The benefits of beans

Good old family favourite ... baked beans on toast.
Good old family favourite ... baked beans on toast. Photo: Getty Images

"Beans, beans, they're good for your heart, the more you eat…" and you don't need me to finish the rhyme. My brothers and I would chant this together at the top of our voices as my mum served us up one of our favourite easy lunches of beans and grilled cheese on toast, and then laugh hysterically every time. The easy pleasures of childhood! But as is so often the case, there is much truth behind this children's favourite ditty.

When my kids were little we used to call them 'bottom food'*. It was my way of starting to teach them about the importance of good nutrition. We also had 'brain foods', 'muscle foods', 'heart foods' and so on. Now they are older we can talk more specifically about what all this means, but it's a great way to start the conversation.

So why are beans such great 'bottom foods'? Well you are no doubt aware that they are high in fibre, but dietary fibre is not just one type of compound. It is a broad term covering all compounds that cannot be digested by our own enzymes. This is where the story gets interesting because although they have this in common, what does happen to them in the gut differs significantly between fibres.

We can generally group fibres into three types:

  • Insoluble fibre – this is what my mother used to call "roughage" and that's actually a pretty descriptive term for it. Insoluble fibre cannot easily dissolve in the intestinal contents and is not fermented by our resident bacteria in the colon. It therefore acts like a broom, sweeping along the intestinal contents and helping to keep us regular.
  • Soluble fibre - as the name suggest, does dissolve in the intestinal contents. This has two major benefits. First of all, it creates a gel that binds up the carbohydrates in the food we have consumed, slowing down the time it takes for our enzymes to break them down and absorb them. This lowers the GI of the food and helps us to control our blood glucose and cholesterol levels. Secondly, once it enters the colon our 'good' bacteria go to town fermenting these fibres, producing special short chain fatty acids that feed the cells lining the colon, keeping them healthy.
  • Resistant starch - the full benefits of this type of fibre are only just being realised. It is particularly good fuel for the 'good' bacteria and so you can think of it as a prebiotic – something that encourages the growth of those good guys, in turn pushing out the bad guys.

Beans are one of the foods containing resistant starch. Since not all of the measured starch is broken down into glucose and absorbed, this lowers the impact on blood glucose levels and the amount of insulin your body has to produce to deal with the food. Canned baked beans have a Low GI of less than 55**, making them a terrific food for you and your kids.

But that's not the only benefit of beans. They are also a good source of protein with 10.3g per serve***, a good source of folate and a source of iron. That's pretty impressive for a simple, budget-friendly family food!

One final word on beans. People often ask me about the sugar content of canned baked beans in tomato sauce. It's not all added sugar, there is sugar naturally present in both the beans and the tomatoes. The overall GI is low and the total nutrition package is so impressive. Canned baked beans will always have a place in my pantry!

*Dietary fibre contributes to regulator laxation as part of a healthy, varied diet

**Heinz Baked Beans in Tomato Sauce 420g has a GI of less than 55.

***Heinz Baked Beans in Tomato Sauce 420g contains 10.3g protein per serve, are a good source of folate and a source of iron.