All Hail the Legume

Respect to the Bean

I recently had a request for information about beans. I think actually it was more a request about how to cook dried beans than these sorts of facts! For details on soaking beans check out this recipe for refried beans. In the meantime let your mind be titillated with these bizarre bits about beans.

Legume family: Fabaceae (or Leguminosae). The third largest family among the flowering plants (after the orchid and daisy families), and second most important to the human diet, after the grasses.

Tidbits: Facts and Myths

  • Alexander Neckham on the ingredients of potage that the English kept simmering over their fires for centuries: “lentils, peas, beans with pods, beans without pods and frizzled beans” (frizzled beans are beans that have been dried over the fire in a heated spoon. — fore-runner to beans on toast perhaps?)
  • In the Middle Ages the poor man was likely to be eating bread made with more from bean flour than wheat flour.
  • According to Herodutus, fifth century BC Greek historian, Egyptian priests regarded beans in any form as unclean.
  • Pythagoras brought beans into disrepute by claiming that they caused insomnia and unpleasant dreams.
  • In the Middle Ages in Europe, Wednesdays, Fridays, Saturdays and Lenten were fast-days. Dried beans were the only protein allowed. They were cooked in a cauldron and mashed into a puree called bean butter.
  • Throughout history, beans have been used as a currency-shelled out by the handful, like putting money on the table.
  • Ancient pearl merchants in the Middle East, seeking a standard weight by which to measure gemstones, discovered that the dried seeds of the Carob tree, the locust beans, were of an exceptionally uniform weight. Thus the seeds, known as carats, became the universal unit of weight.
  • The Greeks and Romans used them for voting. A white bean meant “yes” a black one meant “no”. So when Pythagoras told a man to abstain from beans, he was not making a dietary prohibition, but was telling him to stay out of politics.
  • Old English cookery books list them by the handful, tied in linen and suspended in the cauldron to swell and absorb the flavors of the pot.
  • King Edward VII heartily enjoyed a slice of pease pudding as an accompaniment to a plate of pickled or boiled pork.
  • 1860’s Czech Monk, Gregor Mendel, followed various traits of the pea and deduced two fundamental laws of genetic inheritance.
  • Emperor Shen Nung is credited with the decision to grow bean sprouts for use. Legend has it that nature had bestowed on him the ability to recognize by taste what each plant could cure. He wrote Shun Nung Pen Tsao King (The Classical Work on Herbal Medicines of the Emperor Shen Nung) around the 2800 B.C.
  • The Romans were so conscious of beans nutritive properties that they offered them in thanksgiving to their gods.
  • A remarkable sign of their status in the ancient world is the fact that each of the four major legumes known to Rome lent its name to a prominent Roman family: Fabius comes from the faba bean, Lentulus from the lentil, Piso from the pea, and Cicero from the chick-pea.


  • Saint Augustine saw involuntary bodily functions, flatulence among them, as unmistakable signs of man’s fall from grace: once man failed to obey God, he became unable to obey even himself, and lost control over his physical nature.
  • Another Church Father, Saint Jerome, recognized that beans were particularly offensive and forbade them to the nuns in his charge on the grounds that “in partibus genitalibus titillatieones producunt“: “they tickle the genitals.” This peculiar notion of the erotic persisted for some time; eleven centuries later, and English writer Henry Buttes, wrote of beans “flatulencie, whereby they provoke to lechery.”
  • Normal individuals average an output of about a pint of gas a day, of which half is nitrogen and the result of swallowing air along with food and drink. Another 40% is carbon dioxide and the product of aerobic bacteria in the intestine. The remaining small fraction is a mixture of hydrogen, methane, and hydrogen sulfide, the products of anaerobic bacteria.
  • The offending ingredient in legumes was identified as oligosaccharides (long chain sugar molecules). Some of these sugars the human digestive enzymes are not able to deal with.
    When these sugars reach to colon, the large bacterial population breaks them down, in the process giving off various gases, primarily carbon dioxide. It is the sudden increase in bacterial metabolism that results in bouts of farting after eating legumes.
  • Soaking and careful cooking can keep this discomfort at a minimum, sprouting removes it altogether.
  • Oligosaccharides accumulate primarily in the final stages of seed development. When sprouting these sugar chains are broken down by enzymes.
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  • High in protein. Weight for weight pulses have a higher protein content than meat.
  • The combination of pulses, whole grains and a small amount of animal protein and good quality animal fat is the ideal low-cost diet.
  • All legumes contain both omega-3 (kidney and pinto) and omega-6 (chickpeas) fatty acids.
  • Provide a rich source of iron and mineral salts.
  • Marry perfectly with grains, seeds and dairy. Creating the perfect essential amino acid combination for humanity.
  • Their seeds are on the average twice as rich in protein as the grains, and especially well stocked in iron and the B vitamins.
  • Principal among the legume secondary compounds are the protease inhibitors, the lectins, and the cyanogens. The first two interfere with the digestive process and so lower the nutritional value of the seeds to the point that it may not be worth eating them.
  • Animals fed a diet of raw soybeans will actually lose weight and develop pancreatic problems because the vain effort to digest the material takes more energy than it provides, and enzymes are overproduced in an attempt to compensate.
  • Sprouted beans contain high Vitamin A, C and B content. They are higher in food value and more easily digested than the dried seed. Different vitamins and minerals will peak at different times during the growth of the sprout.
  • Sprouted beans have an abundance of minerals such as calcium, iron, magnesium, potassium, sodium, sulfur, phosphorus and chloride which are bound in enzyme complexes that makes them much easier for us to digest.


Legume Links:

The Cooks Thesaurus
Soy Alert
International Legume Database and Information Service
Technorati Legumes
Soy and Osteoporosis: Not a Leg to Stand On
Walton Feed
Jewish Bean Recipes
Gregor Mendel
Dietitians Association of Australia

On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen“Harold McGee
Bean Feast — Pamela Westland
Sprouting Beans and Seeds — Judy Ridgway
Nourishing Traditions — Sally Fallon

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