I had quite a penchant for baked beans when I was a wee lad. Apart from their flavour and texture, I have to admit I relished their fermenting after-effects, too. Baked beans at teatime would mean a rip-roaring farting competition later on. On such occasions, my brothers and I would fill the living-room air with malodorous fumes and the evening would be punctuated with a steady stream of schoolboy humour which included cries of 'He who smelt it, dealt it', 'Silent but violent' and 'Better out than in'. While our wind-breaking antics might not have gone down too well with the rest of the family, we boys would be delighted to be so full of beans.
Despite being in my late thirties, I can still find the fart-inducing effects of beans to be quite a gas. What has changed, however, is that I have also become interested in some of this foodstuff's other bodily effects. While beans are rich in fermentable carbohydrate, they also contain goodly amounts of fibre and protein. As a result, beans (such as those of the kidney, butter and chickpea variety) give a slow and steady release of sugar into the bloodstream, which means that they give a sustained supply of energy to the body. Another benefit of their slow giving-up of sugar into the system is that it reduces the risk of biochemical upset that has been linked with a range of problems such as obesity, heart disease and diabetes.
Some bean varieties, notably chickpeas, are rich in hormone-like plant substances known as phytoestrogens that have been linked with relative protection against several conditions, including osteoporosis and some forms of cancer. Phytoestrogens can benefit the heart, and may help to reduce the levels of 'unhealthy' low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol in the bloodstream. Beans' high-fibre content may also give them added cholesterol-lowering potential, and their slow sugar release would be expected to help quell levels of other undesirable blood fats known as triglycerides. Overall, beans offer considerable benefits for the heart. In one study, eating four or more servings of beans (or lentils) a week was associated with a 22 per cent reduction in risk of heart disease.
Despite my early attachment to baked beans, I tend to avoid these now on account of the added sugar and salt this processed food contains. For those with the time and inclination, preparing beans from their dry, unadulterated form is best. However, the lengthy soaking and cooking processes dried beans require can be both laborious and time-consuming. An alternative is to buy canned beans (such as kidney beans, chickpeas or mixed beans) and to rinse these thoroughly to remove as much extraneous sugar and salt as possible. Convenient and ready-to-eat, canned varieties can be added to soups, casseroles and curries, or may be used as an accompaniment to or basis for a salad. Those seeking a nutritious and heart-healthy food could do worse than to spill the beans.