You wouldn’t think a simple question like “Are beans vegetables?” would be so hard to answer, and yet many people often have to wonder if beans are a vegetable or a fruit, and why. What are beans botanically? What are they culinarily? What do these technical classifications of beans mean for your health? We have all these answers and more, plus three meatless vegan-friendly recipes to get the benefits of beans in your diet.
The Bounty of Beans
Beans as a group include many different types. Pinto beans, black beans, kidney beans, and chickpeas (garbanzo beans) are all part of the club. So are string beans, lima beans, snow peas, snap peas, black-eyed peas, split peas, and lentils. You can buy beans in frozen, canned, and dry bean forms (though the dried variety usually has a higher concentration of nutrients).
Beans have been planted and cultivated for thousands of years. Like vegetables, they are excellent sources of fiber and other phytonutrients often found in leafy greens like kale and starchy vegetables like sweet potatoes. However, beans are also a high-protein food full of zinc and iron, which most people associate with animal products and meat. So…are beans vegetables or not?
Beans Come from Legumes (And Legumes Produce Fruit)
Botanically, a fruit is the part of the plant that contains its seed. That means squash, green peppers, eggplants, okra, and avocados are all fruits. It also means that green beans and green peas and all their multicolored compatriots are fruits too.
Beans and peas are the mature forms of legumes, which are members of the flowering plant family Fabaceae, and they produce either fruits or seeds inside a pod. So string bean casings and pea pods are the fruits that hold the seeds inside, and the average kidney bean is a fruit that holds a germinating seed inside its skin. The majority of the inside of a bean is the cotyledon, an embryonic leaf that is the first to appear from a planted, growing seed.
At the end of the day, beans are nutritionally unique foods. Though in a plant reproduction capacity they are considered seeds and fruits, they are nevertheless treated, cooked, and eaten as veggies. Can beans somehow belong to both food groups? Are you supposed to look at adzuki and fava beans and set them in a bowl with apples, oranges, and bananas? Of course not.
USDA Food Groups and Classifications
Let’s be clear: as far as where beans fall on the USDA’s food pyramid, they aren’t in the fruit category. That is because while in nature beans are fruiting bodies, on your plate they seem more similar to carrots, corn, and other veggies (though corn, like beans, is classified as a whole grain, a vegetable, and a fruit all at the same time).
Still, because of what beans do for humans nutritionally, they also belong in the protein foods group and the vegetable group. Beans can be the plant-based protein on your plate (perfect for vegetarians and vegans), and provide the dietary fiber, potassium, and folate more usually associated with veggies. In these ways beans are simultaneously fruits, vegetables, and protein.
The Health Benefits of Beans
The unique nutritional position of beans makes them incredibly healthy.
1. An (Almost) Complete Protein
Beans of all types are full of amino acids, the building blocks of protein our bodies need to repair and synthesize new muscle. A so-called “complete protein” is a food that has all nine essential amino acids. We have to get the essential amino acids from food sources because our body can’t make them out of other molecules. Most complete proteins are animal products—meat, poultry, eggs, seafood, and dairy—but for vegans and vegetarians there’s a very convenient way to turn beans into a whole protein: just add grains!
Considered complementary proteins, some foods have the missing portion of amino acids that another food is lacking, and when they’re consumed together you’ve got the full roster of all nine essential aminos. This is true with beans and brown rice, with hummus (chickpeas) and pita bread, tofu (soybeans) and quinoa, or with a peanut butter sandwich on whole grain bread. These combos allow those who don’t eat meat to technically have the same protein sources, although they aren’t as high quality.
2. Heart Healthy and Anti-Diabetic
Science says that the regular consumption of beans decreases the likelihood of suffering or dying from a stroke, heart attack, or other cardiovascular condition. Studies have found a repeated correlation between consuming beans and legumes and reducing the risk of coronary heart disease and lowering cholesterol levels. Beans can help lower blood pressure and protect the heart from stress.
Beans may help prevent the development of diabetes by helping to stabilize blood glucose levels. Foods high in dietary fiber help slow stomach emptying and slow the rate of blood sugar entering the bloodstream, which in turn protects against the dangerous blood sugar spikes that can cause type 2 diabetes. Not only that, but the dietary fiber in black beans has been shown to improve gut health, making the whole digestive process stronger.
3. Weight Loss and Appetite Control
By slowing down digestion, high-fiber foods like beans can make you feel fuller longer. That feeling of satiety helps with appetite control, which leads almost invariably to reduced calorie consumption throughout the day.
Along with being a low-fat food, beans can help prevent fatty liver deposits and non-alcoholic fatty liver disease. Fat deposits in the liver can lead to liver dysfunction, damage, and irreversible scarring that could contribute to premature and avoidable death, especially when those fatty deposits are the result of poor diet. Beans are an excellent dietary staple to embrace (read to the end of this article for recipe suggestions on how to get more beans into your meals).
4. Nutrients and Antioxidant Content
Beans contain valuable amounts of folate, a compound needed for human life, especially when we’re in our mother’s womb. Folate deficiency manifests as symptoms such as heart palpitations, weakness, fatigue, and loss of appetite.
Beans also contain minerals including magnesium, iron, and zinc, as well as powerful antioxidants that fight against the oxidative stress damage caused by free radicals in the body. The antioxidants in beans are called polyphenols, and they check inflammation wherever they find it, reducing the symptoms of aging and even working to reduce the risk of cancer.
5. Reduced Cancer Risk
One 2015 study showed that the high antioxidant level of black beans helped to fight against intestinal cancer, and a 2016 study found that black beans from Northeast China slowed the growth of colorectal cancer. Inflammation exacerbates multiple chronic health conditions, including diabetes, different forms of arthritis, and cancer. By reducing inflammation with antioxidants, you can bring relief to discomforts throughout the entire body, and even prevent certain life-threatening health conditions from occurring in the first place.
Bean-Based Meatless Vegan Recipes
Here are three simple bean dishes to inspire you to get more beans in your diet, and they’re perfect meat replacements for those in your life teetering on the edge of vegetarianism. Whether you consider beans a fruit, vegetable, or protein, these bean-based dishes will most assuredly satisfy your hunger.
This gluten-free meatball recipe from Kate at Cookie+Kate combines lentils with cremini mushrooms (you might know them as button mushrooms) for a rich, dense meatless meatball. Flavored with spices and packed with old fashioned oats, these filling meatballs can be used with zucchini noodles (aka zoodles) or konjac noodles to keep the whole dish free of gluten and you full of muscle-building protein.
2. Vegan Chili
This vegan chili recipe from Aysegul at Foolproof Living blends together walnuts, shiitake mushrooms, and veggies like jalapeños, celery, and onions. It brings them all to a boil with diced tomatoes, vegetable stock, black beans, and kidney beans. This is a dense and hardy recipe ideal for the winter months and great for freezing in smaller portions for future filling meals.
One more meatless wonder, this avocado and pinto bean mashup combines even more healthy ingredients with ground flaxseed and oat flour. With ancho chili, jalapeño, onion, and garlic powder to flavor, this warm and spicy meatless burger makes a fantastic lunch or dinner entrée.
Beans, Beans, the Nutritional Fruit
Long story short: yes beans are a vegetable, nutritionally. They are also a protein food, but botanically they are a fruit. I guess you could say they are a little bit of everything all rolled into one, which puts beans at a unique advantage when it comes to human health. Consider all the ways beans can be used in meatless vegetarian and vegan recipes, and add them to your shopping list today.