Legumes are our second most-important food source (grains rank first). Humans consume huge amounts of both beans and grains, and use even more to feed livestock we raise for meat, dairy products and eggs.
The huge legume family includes the many varieties of beans, as well as lentils, peas and peanuts. Here we are concerned with the dry seeds of legumes that have been staples in our diet for thousands of years. (Fresh beans and peas are grouped with vegetables while products made from soybeans have their own section.) Beans, like grains, are easy to grow and store so they were among the first plants to be cultivated when humans moved from hunting-gathering to agriculture.
Seeds contain everything necessary to bring a new plant to life, so they are nutritional powerhouses for us as well. They provide vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals, and are very high in fiber. They are good sources of the essential fatty acids and are the best plant source of protein. While most beans do not contain all of the essential amino acids, eating them with any grains yields "complete" protein. Our ancestors figured this out, since virtually every culture has devised tasty combinations of beans and grains that have provided sustenance for generations. Many of our favorite recipes today are based on these traditional dishes.
Most supermarkets carry a wide variety of dried and canned beans. They are equally nutritious. Dried beans are usually more economical, but they take longer to prepare. Canned beans are more convenient. It's your choice. Canned "baked beans" may contain added sugar and fat, so check the list of ingredients if this is a concern for you.
Beans come in lots of colors and sizes, and there are different popular names for some varieties. For example, chick peas are also called garbanzo beans or chana dal. All beans are cooked basically the same way and their flavors are similar, so they are usually interchangeable in recipes. Pick your favorite kinds or use whatever is available.
Most legumes are relatively low in fat, with most of their energy (calories) coming from protein and carbohydrates. However, soybeans, peanuts and some of their relatives are concentrated sources of fat and so may need to be limited by those who are trying to control their weight or cholesterol.
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