The Power of Beans

Five ways beans beat beef in summer cooking and beyond

Plunging my arms deep into bags of dried beans and running the hard, cool skins along my fingertips takes me back to childhood. Cooking with beans has an emotional resonance with me — from bean burgers and chili to tamales, quesadillas, enchiladas, tacos, burritos and pupusas.

I love tossing edamame in salads and putting together amazing, protein-rich smushed chickpea sandwiches. Lentil soup and plant-based grilled cheese sandwiches are my go-to comfort food on a lousy day. Black beans and quinoa make me strong after a long hike. And growing green beans gives me a sense of pride and connection to the Earth.

I’ll be honest, I’m eating a bean burrito as I write this. Southwestern style. This healthy, low-cal meal leaves a light carbon footprint and is an ode to my environmental work. That’s why, this Memorial Day weekend, I’m packing my Extinction-free BBQ with beans instead of beef. Here’s why you should too:

1. Beans are more sustainable

A new study published in the scientific journal Climatic Change found that replacing beef with beans could have major environmental benefits. Beef production is a colossal problem for the planet. Swapping our beef for beans could get us 75 percent of the way to our greenhouse gas reduction goals by 2020. Just by eating beans instead of beef.

It would also free up 42 percent of the cropland we currently waste to grow feed for cows. Instead we could grow crops for humans or give habitat back to wildlife. Choosing beans over beef is the perfect complement to riding your bike to work or driving a hybrid car. We’re careful about the gas we put in our cars; we should be careful about what we put in our mouths.

American consumption of beef is creating a catastrophic impact on our planet.

2. Beans are better for your budget

Beans and rice are a key staple of our human diet around the world. Not only is it a delicious, nutritious combination that is gentler on the planet than beef, but it’s far more affordable too. According to 2014 research, the average cost for a can of cooked beans (about two cups) is $1.19. A pound of dried beans (about eight cups) is even more cost efficient at an average of $1.99. On the other hand, a single serving of beef can cost an average of $5. There’s just no question that beans, which also have a longer shelf life, are better for those on a budget.

3. Beans are good for your health

When it comes to your health, beans win out over beef for reducing risk of diabetes, cancer, heart disease and other issues. Chickpeas help fight diabetes and stabilize blood sugar. Navy beans are good for your heart, fighting cholesterol and adding potassium. Lentils lower risks of breast and colorectal cancers. Kidney beans are good for their anti-aging properties: They have the most antioxidants and omega-3s of any bean. Meanwhile black beans are good for brain function and soybeans help you build muscle. On the other hand, the World Health Organization classified red meats like beef as a probable carcinogen — the same category as cigarettes and asbestos.

How does the nutrition label of beans compare to beef? 100 grams of beef carries 30 grams of fat compared to less than one gram of fat in the same amount of black beans. And Ironman must be a bean-lover because a serving of black beans carries more than 5 times the amount of iron as a serving of beef.

Plant-based BBQ-style baked beans are a hit at any summer BBQ. Check out Extinction-free BBQ for more suggestions.

4. Beans support food security

In the past 30 years beef production has tripled and is continuing to grow as our population bursts at the seams. The toll it takes on wildlife, habitat, water resources, air quality and climate is staggering. Every pound of beef takes at least 1,700 gallons of water to produce. Americans eat about three beef burgers a week on average, and that adds up to 21.2 trillion gallons of water per year. That creates an enormous problem when it comes to sustainability.

We simply do not have enough resources available to continue to eat the amount of beef we do in the United States, particularly given the increasing pressure of drought and climate change on food production. Food security is part of our national security, and we may very well face a food shortage crisis if we don’t rethink what we put on our plates. Switching from beef to beans is a key way to do that.

5. Beans are packed with protein

If you’re looking for a protein-rich diet that’s good for you and the planet, beans could be the answer. According to the Centers for Disease Control, the amount of protein from an average serving of beef is found in 0.8 cup (188 g) of cooked black beans. Meanwhile, the USDA estimates Americans eat too much beef — more than the recommended daily intake — while 87 percent of Americans consume less than the recommended amount of beans.

And you know what? I think taste should be on this list too. The variety, simplicity and heartiness of beans tip the scales when it comes to flavor. And that’s just one more reason to go bean-crazy this summer. Check out some tips on doing just that at Take Extinction Off Your Plate. Then get some Extinction-free BBQ recipes to get a kick start on your Earth-friendly diet this summer.

Jennifer Molidor is the senior food campaigner for the Center for Biological Diversity.