What Are White Beans?

February 26, 2016

It all started a few weeks ago, when we experimented with throwing a handful of white beans into our morning smoothies. Now it seems like the protein-packed legumes are popping up everywhere. Whether as the star ingredient in these sprouted veggie chips that make the best base for nachos or in an elegant White Bean Puree With Greens and Roasted Tomatoes, we can’t seem to get enough.

There are a few different varieties of white beans, including:

  • Navy
  • Cannellini
  • Great Northern

All have a delicate, nutty flavor and add a velvety texture to soups, casseroles, salads, and dips. But culinary versatility isn’t the only reason why white beans have earned their reputation as a pantry staple.

Health benefits of white beans

Loaded with tons of fiber and protein, beans are a popular substitute for meat in vegetarian soups and chili dishes. One cup contains nearly half the daily recommended value of soluble and insoluble fiber; the insoluble type not only keeps digestion regular, but appears to prevent gastrointestinal disorders caused by inflammation in the gut.

Beans are a go-to food for weight loss, in part because they’re so high in fiber and protein, yet relatively low in calories, per serving. The fiber in legumes means that they take a longer time to digest—slower digestion signals to your body, “Hey, I’m full!.” In other words, 200 calories worth of white beans will keep you feeling more satiated than 200 calories of processed white bread, because it takes your body longer to break down fibrous beans than the simple sugars in bread.

Here’s where things get really weird—but cool. White beans in particular seem to contain a compound that aids in weight loss. A study conducted by UCLA’s School of Medicine examined the effects of white bean extract versus a sugar-pill placebo on 50 obese adults. Researchers wanted to test the theory that white bean extract has a starch-neutralizing effect, meaning it could make it harder for the body to absorb and store starches (a form of carbohydrates) in the form of body fat. Participants were advised to eat a low-fat diet while taking either a placebo or white bean extract. After eight weeks, the supplement users lost an average of 3.8 pounds, while the placebo group lost just 1.6 pounds—pretty favorable evidence to the potential of white bean extract as a weight-loss aid.

Even if you’re not that concerned with your waistline, you probably still want to keep your ticker healthy. And that’s why you should order that chili: In a study of 9,632 men and women, those who ate legumes at least four times a week had a 22 percent lower risk of developing coronary heart by disease than those who at legumes less than once a week.

Finally (so many health benefits in such a small food, right?), there’s some evidence that white beans can counteract some of the damage done by toxic processed foods on the body—because they’re rich in molybdenum, a compound with antioxidant-like effects. Molybdenum converts toxic sulfites—a common food preservative that has been linked to a host of diseases and nasty side effects—to the harmless compound sulfate, which has zero negative impacts on the body.

How to prepare white beans

If beans are so healthy, why are they banned from certain diets? Most legumes, white beans included, contain a coating of antinutrients. Antinutrients are exactly what they sound like: a compound that inhibits your body from absorbing nutrients. They exist to protect plants biochemically from predators, much like a suit of armor. They’re strictly banned from the Paleo diet and the FODMAP diet because of these antinutrients and because they tend to cause gastrointestinal distress.

However, antinutrients found on legumes are pretty easy to neutralize either by soaking or cooking. For dry beans, simply cover with about two inches of water and let sit for 24 to 48 hours, then drain. Ensure that no antinutrient is left behind by cooking beans: Cover with about 2 inches of water in a large pot, bring to a boil, cover, and then reduce heat to a simmer. Allow beans to cook for about an hour, or for as long as recommended on the package.

Canned beans more your style? Because they’re pre-cooked, you don’t even need to worry about soaking! Just rinse thoroughly before adding to a recipe.

Recipes with white beans

It’s not hard to understand why white beans are so popular—they hold up nicely in soups and salads, but remain tender (instead of tough or grainy). Really, they’re downright velvety in texture, especially when blended in a puree or for a dip like hummus. Vegans and vegetarians often rely on white beans for a boost of protein, iron, and heartiness to meals, but these versatile little legumes can also, surprisingly, act as a substitute for shortening in cookie and brownie recipes. Dessert, anyone?

Photo credit: Alicia Cho

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Michelle Pellizzon

Certified health coach and endorphin enthusiast, Michelle is an expert in healthy living and eating. When she's not writing you can find her running trails, reading about nutrition, and eating lots of guacamole.

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