Eating Raw Beans: Soak and Sprout Your Way to a Protein-Rich Raw Diet

Eating raw beans, like the chickpeas pictured here, is healthy but requires some advance planning and time

Eating raw beans, like the chickpeas pictured here, is healthy but requires some know-how, advanced planning and preparation time.

Once you start on a raw foods diet – or vegetarian or vegan diet, for that matter – it is inevitable that you’ll eventually face the beans conundrum. The human body needs plenty of protein for a healthy diet, and beans represent a great source of protein. While there are other good non-meat protein sources (like nuts, seeds, grains, soy products and specific high-protein fruits and vegetables), logically you would think beans should be a great dietary fit for raw food eaters. The other side of the beans conundrum, however, is that many beans cannot be eaten raw, either because they are outright toxic and dangerous, or even if not toxic they can still be extremely rough for your digestive system to handle.

Most beans do require extra preparation time and planning, especially on a raw food diet, but the nutritional payoff is well worth the extra effort. Because of their high nutrient content, beans and peas do double duty in your diet, serving both as a vegetable and as a protein food. According to the US Department of Agriculture (USDA)(1), besides being a great, affordable protein source – you can get up to a third of your recommended daily protein in just 1 cup – beans provide many health benefits, including:

  • Beans, similar to seafood, meat, and poultry, are low fat foods full of vitamins and minerals like calcium, copper, zinc, iron, and potassium, and B vitamins.
  • Beans are high in fiber, both insoluble and soluble. Besides fiber’s digestive benefits, soluble fiber content slows the passage of glucose from food into your bloodstream so your body produces less insulin.
  • Eating at least 3 cups of beans weekly may reduce risk for chronic diseases such as obesity, cancer, diabetes and heart disease.

Much ado about protein

Protein is the major functional and structural component of every cell in your body, according to the USDA’s 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Proteins, in turn, are made up of amino acids, nine of which the body can’t synthesize and so must be obtained from your diet. Animal-based foods are considered complete or high-quality protein sources because they provide all of the essential amino acids, whereas plant-based protein sources may be low in one or more of the essential amino acids. (Beans, for example, may lack the essential amino acid methionine, which raw food eaters can get elsewhere from eating corn.)(2)

Beans are an excellent source of fiber, starch, minerals and some vitamins. Some beans have a human digestion enzyme inhibitor. This enzyme can cause a nutritional deficiency if the beans are eaten raw. Cooking destroys the enzyme. Nonetheless, a raw vegetarian diet can still easily meet the recommended protein needs of adults and children, but the emphasis is on eating an assorted variety of different plant foods over the course of your day.

We’ll get to the variety of beans you can work into your raw food diet eventually, but first let’s consider how much total protein you need on a daily basis. A rough estimate would be 10-35% of your daily caloric intake if you’re an adult (slightly less for children and teens).(3) These days, however, you can get a much more individualized, official government recommendation… just be prepared for a lot of data entry.

In 2011 the USDA discontinued its old familiar food pyramid that once suggested 2-3 servings, or 5 ounces of meats and beans for protein daily. In its place we now have a simplified MyPlate graphic.The official MyPlate graphic from ChooseMyPlate.org

Raw food eaters might approve of the change in that the government now only recommends that we get enough “proteins” daily, instead of directly advocating meats, poultry, fish and eggs, along with nuts and beans. The downside to the switch is that the “proteins” section of MyPlate is not a pie chart representation of what percentage of your diet should be proteins. You could just settle for a simplified goal of filling half your plate at every meal with fruits and vegetables, and one quarter of your plate with protein.

(The USDA’s 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans did include a vegan version of its suggested food eating patterns that recommended vegans on an average 2,000 calorie daily diet eat 5 ½ oz. of “protein foods” per day, with one-third of this coming from  beans and peas, the rest from soy products, nuts and seeds.)

To find out MyPlate’s actual recommendation for how much protein or any other food group you should be eating you’ll need to go to the USDA’s SuperTracker (https://www.supertracker.usda.gov/createprofile.aspx). SuperTracker will tell you how much of what to eat based on your age, sex, height, weight, and your level of physical activity. A diet analysis tailored to your individual needs is no doubt superior information, but at the cost of easier-to-remember daily servings guidelines.

If knowing how much bean and nut protein you need in your diet is half the battle, the other half is knowing how to properly soak and sprout your beans and nuts so that you want to eat them. To try to put a polite spin on the subject, the reason we have the rhyme “Beans, beans, the musical fruit…” is because, even when safely and well prepared, beans can contain a lot of indigestible complex sugars that humans lack the enzyme to digest naturally. These sugars are instead broken down in the large intestine, causing gas. (The high fiber content in beans also contributes to the problem.) Soaking can reduce the amount of complex sugar in beans. Soaking and/or sprouting can also neutralize enzyme inhibitors found in beans. Soaking beans for a minimum of 8-12 hours cannot guarantee your beans will be easily digestible, but it’s a good place to start.

There are some tricks to making beans more easily digestible beyond soaking and sprouting, although they may be of little use to raw chefs. Some say, for example, that cooking beans with seaweed, fennel or epazote can help alleviate the gas problem. There are also commercially available products like Beano – or its gelatin-free, vegan-friendly alternatives – which contain the active ingredient Alpha Galactosidase, a digestive enzyme.

Don’t eat raw kidney beans! (Or binge on lima beans)

Before we get to soaking and sprouting beans, however, we must note that kidney beans, particularly red kidney beans, are the most toxic beans when uncooked and should never be eaten raw. Kidney beans contain a beneficial, naturally occurring protein – Phytohaemagglutinin, or PHA – found in other beans and many plants. PHA in high concentrations, such as in kidney beans, becomes toxic. Eating as few as four or five uncooked kidney beans could result in extreme nausea, vomiting and diarrhea.

The Food and Drug Administration recommends kidney beans should, at minimum, be soaked for 5 hours, and then boiled for at least 30 minutes before they are safe to eat.(4) Essentially, raw food eaters should never eat kidney beans uncooked or even prepared in dehydrators, slow cookers or crockpots, as these cookers  do not reach high enough temperatures to destroy the toxins present in kidney beans. Partially cooked kidney beans are even more toxic than uncooked beans!

Lima beans (also known as butter beans in southern cuisine) are another potentially toxic bean, paticularly if eaten raw in very large amounts. Lima beans contain a cyanogenic glycoside called linamarin, a toxic amino acid. Small amounts of cyanide-containing substances occur naturally in the fruits, seeds, roots, and leaves of many plants including almonds, pits from stone fruits (e.g., apricots, peaches, plums, cherries), soybeans, spinach and lima beans, working as a sort of natural defense mechanism to keep animals from eating too much of it and wiping out the crop.

The amount of cyanide present in lima beans varies by variety and its growing conditions. The United States restricts commercially-grown lima beans to varieties with lower linamarin contents than their wild counterparts. Still, “ingesting three-fourths of a pound of lima beans may be sufficient to elicit a severe case of cyanosis.”(5) Cyanosis is a serious medical condition typified by bluish skin color, usually due to lack of oxygen in the blood. When coupled with other symptoms cyanosis demands immediate medical attention. Cooking deactivates the cyanide compound in lima beans, so overall it’s difficult to ever recommend eating raw lima beans.

Before turning the page entirely on the safety concerns of eating raw beans, it should be said that there are both benefits and concerns associated with eating bean sprouts, or any kinds of sprouts for that matter, which we discuss in detail in our article “Sprout Safety” at http://rawfusionfoods.com/sprouting-safety/. There is enough of a foodborne illness risk with sprouts, especially mung bean sprouts, that the US Food & Drug Administration discourages anyone from eating raw sprouts, particularly people with compromised immune systems, pregnant women, children or the elderly.

Soaking & Sprouting

At this point you may be wondering which beans are safe to eat raw, soaked and sprouted. Don’t worry; there is still quite a variety to choose from, including lentils, adzuki, mung and garbanzo beans, which are also known as chickpeas. (If you are also wondering “where are the green beans?”, green [string] beans are, nutritionally-speaking, similar to other vegetables such as onions, lettuce, celery and cabbage, and grouped with those foods.)

Enjoying raw soaked and/or sprouted beans will require some advance planning and preparation. You can choose to serve your beans after a thorough soaking, although they may still not be as easy to digest as fully sprouted beans. Here’s a quick explanation of the process. Place your beans in a jar, fill with cold water, cover the jar with a lid and then let it sit on your counter for 12 to 24 hours. If you are near your kitchen, every couple of hours  pour out the now toxin-full water, rinse the beans, then add fresh cold water and continue soaking. At the end of your 12-24 hour soak, give your beans another final rinsing; if the beans are soft enough to bite into, they are ready to eat.

Sprouting beans takes even more advance planning. According to the very informative and helpful website Sprout People (http://sproutpeople.org/seeds/beans.html) basically you can anticipate the dry bean to sprouting process to take 2-5 Days, yielding two to four times the amount of sprouted food that you started with. Sprout People estimates the shelf life of dry beans is 2-10 years at 70°F – although the vitamin content in dried beans may start degrading after 2-3 years and may be lost entirely after 5 years.(2)

The shelf life of sprouts is 2-6 weeks if properly stored. After their final rinse, thoroughly drain your sprouts – ideally you want them dry to the touch before storage. Put your finished sprouts in a sealed plastic bag, green bag or container of your choice and then refrigerate at temperatures at or below 40°F. As with any fresh produce, always keep sprouts separate from any meat or seafood to avoid cross-contamination. Whether you buy sprouts at the store or sprout your own beans, throw away any sprouts that have lost their crispness, look dark, or smell musty.

If you are completely new to sprouting you can general get a crash course in the multi-step sprouting process in “The Six Rules of Sprouting” chart below, provided by another helpful website for budding raw food chefs, Organica. (For a link to their growing tips section on sprouting, which includes several handy resources, visit http://www.organicagardensupply.com/category/sprouting/.)sprouting6rules

While the basics of the soaking and sprouting process can be applied to whatever you are planning to eventually eat, different kinds of beans can have their own specific soak and sprouting times, summarized below in this table compiled from data from Organica and Sprout People. These suggested soak and sprout times are somewhat variable, however, so feel free to experiment a bit with the number of rounds of sprouting, rinsing and draining you do. Just be sure to always discard your old, toxin-full soak and rinse water.Soaking and sprouting times for beans you can eat raw

Bean there, done that…

We’ve thrown a lot of information at you, but now that you know the important stuff about serving raw beans we hope you’ll enjoy making this amazing source of protein and fiber a regular, healthy part of your raw diet.

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1.”Nuritional Value of Dry Beans,” USDA, accessed March 22, 2013,  http://www.ars.usda.gov/News/docs.htm?docid=20820.

2. “Dry Beans,” Utah State University Cooperative Extension, accessed March 28, 2013,  http://extension.usu.edu/foodstorage/htm/dry-beans

3. Institute of Medicine, “Dietary Reference Intakes for Energy, Carbohydrate. Fiber, Fat, Fatty Acids, Cholesterol, Protein, and Amino Acids,” The National Academies Press, 2002.

4. Ann Abraham, et al., Bad Bug Book – Foodborne Pathogenic Microorganisms and Natural Toxins – Second Edition, U.S. Food and Drug Administration, accessed March 22, 2013, http://www.fda.gov/downloads/Food/FoodborneIllnessContaminants/UCM297627.pdf.

5. National Research Council, “Safety of Genetically Engineered Foods: Approaches to Assessing Unintended Health Effects,” The National Academies Press, 2004.

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