How beans could become America's favorite snack

The bean, touted for its nutritional punch and for its environmental sustainability, is invading the grocery store. In the United States, sales of beans and other pulses grew nearly three times faster than meat last year. 

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff/File
Common beans, like the pinto beans seen here, can be a sustainable substitute for meat.

Once relegated to the canned food aisle and the far reaches of the salad bar, the bean suddenly is becoming a star. These days, it’s popping up in the most unexpected places: in pasta and chips, and even as a centerpiece of dishes at the world’s best restaurants.   

And it’s no wonder, considering beans are packed with protein and a plethora of other nutrients, say nutrition experts. They’re also inexpensive and among the most environmentally benign agricultural crops.

This message about the bean’s virtues (and the peas’s and lentil’s) appears to be spreading, propped by a cultural shift in the United States and Western Europe towards healthful and sustainable eating. In these regions, sales of meat – the traditional protein powerhouse – are declining, while sales of beans are growing, according to global market research firm Euromonitor International.

Last year in the United States, sales of pulses – which are the seeds of legumes that are used as food, including peas, beans, lentils, chickpeas and fava beans – grew by 8 percent. By comparison, sales of meat grew by 3 percent. Global demand is also rising, especially for foods with green or yellow split peas and coral-colored lentils, reports market researcher Mintel.

“Pulses will be a popular food in the coming years for a variety of reasons,” Anastasia Alieva, a researcher with Euromonitor, told FoodNavigator recently. “They are resilient in erratic weather, and thus have reliable and sustainable yields. They are also filling and nutritious, and much cheaper than meat.”

Beans take on the US

In the United States, where meat consumption is trending down, pulses have been embraced by an increasingly nutrition-conscious public. But this wasn’t always so, say bean pioneers.

“In the beginning, people had this association with canned red kidney beans at a salad bar at a pizzeria. It’s just a much deeper world than that,” says Steve Sando, founder of heirloom bean company Rancho Gordo in Napa Valley, Calif. The company sells upwards of $3 million worth of the legumes per year.

When Mr. Sando founded his company 14 years ago, his sales were dismal. He recalls making $100 to $200 per week, if he was lucky. “I couldn't even get in the Napa farmers market, because they thought it was weird,” he says.

Luck brought him a customer: Thomas Keller, the famed restaurateur and chef behind award-winning Napa Valley restaurant The French Laundry and New York City's Per Se. “Once he started buying them, every chef in town wanted to, and all of a sudden they were chic,” says Sando, who has written several bean-focused cookbooks.

Now, pulses or pulse flours infuse pasta, crackers, chips, breakfast cereals and more, with their bean credentials advertised front and center instead of being hidden shamefully in the bottom of the ingredients list.

“I can just see so many ways that we can adapt beans to people's taste,” says Sarah Wallace, founder of The Good Bean chips company. “You can go into every aisle of the grocery store and [find] something with beans that wasn’t there before."

Her story is similar to Sando’s. Ms. Wallace started The Good Bean in 2011 with a line of roasted-chickpea snacks. Customers didn’t know what to make of them; retailers didn’t know where to put them, Ms. Wallace recalls. “For the first couple of years, it really wasn’t something that was jumping off the shelves," she says.

Now, beans are all over the snack aisle. And not just in specialty stores, and in foods made by small, independent brands. Pepsi has launched a bean chip under its Tostitos brand, as has General Mills, under its Food Should Taste Good brand. The Good Bean chips are now available at many conventional grocers, including Costco. Its sales doubled in 2015 and are expected to do the same this year, says the company. Even 7-Eleven has signed on to carry the chips.

“There really is a mainstreaming of this product, considering the convenience channel is not an early adopting channel,” says Wallace.

A way to fight climate change

Beans' big moment extends far beyond the supermarket, however. The food and agriculture arm of the United Nations (UN) has deemed 2016 “International Year of the Pulses.” The UN wants to see more pulses produced and consumed globally, it says, because they pack a powerful nutritious punch: they’re high in protein, low in fat, have zero cholesterol, a low Glycemic Index, high dietary fiber, and no gluten.

But nutrition isn’t the only motivation behind the campaign. The UN also is worried about climate change, as developing countries that are accumulating a lot of wealth, such as India and China, shift in preference from vegetable proteins to more expensive, animal-based ones like dairy and meat.

Meat production takes significantly more fossil fuel energy, land and water to produce than plant protein. The production of red meat and dairy alone makes up half of the harmful emissions of all farmed foods, research shows.

“Impacts from agriculture are expected to increase substantially due to population growth increasing consumption of animal products,” a 2010 report from the UN reads. “Unlike fossil fuels, it is difficult to look for alternatives: people have to eat. A substantial reduction of impacts would only be possible with a substantial worldwide diet change, away from animal products.”

As part of its campaign, the UN has set about convincing more countries and farmers to grow pulses. Such crops are in limited supply, and can garner farmers two to three times the price of wheat, the organization says. It’s a hard sell, though, because pulses produce less yield than cereal crops, such as wheat and corn, and are susceptible to diseases and insects that are hard to get rid of with existing treatments. Plus growing wheat, maize, soy and rice has been perfected over generations and produces high yields and profits.

This is why in some parts of the world, farmers might be hesitant, says Denis Trémorin, director of sustainability at Pulse Canada, an industry association that represents pulse producers and exporters. Canada is the largest exporter of these legumes, the majority of which go to India (the largest producer and importer), to feed its sizable vegetarian population. Farmers new to pulses might react with, “I grow what I know, and I grow what works for me in my farm," says Mr. Trémorin. "Adding something else to the equation that’s unknown globally, that can be tough.”  

But Trémorin says that growing pulses has significant benefits. They can grow in dry conditions, use less water, and don’t need environmentally-taxing synthetic nitrogen fertilizer, since pulses are masters of drawing all the nitrogen they need from the air to feed the soil. In fact, they have been found to improve the overall health of the soil in which they grow, which helps increase yields of crops rotated in after them.

“When we’re talking about sustainability, that’s the biggest feather in the cap for these crops,” he says.

At a time when feeding a ballooning global population without further damaging the environment is a priority, marketing beans has become an important environmental strategy.

“If we need to feed 9 billion people by 2050, we have to do that by increasing food production, but not increasing the pollution that we have,” says Trémorin. “Actually, making it better perhaps.”

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