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Beans a boost for your body

Hey, who cut the cholesterol? So goes a proud chant from the dry edible bean industry in North Dakota and Minnesota, where 2,700 growers raise about half of the United States' total annual production of pintos and other bean varieties. More beans...

Hey, who cut the cholesterol?

So goes a proud chant from the dry edible bean industry in North Dakota and Minnesota, where 2,700 growers raise about half of the United States' total annual production of pintos and other bean varieties.

More beans in the diet would help consumers reduce the risk of heart disease, cancer and other health problems, they say, but they acknowledge that beans suffer from an image problem that has left markets stagnant.

And, forgive us, the bean people are having a gas with their new promotional campaign, embracing one of their product's widely perceived negatives even as they toot . . . uh, tout the health benefits of beans.

Another poster produced by the Northarvest Bean Growers Association, based in Frazee, Minn., features a fat kidney bean speared on a fork with the promise, "Live to be an old fart."

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OK, it's serious business. At a recent all-day conference at the Human Nutrition Research Center in Grand Forks, N.D., bean growers joined marketing professors, nutritionists, food researchers, government regulators and physicians -- including a gastroenterologist from Maine -- to develop plans to give the lowly bean a higher profile and make it more consumer-friendly.

River Valley beans

Since the first Red River Valley field was planted to dry edible beans near Oslo, Minn., nearly 50 years ago, beans' share has grown to about 750,000 acres, says Tim Courneya, director of the growers' association. That's half of the U.S. total of 1.5 million acres.

Some farmers "love the Las Vegas aspect" of raising dry edible beans, which have no federal subsidies and depend entirely on market forces, he says. "But until the consumption moves up, production has to be stabilized. We have to build that market -- or at least try to maintain it."

Part of the problem, Courneya says, is that people "remember the chili they fed us in school, with rock-hard kidney beans, and guys who came back from the armed services vowing they'd never eat beans again." Many children today couldn't tell a navy from a pinto from a kidney bean, he says, adding a line that may be on the association's next promotional poster: "Kids today don't know beans."

The May 30 conference was meant to chart a course toward greater public appreciation for the role dry edible beans could play in healthy diets.

Fighting bad health

"If you're going to market beans as good for your bones, good for your health, you need good scientific data to back those claims," says Jerry Combs, director of the host research center. "The bean industry doesn't have a huge corporate entity behind it, like General Mills pushing whole grains."

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Bill Lesch, a professor of marketing at the University of North Dakota, in Grand Forks, says the bean growers could grow markets "both in parts of the world where malnutrition is the problem and where over-nutrition -- obesity -- is the problem."

Consumer interest in healthier diets is high and growing, he says. But despite the bean's claim to being a low-fat, low-cholesterol, high-fiber protein alternative to meat, per capita consumption of dry beans is falling. According to an industry study, home-produced meals that contained beans declined 25 percent from 1995 to 2005.

"These numbers don't look good," Lesch says. "You're being pushed off the plate by potatoes," partly because bean growers have been slow to champion their product as a healthy food.

Consumers "are starting to connect the dots as they look for things to do to affect high cholesterol" and other health problems, he says. "They're receptive, but they're not getting the message. The message isn't out there." The noise about beans' airy byproduct is out there, however.

Do you know beans?

About 2,700 growers in North Dakota and Minnesota raise nine varieties of dry edible beans: pinto, navy, black, pink, dark red kidney, light red kidney, cranberry, small red and great northern.

Acreage devoted to beans in the two states grew from 100,000 acres in 1970 to 250,000 in 1980 and 400,000 in 1990 and has stabilized at about 750,000.

Of the dry edible beans produced in the United States, about 80 percent are consumed domestically. About 20 percent are exported.

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American food companies have begun recently to import dry edible beans from other nations, notably China.

According to a 2005 survey by Bush Brothers, a leading bean processor, Americans think other foods are better than beans at preventing heart disease.

Bean consumption has fallen sharply in Mexico, where the bean long has been a traditional staple food. The Mexican government has launches a campaign to reverse the trend.

Beans, which have a longer preparation time than other foods, have suffered from a trend that has seen the amount of time Americans devote to meal preparation nearly halved since 1960.

According to 1990 to '93 figures, the African nations of Burundi, Rwanda and Uganda led in per capita consumption of dry beans. Burundi's per capita consumption was nearly 20 times the U.S. figure.

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