “Beans that have mixed harvests, as commodity beans often do, will cook inconsistently,” says Kullberg. “Dried beans that have been sitting around for a year or more especially will cook inconsistently.” This inconsistency can lead to dry, crunchy bits in final formulations. 

As a dry bean ages, it becomes harder to cook—and harder to digest. It is not uncommon for commodity beans to sit in silos and warehouses for years before they reach a production floor and, eventually, the consumer. This, too, can lead to a “bad bean experience,” causing the consumer to “swear off beans,” Kullberg adds.


Drum Beat

Drum-dried beans offer the benefit of dried beans, although their cost is higher than standard dried beans. But the advantage to drum-dried beans is that they can go straight to the cooking step, saving time on the production floor.

Drum-dried beans are frequently flattened or split, however, which means if you’re looking for a whole bean experience for your consumer, drum-dried beans may not be the best choice. They are an excellent choice for entrees, soups, stews, and salad applications.

Frozen beans are another great choice for formulators. They are “ready to go,” able to be thawed right in the cooking vessel or pre-thawed before production. The beans are whole, making them perfect for recipes where appearance matters. However, the challenges with frozen beans include storage space and shelf life.

As with canned beans, frozen beans can take up a considerable amount of space, so if freezer space in the production facility is at a premium, frozen might not be the best option. Frozen beans also are available as a frozen purée, making production of dressings, dips, and spreads easy.

Canned beans are considered the ultimate in convenience. They are precooked, and with a quick rinse and drain, they’re ready to go directly into a recipe. The disadvantage to canned beans is a loss of flavor and texture. The beans tend to be softer and less flavorful than their dried and frozen counterparts, plus they are comparatively more expensive. Yet when time is a premium and the final product will be a purée or liquid, canned beans can be a viable choice.

“Most consumers are used to cooking with canned beans,” says Kullberg, “plus canned beans use bean varietals that are bred to have thick skins to withstand the canning process.” She further points out that canned beans are cooked in the can, so their whole component is typically preserved.


Take a Powder

Bean powders and flours are among the most exciting innovations in the world of beans. Bean powders can be used to boost protein levels in a recipe and can provide texture, gelation, adhesion, emulsification, and water retention. These nifty ingredients can help replace other ingredients, such as eggs, that might be undesirable in an allergen-free formulation, or because the component is cost-prohibitive.

In gluten-free bakery and snack applications, bean flours and powders partner well with other gluten-free flours. They add texture, moisture, and color. In fact, because of their high lysine content, bean flours and powders act as catalysts for the Maillard reaction, helping with browning and thus making them an excellent addition to gluten-free baked good mixes.

When combined with other protein sources, bean powders and flours can replace more expensive forms of the functional nutrient. In a gluten-free bread application, for example, bean flour will enhance the chewiness, structure, and crust consumers expect from a high-quality bread.

Many formulators specializing in gluten-free bakery products are finding success with garbanzo and navy bean flour in all manner of baked goods. Garbanzos and favas are being used to replace eggs in items like meringues, creating allergen-free or vegan cookies and cakes.

Strawberry Smoothie Formulated with Beans
With their excellent emulsifying capacity to complement their high nutrition value, beans are seeing more use—and consumer acceptance—in beverages. SOURCE: The Bean Institute (

Navy bean flour also has been used successfully in baked muffins and cookies and has shown promise for whipping properties in meringues. In macaroons, navy bean flour has helped replace both eggs and flour to create allergen-free cookies.

Bean powders and flours can also replace wheat flour as thickening agents in soups and sauces, without negative impact on flavor. The starch in beans holds up to freeze-thaw tests as well, making them ideal for frozen applications where other starches fail to perform. In applications like yogurt, bean powder can help control syneresis and aid in fermentation.

These bean products also make excellent egg replacers, improving cost and alleviating allergy concerns. In addition, beans contain about 21% protein compared to about 6% protein in eggs. Beans also boast 70-80% globulins and 15-25% albumins, compared to eggs’ 12% and 71%, respectively. This chemical makeup means beans (and bean soaking liquid, known as aqua faba) function a lot like eggs in specific applications.

Beverages, too, can benefit from bean powders and flours. Clean-tasting and quickly distributed, bean powder can be added to shakes and smoothies to boost protein and fiber.

Studies indicate that bean powders make highly effective meat binders. Using them in this manner can decrease cook loss and cost, and help control warmed-over and off flavors in formed and cooked burger patties. Adding 8%-12% bean flour in meat-based burgers also reduces fat content by about half, giving the final product increased shelf-stability and a marketable “lower fat” aspect.

Bean products can also replace flour and cornstarch in breaded and battered foods. Using bean flours in place of traditional breadings improves cook yield and lowers oil absorption. Moreover, bean flours can enhance product color and texture.


Seasoned Travelers

In many recipes, beans might call for a somewhat heavy hand on the seasoning. The final form can determine the amount of seasoning used. Whole beans will take less, but when it comes to blending and mashing, it’s time to grab the salt. “If you blend beans, you might have to add more flavoring, a lot of salt,” Kullberg cautions. 

The type of bean itself can be critical to a formulation. This is true not only in regard to color, size, and shape—after all, there’s a lot of leeway in, say, a burrito for red beans, pinto beans, black beans, or most any other bean—but food traditions matter and the wrong bean can put off diehard fans of a classic bean cuisine item.

In the northeastern US, natives tend to favor the small white bean (navy beans). Boston baked beans, a must-have at American barbecues north of the Mason-Dixon line, is a pre-Revolution classic dish consisting of a slow-cooked mixture of white beans, molasses, brown sugar, warm spices, and smoked ham or fatback.

As with Boston Baked Beans—only navy beans should be used—when authenticity counts, there’s little room for the wrong bean. For example, red beans and rice, the Louisiana Creole staple traditionally served on Monday each week, is a simple recipe that gets a kick from spicy Andouille sausage and the “Holy Trinity” of the region—onions, garlic, and peppers. But substitute any old bean for the de rigueur small red kidney bean and prepare to have the product fail.

Sticking to the South, the region also boasts Hoppin’ John, a combination of black-eyed peas or either of their smaller siblings, field peas or cowpeas, plus the aforementioned Holy Trinity and smoky bacon or ham hock, with rice. The dish is traditionally served on New Year’s Day to bring good luck. But bad luck will surely follow use of a bean other than the prescribed peas.

Other traditions focusing on a single bean type include succotash (the lima beans and sweet corn mix that started out in New England and spread to the South) and the more recent “Texas Caviar,” another black-eyed pea dish including finely chopped fresh tomatoes, onions, garlic, chili peppers, and vinegar, served chilled.


Bean Traders

When the type of bean doesn’t matter, culinologists have a freer hand in creating new or reimagined products. The earthy flavors of black beans and pinto beans hold up well to bold seasonings, with the former providing chewier texture due to a comparatively thick skin and the latter yielding a smoother, softer mouthfeel.

Beans that retain their integrity and stay somewhat firm after cooking are easily translatable into entrées, soups, and chili, while softer-textured beans do well in dried mixes, purées, and spreads. Think of a blend of black beans, brown rice, onions, peppers, corn, and South American spices in a black bean burger, or a chili with pinto or red beans, onions, peppers, chilies, cocoa powder and cinnamon (to add mystery and depth) to bring the flavors of the Southwest to your development work.

Because of their neutral flavor and adaptable texture, beans can take on an endless range of international flavors. Consider, for example, a new take on the classic French dish known as cassoulet. Easily adapted to canned soups or frozen entrees, the slow-cooked white bean soup or stew flavored with onions, tomatoes, and bay can be combined with a well-seasoned sausage instead of the more classic (and costly) duck leg. 

Caribbean-style black beans seasoned with ginger, citrus, allspice, thyme, onions, and garlic can be translated into a frozen dinner, accompanied by a side of plantains for an exciting vegetarian/vegan meal.

With a neutral flavor and adaptable texture, beans take on an endless range of international flavors.

The Italian favorite pasta fagioli, a rich and hearty bean and pasta stew, makes use of large, fat white cannellini beans, seasoned with tomatoes, onion, garlic, oregano, and basil. These beans have a soft texture that also makes them work well puréed as a spread for bread (commonly used in white bean hummus), but they also have enjoyed increased use in RTE meal salads.

In India, expressive flavors such as ginger, garlic, coriander, mustard seed, cumin, turmeric, and ground red pepper are used to give a bold flavor to lentils. But these flavors match well with any bean. A pungent curry made with kidney beans, rice, and vegetables can be a hearty South Asian-inspired dinner.


Moving Forward

As a meat substitute, a global international burger concept could push the envelope even further as a red bean patty with gojuchang, soy, garlic, and ginger for an interesting Korean style burger. Bean-based meat substitutes have proven an excellent way to introduce international flavors to a vegetarian product line.

“In a recipe, a bean for a bean should be fine overall,” allows The Better Bean’s Kullberg. “The flavor will likely change only slightly, and if cooking from scratch, some beans break down easily and turn creamy. The color might cause the biggest change; black beans bleed color onto other foods, while white beans do not. This is, of course, dependent on whether you use the pot liquor or not.”

It is important to note that processing times can change from one bean type to the next. Some initial experimentation might be necessary to get a consistent texture. Using hearty garbanzos instead of creamy white beans means a much longer cook time for the garbanzos to match the smooth texture in the end product.

“I am excited about heirloom beans,” says Kullberg. “There are a number of farmers who are now at the point where they can grow large quantities of heirloom beans, and some new and exciting products are coming out of this. Kullberg points to BRAMI Inc., makers of BRAMI Snacks as an example. BRAMI created a snack line bringing the Roman lupini bean to the American snack aisle in the form of a high-protein, high-fiber bean snack.

Beans are a great staple to work into the US consumer’s regular diet. “We have to remember civilizations have literally been built on beans,” says Kullberg. With more product developers recognizing the value that beans bring to creating products for a new generation of bean-ready consumers, look for the number of bean-based offerings to grow at an accelerated pace in the coming year. The next excellent bean product is just around the corner.

Health Superstars

On the nutrition front, beans are superstars. In fact, research has shown consumption of beans helps stave off obesity by providing a lower fat content than animal protein and improving satiety. Because beans are low on the glycemic index and have slowly digestible starches, beans can assist diabetics in controlling blood sugar levels. Legumes also reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease by lowering total blood cholesterol and low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol. Beans are incredibly high in dietary fiber, with fiber content ranging from 7% to 25%, depending on the bean. They also pack a hefty protein punch at 20% to 30%, based on the bean you choose. In addition, beans are high in lysine, folate, thiamine, antioxidants, and other phytochemicals, and contain riboflavin and niacin, potassium, calcium, magnesium, copper, iron, and zinc.

Originally appeared in the January, 2018 issue of Prepared Foods as Magic Beans.