Beans — from coffee to cacao to chickpeas — the benefits of beans are saving the planet and everyone on it.
Humans have been eating and drinking beans for thousands of years. Beans have been staples in every culture across the globe — and for good reason. There are an estimated 400 types of beans found all across the planet.
In the Americas, native beans include pinto, coffee, cacao, and broad; in Asia and Australia, soy, mung, lentils, and black beans; in Africa, coffee, cacao, peas of all kinds join kidney beans and black-eyed peas; in Europe broad beans, kidney, white beans, and chickpeas.
Now, beans are replacing our longstanding meat-and-dairy-heavy Western diet, reducing the impact on the environment and improving our health.
But this isn’t the first time beans have earned a savior-like status.
Saved by coffee and chocolate?
As hard as it may be to imagine, our most beloved bean — the coffee bean — wasn’t always around to jumpstart our mornings. It only became popular in the early 18th century, emerging from the equatorial regions as explorers brought the beans back to Europe from their journeys.
By the time of the Boston Tea Party in 1773, switching from tea — the British Empire’s beverage of choice — coffee, was a patriotic act. You could even say coffee saved our democracy. Americano, indeed.
Back in the 16th century, when the Spanish invaded Latin America, the Aztecs were discovered thriving on a drink called champurrado — an atole drink blend of cornflour and the beans of the cacao fruit, better known today of course as chocolate.
The Spanish conquered the Aztecs, but their magical chocolate elixir conquered the world. Chocolate has long endured, returning to Europe where it became one of the most sought foods in history.
Coffee and chocolate both boost mood, suppress hunger and deliver potent antioxidants. The feel-good chemicals in chocolate are specifically notable — they can trigger the same feelings as being in love. Coffee’s benefits need little introduction: alertness, focus, clarity, and energy.
Soy is a staple across Asian countries. Its prevalence in the Japanese diet has helped Okinawa earn its Blue Zone status — one of only five spots in the world known for its high rate of longevity. In Okinawa, most people consume soy twice a day, usually an ounce at a time in foods like tofu, natto, and miso, among others.
In the early 20th century, hundreds of Japanese tofu shops dotted the U.S. But after the attack on Pearl Harbor by the Japanese in 1941, they were all shut down.
Fortunately, tofu-making stayed with the culture, and when Japanese Americans were sent to internment camps during World War II, many of them continued to make soy products in the camps, including tofu, shoyu (soy sauce), and soymilk.
Soy saw a surge in interest in the 1960s and ’70s, fueling the vegetarian diets common in communes like Tennessee’s The Farm. (It’s where Tofurky founder Seth Tibbott first discovered tempeh, the fermented Indonesian soy cakes.)
Beyond the mainstream acceptance of coffee and chocolate, America has long viewed other beans as mere hippie stuff. Whether soy-based tofu, tempeh, or even the Mediterranean chickpea staple, hummus — beans were no replacement for American staples of steak and potatoes.
All that steak-eating, though, finally caught up with us, and rates of heart disease and high cholesterol skyrocketed. Diet-related illnesses are now the number one killer in the West. Doctors, like cardiologists Dean Ornish, became megaphones for the benefits of switching to plant-based diets and heart-healthy fiber-rich foods like beans.
Tofu, tempeh, hummus, and soymilk crept out of the hippie food category and became versatile kitchen staples. U.S. News and World Report’s annual diet rankings elevated bean-forward plant-based diets into the mainstream.
And then came the heavy hitters Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods and the category that followed, reimagining beans as meat so meaty, that even the die-hard burger eaters have converted without blinking.
“When you think of meat in terms of its composition, it’s five things–amino acids, lipids, trace minerals, vitamins and water. None of that is exclusive to animals,” Beyond Meat Founder and CEO Ethan Brown told Time Magazine. “Animals spend massive amounts of energy-consuming plants to make protein. We start directly with the plant material [pea protein] and build from that.”
Both Beyond and Impossible have achieved major success, with placement on menus of nearly every major fast-food chain in the U.S., and many more around the world.
Eggs are experiencing a bean makeover, too. Eat Just, the Bay Area plant-based manufacturer that made its mark with a pea protein-based mayonnaise has tapped mung beans as the next big protein category disruptor: eggs. The ancient beans popular in Indian cuisine scramble up and taste just like chicken eggs but without the cholesterol or carbon footprint of the egg industry.
According to the Sustainability Alliance, beans are more than just a healthy diet swap though; their broad genetic diversity makes them more climate-resilient than animal products. And that’s important as the climate crisis impacts all corners of the world, displacing millions of people and bringing extreme weather events. Beans are far more water-efficient than meat, eggs, or dairy.
They’re also nitrogen-fixing, returning nutrients to the soil, and reducing the need for (animal-based) fertilizers and the greenhouse gas emissions that come with them. This nitrogen-fixing attribute creates an uptick in biodiversity, fostering a landscape that’s more diverse for native animals and insects, as well as suppressing threats to ecosystems like contagious diseases.
Nitrogen-fixing beans bring another benefit, too: they can increase production yields on subsequent crops. Compare that to the diminishing returns of animal agriculture, which shrinks usable land by razing for often genetically modified mono-crops and concentrated animal feed operations that also pollute soil and waterways.
There’s no question that beans are good for us. But can they really fix our food system?
The short answer: Probably.
Are beans, the best protein?
According to Impossible Foods’ founder Patrick Brown (no relation to Beyond Meat’s Ethan Brown), beans will make meat obsolete. Impossible Foods uses soybeans in its vegan meat.
“From a nutritional standpoint our products match the protein quality and content of the animal products that they replace,” he said in a CNBC Mad Money interview. “Ours is a clear winner from a health and nutrition standpoint.”
Brown believes meat will be “obsolete” within the next decade. “[P]lant-based products are going to completely replace the animal-based products in the food world within the next 15 years,” he said. “That’s our mission. That transformation is inevitable.”
Beyond Meat believes meat-eaters want vegan options, too. It made headlines in 2016 when launching the Beyond Burger at a Whole Foods Market in Boulder, Colo. The company was the first vegan meat brand to merchandise its products in the meat aisle, just steps away from the butcher counter.
An increasing number of supermarkets are now moving bean-based burgers and sausages nearer to animal meat, converting those aisles from “meat” to “protein.” Supermarkets that do this are seeing significant upticks in sales.
The pandemic tipped sales in bean-based vegan meat’s favor, too. Numerous reports saw vegan meat sales up more than 150 percent since the pandemic hit. According to the New York Times, Beyond Meat’s sales were up 141 percent over 2019. Its products are now sold in more than 25,000 supermarkets.
A protein pivot from animals to beans could increase food production, too. One peer-reviewed study published in 2018 found a switch to a plant-based diet could feed an additional 390 million people, or, essentially, a population the size of a second America.
Greenhouse gases would drop drastically with a shift away from animal agriculture. According to Vice, if Americans were to swap their beef with beans, “the U.S. would ‘immediately’ reach 50 to 75 of its reduced greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) targets for 2020.”
Beans of the future
Demand for beans is now so high governments are even getting involved. Canada recently funded its pea producers to help accelerate production. Singapore’s government recently backed vegan startup Veego, which produces bean- and grain-based meat.
As livestock producers, particularly the small, family farmers, continue to struggle, a growing number are trading in their animals for plant-based crops like peas and beans. The commodity giants are getting in on the action, too. Cargill and ADM are powering up their pea protein operations to meet the growing demand.
Global pea protein sales tipped just over $73 million in 2016, according to research firm Grand View Research. That number is expected to quadruple by 2025.
Major meat producers are responding to the demand in a number of ways, from launching their own ranges of vegan meat to offering up blended products that mix animal protein with plant protein for a healthier product more appealing to flexitarians — that growing demographic of meat-reducers who are swapping out meat, one bean at a time.
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