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Food for Thought Food for Thought

Are Beans the Magical Food?

March 06, 2014

By Nicole Collins, Dietetic Intern
Brigham and Women's Hospital

Legumes and beans have been an important food in many cultures for centuries. Their tastes and textures are diverse. While there are dozens of varieties of legumes, they are not top sellers at grocery stores. Read what these powerhouse foods offer and how to add them to your diet. They may just make it to the top of your grocery list from now on.

The Basics - Legumes versus Beans 

First things first. Do you know the difference between legumes and beans?  Legumes are the broad name of plants that have edible seeds. Beans are a type of legume, along with peas and lentils. You may be surprised to know that peanuts are also in the legume family.

Legumes come in many shapes:  elongated, flattened, spherical or kidney. And you know them as kidney beans, black eyed peas, cannelloni beans, lima beans and pinto beans. 

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Why are they so great? Legumes are an essential part of a healthy diet. They are:

  • An excellent source of protein with 7-9 grams per ½ cup of cooked beans
  • Full of minerals like iron, zinc, magnesium, potassium and calcium
  • Packed with B vitamins and antioxidants
  • An excellent source of fiber with 5-11 grams per ½ cup of cooked beans

Legumes are great in soups, salads, appetizers and main dishes. For example:

  • Lentil soup
  • Hummus dip
  • Three-bean chili
  • Mixed bean salad
  • Black-bean veggie burgers

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Types of Legumes 

Here is a list of legumes and their characteristics. For the most part, you can substitute one type of legume for another in recipes.

Type of bean


Adzuki beans
Sweet and nutty; often used in sweet dishes
Black beans
Mild and earthy with a soft texture
Edamame (soy) beans
Edamame (soy) beans
Fava beans
Distinctive, creamy flavor and texture
Garbanzo beans
Nutty flavor and buttery texture
Kidney beans
Robust flavor and soft texture
Pinto beans
Creamy texture; good for chili, refried and used in dips
Black-eyed peas
Creamy texture and distinctive flavor
Red lentils
Bright pink and orange, turning golden when cooked;  use in soup or purees because they become soft and lose their shape

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Dried or Canned?

Dried beans can take as long as 3 hours to cook. You can reduce cooking time to 60 minutes, if you soak them overnight. But not everyone wants to be bothered. So using canned beans is a good alternative.Dried beans are inexpensive. And you can store them for up to a year in a cool dark place. If cooking dried beans sounds intimidating, check these tips from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.   

The Bottom Line

Legumes and beans are easy to store, inexpensive and a healthy addition to most diets. They can be made as a side or main dish for all tastes including sweet, spicy or salty. Trying new foods can bring excitement to cooking; eating legumes are a great way to do that!

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Nicole Collins graduated from Bastyr University with a degree in nutrition sciences. She is currently a dietetic intern at Brigham and Women's Hospital.

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