Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Apple #371: Beans

I like beans. Lots of different kinds of them. Lately, I've been noticing how many different kinds of beans there are. There are varieties like green beans and wax beans, and then there are other kinds like black beans and pinto beans. Then there are things that we call "beans," but I don't know whether they are technically considered beans: coffee beans and vanilla beans.

So I thought I'd look up good ol' beans and find out what's a bean and what's not.

It turns out, beans are enormously complicated. For example, most of the time, they're a fruit. But sometimes they're a vegetable. Depending on whom you ask, peas may or may not be a type of bean. Peanuts may or may not be beans, too. And some people categorize vetch, which is a type of ground cover, right along with beans.

One thing I think I can say for certain is that all beans are legumes. Legumes are a type of fruit whose seeds grow in pods.

If all beans are legumes, and legumes are a type of fruit, you would think this would make all beans fruit. Well, that's true most of the time, except for a couple of cases when agricultural officials say they're vegetables anyway.

Here's another area of enormous confusion. Some people call some of the beans "shell beans." They say those beans that have been shelled and whose seeds we eat are called "shell beans." Lima beans are a good example here. The ones we eat still in the shell, or pod, are called "pod beans." Green beans are an example of pod beans.

But some people define "shell" and "pod" beans exactly the opposite of what I've described. Other people group the common beans in with "shell beans," while most seem to omit them.

I think I'm going to omit the terms "shell" and "pod" beans entirely because those terms turn into a bunch of beany mush pretty quickly.

Here are some nutritional facts that are true about most beans:
  • Because they're high in fiber and low in sugar, beans are also very good for people with diabetes.
  • They are high in tryptophan.
  • Tryptophan is not just to make you sleepy on Thanksgiving Day. It helps synthesize serotonin in the brain. By doing that, it improves performance under stress, reduces aggression, and promotes ovulation, and "in many ways works like Prozac," said one researcher from the University of Jerusalem.

As for what makes each bean different, I'll try to cut through the complexity and give you the information that you really want to know. I think the best way to do that is, to paraphrase Annie LaMott, bean by bean.

I originally had the beans I profiled, so to speak, as part of this one single entry, but it got way too long. So I've now broken them up into separate entries. Hopefully that makes all these beans more manageable for you.

Black beans
Pinto beans
Lima beans
Green beans
Green peas

Coming soon:
Fava beans
Coffee beans
Vanilla beans

USDA Plants Database, Classification Down to Family Fabaceae
FAO, Definition and Classification of Commodities, 4. Pulses and Derived Products
NationMaster, Encyclopedia, Pulses
Wikipedia, Fabaceae and pulses
Edhat Santa Barbara, Veggie of the Week - Shell Beans


  1. There are Yankee beans, but are there Confederate beans? Or did losing the war cost them that delicious title?

  2. Soy beans? I don't care for them, but a of of people do.

  3. interesting! did you know that vanilla beans come from an orchid? They are wonderful to cook with! I found many varieties a www.beanilla.com.... who know there were so many!

  4. Aw... beans!

  5. What about Fava Beans; how do they differ from Limas? www.satisfiedsole.com

  6. Jason, Yankee beans is another name for navy beans. They're called navy beans because they were a persistent staple for the US Navy during the Civil War or thereabouts.

    One document from 1863 describes a successful Confederate raid on a Union camp, after which the Confederates discovered a whole cache of beans. They'd never seen beans like that before, and they called them "Yankee beans."


    (paragraph at the bottom right)

    I guess the Union soldiers never found any Confederate beans, or at least any they didn't recognize?


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