To Your Health

I've heard that beans are good food, but I have a problem with excessive gas after I eat them. Are they worth it?

Q. I've heard that beans are good food, but I have a problem with excessive gas after I eat them. Are they worth it?

A. Legumes are an excellent source of several B-vitamins, including folic acid that is otherwise pretty scant in the American diet. Legumes are also high in potassium, calcium, magnesium, and other minerals, and low in sodium. Legumes are a rich source of complex carbohydrates and soluble fiber, which tend to encourage the growth of friendly intestinal organisms. This pattern goes a long way toward reducing the risk of colon cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and other modern afflictions, which is a lot to ask of a humble food like legumes. When more than 9,000 people were asked how many servings of legumes they ate each week, those eating four servings per week experienced fewer hospital admissions than those eating legumes less than once a week. In this study, legumes included dry beans (red beans, pinto beans, etc), black-eyed peas, and peanuts. In America, soybeans are ordinarily not consumed without some sort of processing, such as fermenting to produce tofu, but are actually among the healthiest of legumes.

Legumes have a long and admirable history. They were among the first crops ever cultivated and have been nourishing us for thousands of years. In the first Roman cookbook, written over 2,000 years ago, legumes got an entire chapter. Christopher Columbus took chickpea seeds with him on his voyage to the Caribbean in the 15th century. In the 16th century, dried peas helped the peasant population of England survive a devastating famine. Legumes have helped many people in America survive lean times.

In the early 1900s, President Theodore Roosevelt declared legumes to be the reason for the U.S. victory in the Battle of San Juan Hill. During World War II, the U.S. Army floated waterproof bags of beans from ships to beachheads to help nourish American troops.

Flatulence, however, is no fun. The problem of increased intestinal gas after eating legumes is almost universal, and for the genteel among us it does diminish the appreciation of this excellent food. In 1992 a product with the whimsical brand name of Beano appeared on the market, aimed at quietly solving the gas problem. Beano is a food enzyme that breaks down the complex sugars, making them more digestible.

Beano contains "alpha-galactosidase," a digestive enzyme derived from a mold. It is almost always safe, but a rare allergic reaction to the mold can occur. It also helps reduce gas from broccoli, onions, lentils, green peppers, cucumbers and many other healthful foods containing certain complex sugars that we cannot easily digest. All the benefits of the fiber in legumes remain because Beano acts only on the sugars.

Intestinal gas mostly results from undigested food, so improving digestion in any way reduces gas formation. Pancreatin, the blend of about 50 enzymes released by the pancreas after each meal, could help if Beano is not well-tolerated. Soaking beans overnight begins the breakdown of the offending sugars, which proceeds further when the beans are cooked. For some people, vegetarian beans are an advantage, and in that case replacing traditional bacon or ham hock with sesame tahini is an excellent substitution. If you enjoy the taste of ginger, it is a great stomach calmer, and you may find it helpful to add it to your beans.

By whatever means, arrange to make legumes a part of your healthful and varied diet.

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