Beans are one of humankind’s oldest foods, domesticated 7,000 years ago in Peru and southern Mexico, where Indian tribes developed various colors and sizes of dry beans. Belonging to the legume family – seed-pod producing plants – beans’ oval shape distinguishes them from flat-disk lentils and round peas. Dry edible beans are harvested as mature, dry seeds, unlike green beans and soybeans, which are harvested as succulent vegetables. They require only minimal processing from farm to consumer.
About 14 percent of the U.S. population consumes dry beans on any given day. Pinto beans are the most popular – with almost half the sales – followed by navy, Great Northern, red kidney and black beans. Although these are the most well known, there are many other varieties such as lima, garbanzo, cranberry and pink beans.
While most dry beans are used whole in food products such as refried beans, chilis and soups, high-value bean protein and starch fractions are used as nutraceutical ingredients in cereal products.
The United States is the fourth-leading dry edible bean producer, behind India, Brazil and Mexico. In 2002, the United States planted 1.9 million acres of dry beans that yielded an average of 1,772 pounds per acre. The total production was 29.9 million hundredweight for a producer market value of $519.6 million, according to the USDA. The United States has experienced a dry bean trade surplus for decades, with Mexico and the United Kingdom comprising the bulk of imports.
U.S. dry bean consumption has been on the rise since 1980; the current 7.4 pounds per capita is up from about 6 pounds in the 1980s. The primary consumer group is adults, ages 20 to 59, who consume 9 pounds per capita. Some speculate that dry bean consumption went up last year because of the cold winter and slow economy, as edible beans are an inexpensive protein source.
North Dakota and Michigan are the top-producing states, with 45 percent of U.S. production, followed by Nebraska, Colorado and Minnesota. Although Minnesota’s 170,000 dry bean acres represents only 8 percent of total U.S. production, the state produces 54 percent of the nation’s dark red kidney beans, grown primarily in the Red River Valley.
Dry beans’ seed and pesticide costs are higher than soybeans, and storage can be expensive. Because prices fluctuate, beans are usually stored to optimize selling price. Their moisture levels must be kept below 16.5 percent or the beans will be susceptible to mold.
Navy, pinto and kidney beans sell for $10 to $23 per hundredweight. Growers often contract about half their anticipated bean production with brokers or processors before planting. They must then deliver beans that meet certain variety, quality and moisture standards to be guaranteed a set price.
Dry beans have not been included in federal price support programs since the late 1960s. However, USDA regularly buys dry-pack and canned beans for school lunch, child nutrition and other food programs; in 1999 the USDA purchased 18 million pounds for such programs.
Beans are nutritional powerhouses – high in protein (22 percent), soluble fiber (7 percent), vitamins and minerals, free of cholesterol, and low in calories and sodium. An inhibitor in beans prevents humans from digesting the protein, but it can be deactivated with cooking. Beans are especially rich in B- vitamins, folic acid, iron, calcium, potassium and phosphorous, and they may lower blood cholesterol levels, according to the American Cancer Society.
Studies show folate in beans can reduce the risk of heart disease, stroke and certain types of cancer, as reported on the Northarvest Bean Growers Association Web site.
Protein isolates can be extracted from some bean varieties and used as a nutraceutical ingredient in breakfast and snack foods. Also, beans contain a high-amylase starch or resistant starch, an indigestible dietary fiber used in high-fiber foods.
Areas of opportunity:
Snack foods: Extruded bean products, because of their high protein and fiber content, could be competitive in the snack food and sports-bar markets. However, bean off-flavors have to be removed.
High-starch bean flour: can be used in a variety of cereal products to boost dietary fiber.
Protein concentrate: is used as a nutraceutical ingredient amd may be promoted in hypoallergenic foods as an alternative to other plant or animal proteins.
Traditional food products: Besides packaged dry beans, popular food uses include refried beans, chilis, soups and baked beans.
Note: Some of the information in this report is taken from an article by Gary Lucier, USDA Economic Research Service, in the August-September 2003 Northarvest Bean Grower publication.