Beans are beloved by many for their frugality and protein content. They can be delicious and filling, but they can also cause some (ahem) serious issues.

The obvious of these is gas, but bloating, cramping, and indigestion can also occur after eating beans. Beans also contain phytic acid which can strip your body of minerals.

Not surprisingly, though, traditional cultures ate beans for thousands of years and used slow-food type methods for making them more digestible. From fermenting to soaking to sprouting, we can learn a lot from these traditional cultures. And when you can make a pot of soup that will serve 8 people for $2 I just can’t pass them up.

So at least once a week I dig out some dried beans or legumes, usually for one of the super easy slow-cooker bean soups in Simple Food {for winter}. And while we still find beans to be harder to digest than say meat or vegetables, I have found belly comfort using some of the techniques our foremothers employed.

What Makes Them So Hard to Digest?

Besides the phytic acid contained in legumes, the harder beans such as kidney and navy beans contain oligosaccharides. This complex sugar is impossible to digest without some help because humans do not produce the enzyme alpha-galactosidase needed to properly break it down.

A great article from the Weston A Price Foundation says…

When consumed, these oligosaccharides reach the lower intestine largely intact, and in the presence of anaerobic bacteria ferment and produce carbon dioxide and methane gases, as well as a good deal of discomfort, not to mention embarrassment in polite society. (source)

They said it, not me.

Preparing Them For Better Digestion

The most important aspect to preparing beans properly is to start the process a couple of days before you actually want to cook them. I use the following principles in preparing beans:

Sprout Those That Sprout. The only two legumes that I find sprout easily are lentils and garbanzo beans. These are easily sprouted using this method.

Soak Them For At Least 48 Hours. Not just "overnight" as many recipes call for, but for 1-3 days. The longer they are soaked the easier they are to digest.

Soak in Very Warm, Alkaline Water. The above article states that a temperature between 120 and 148 is ideal, as the enzyme needed to break down the oligosaccharide is killed at 150 degrees. The pH of the water is also a concern and hard water should be avoided. The science geek in me wants to get the thermometer and litmus paper out and get it just right, but the mama in me knows this in impractical. So I just use very warm, filtered water instead of our hard water.

Change the Water Often. Three times per day I drain off the water, cover them in more water to rinse, drain, and then cover again with very warm water to soak. Changing the water often allows you to discard any anti-nutrients leeched from the bean.

Cook Them Long & Slow. Whether you sprouted them or soaked them try to cook them over low heat for a very long time. A slow-cooker works well, as does a low-heat in an oven or on a burner. Cooking beans all day gives them time to break down those hard-to-digest fibers.

Cook Them In Stock. I am not sure what it is about stock that aids in digestion, but for some reasons bean soups simmered in stock or almost always easier on my belly than bean soups simmered in water. That’s enough reason for me to use stock when I have it.

Serve Them With A Fermented Food. When I make Mexican slow-cooked pinto beans I try to serve them with lacto-fermented salsa. A scoop of sauerkraut does the trick on a navy bean soup, and pretty much all beans are made more delicious with a drizzle of cultured cream.

Soak and Cook with Kombu. One thing mentioned in the above article that I have not tried yet is to soak your beans with a strip of kombu (a sea vegetable) because kombu actually contains the enzyme needed to break down the oligosaccharides.

Further Reading

I highly recommend the article Putting the Polish on Those Humble Beans from the Weston A Price foundation.

Another resource is Katie‘s new ebook: The Everything Beans Book. The book contains "95 pages and 30 recipes to lower your food budget and raise your nutrition at the same time. Twenty pages of…well…everything you might want to know about beans, including how to get comfortable with dry beans so you can save even more money (but not spend forever in the kitchen)."

How do you prepare beans in your kitchen and how do you find them on your belly?

 

41 Responses to Why Beans Are Hard to Digest & 8 Tips For Making Them Easier on the Belly

  1. Theo says:

    You say to soak in warm alkaline water. I know that the water in my area tends to be slightly acidic, so would adding a little bit of base like sodium bicarb (baking soda) be a good idea?

    Also, I do not have a water filter, but let it sit out for a day to off-gas the chlorine before using it in my ferments. I assume this would be preferable to using tap water.

    Thank you for this post. I have been trying to good beans without the discomfort for a while now. So far I have only tried the 24 hour soak method. I guess I have some further experimenting to do :)

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  2. Jenn says:

    One of the wonderful things I learned on my real food journey is that Eden Organics actually soaks their beans properly and cooks them with kombu, then packages them in a can with a BPA-free lining. We don’t eat a lot of beans because they irritate my husband’s IBS, but when I make them for myself, it’s nice to know that I do have that convenience available.

    My lunch this week is an adzuki bean soup with homemade stock that I can pack in my (stainless steel) Thermos with some steamed kale.

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    Shannon Reply:

    Jenn – I think I read that somewhere too. Eden organics are actually local to us, but I almost exclusively buy dried beans. If I need canned, though, I know where to go ;) .

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    fuji Reply:

    @Jenn, Does eden organics pack their beans in an aluminum can???

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  3. Interesting information. I don’t eat many beans much anymore but I always soak them for at least 24 hours and cook them with kombu. The kombu is what always helped the digestibility for me the most – of course, combined with the long soaking time. I am currently working with a client who has a hard time digesting beans but has a very limited diet so I am going to offer these suggestions to her. Thank you!

    [Reply]

    Shannon Reply:

    Christie – I hope it helps her!

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  4. Pat Feldman says:

    I always soak my beans with warm water and a little whey, as Sally Fallon sugests in her Nourishing Traditions. I also use some nitrate-free bacon and homemade meat stock to provide a great flavor.

    I usually do this with black beans, and in Brazil this is the famous “Feijoada” a recipe that usually includes sausages, jerky beef, etc. It’s simply delicious and very nourishing when you have the right ingredients!

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  5. Pat Feldman says:

    Ah, but here in Brazil is very, very hard to find nitrate-free sausages, jerky and bacon……

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  6. Frances says:

    This is really helpful! We eat a lot of dry beans because meat is just too hard on our budget. I find beano to be very helpful, although I really wonder what it’s made of. My mom cooks them with fennel but I’m not sure if that’s an old wives tale or not. I’m allergic to fennel anyway. I was wondering how you would correct the pH of the water without a filter. We have hard water, but can’t afford to filter it.

    [Reply]

    Shannon Reply:

    Frances – So glad it is useful! I am curious now as to what they put in beano. Perhaps it is just the necessary enzyme to break down the oligosaccharides? I hope so :) .

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  7. Jennifer says:

    That would explain why my step-mother always put baking soda in the soaking water for her beans… the alkalinity. Though she claimed that ginger worked, as well, to reduce the “tummy problems”.

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  8. Magda says:

    I have not heard of the kombu before – I will have to try it. I’m off beans for now since I’m on GAPS. Last time I tried beans they gave me terrible gas (I soaked them for a week and cooked long and slow). I will give it a while,then try soaking with baking soda and cooking in stock/with kombu.

    [Reply]

    Tim Reply:

    @Magda,

    The enzymes needed to digest beans are made in your guts. If you avoid the beans they will stop being produced.

    Exactly like a low carb’er reintroducing carbs they will suffer bloating/gas etc simply because the body has stopped producing the enzymes to digest them.

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  9. Sunshine says:

    Since my first child was a nursling, I gathered quite a bit of info with beans related cooking to prevent baby having gas. I notice/d a huge difference when I take the time to soak for extended periods and cooking while switching out the water often on lower heats forever and when I did the basic directions of overnight and cook for 3 hours. I also found that after all that cooking, if I freeze the beans they turn out even softer and more palatable to certain family members. I also always throw in a carrot for the last 30 minutes of cooking, because I read once that the carrot absorbs those gas causing issues. Whether I need it after doing all that I did I’m not sure, but I am more worried about my baby than whether it is a false old wive’s tale!

    Thank you for the extra suggestions. I am definitely going to try them out to see if maybe I could skip the freezing part of my routine.

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    Shannon Reply:

    Sunshine – Thanks so much for your knowledge!

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  10. Meg says:

    Great tips, Shannon. We soak ours for 3 days, in the crock pot on warm with the lid off (tea towel over to keep fingers out). I do a huge pot-full at once, since, well, it’s 3 days I can’t use my crockpot! :-) I add baking soda to the soaking water, and use kombu & stock when cooking. If I do ANY less than 3 days, or skip any of the additions, we all suffer! But they are such a great, CHEAP option, it definitely worth the hassle.

    And @ Jenn, I had heard about Eden doing something like that – great option to know!

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  11. candace says:

    I think Ma Ingalls used to add baking soda to her beans, too!

    [Reply]

    Shannon Reply:

    Candace – I thought I read that somewhere too! Don’t you love the wisdom of those that came before?

    [Reply]

  12. [...] the full post on Nourshing Days. blog comments powered by Disqus [...]

  13. Interesting. I usually soak mine overnight or for 24 hours. Will soak longer. Also cook mine up with the kombu. Doesn’t add too much flavor. Great tips.

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  14. Dani says:

    A la Nourishing Traditions, I have been soaking with whey or the generally accepted substitute, live-culture apple cider vinegar. However, both are acidic, and you say it should be the opposite… This is the first time I’ve heard this. I do a 24-hour soak, typically, but have also (typically!) had the, ahem, *unpleasantness* described so politely by WAPF. To the point that hubby has said that he doesn’t want to have beans more than 1X/week, and I concur because I’m doubled over in bloated pain.

    I have heard of the kombu before, but have never tried it–but am definitely going to do so. I also have tried soaking for two days, and the stench was such that there was no way I was going to cook that in my kitchen, nevermind let it go for another day–or even eat it (and yes, I had changed the water). However, I have found that, when properly started, I have yet to find a bean that won’t sprout for me, and in about the 3 days. Of course, I’ve only done this several times in the past year since I’ve started down my real food journey. We tend to do a lot of pinto/kidney beans for chili, and the sprouted ones didn’t seem to cook as well (but maybe I just need to be more patient and cook them longer!), but I may have to kick that one back up a notch and try it again.

    [Reply]

    Shannon Reply:

    Dani – I thought that I had read that Sally Fallon had since retracted the acidic medium in soaking beans, though that is just a distant memory. I really think soaking for a few days is possibly the biggest help. I think the sprouted beans do tend to be a bit harder, but all beans have a hard time softening in the presence of acid, so you might want to try it without an acid soaking medium and cook them without tomatoes.

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  15. Dawn says:

    In addition to the long soaking time, I cook my beans with the herb epazote. It is an easy herb to grow and harvest, and really helps with the digestibility of the remaining oligosaccharides in beans, and is also helpful with other difficult to digest veggies like cabbage, broccoli, etc.

    [Reply]

    Shannon Reply:

    Dawn – Interesting! I have heard of epazote before, but have never tried it. I will have to look into it. Thanks!

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  16. Janeen says:

    I love beans – - I make the Bean and Kale Chicken Chili receipe ALL of the time, in the slow cooker – - it takes me about two days to make the soup-from the broth to the final product!!

    I soak my beans overnight . . but the soup is all in the slow cooker for hours on end.

    I sometimes have a problem with the digestion part, but not much!

    [Reply]

  17. Cynthia says:

    Thank you for all the great info you posted here. :) Just wanted to mention that I have been adding a spoonful of baking soda to my pot of soaking beans for many years now. It really helps to soften the skin of the bean so they are nice and tender when done cooking. I read about it somewhere and have been soaking my beans that way ever since!

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  18. Heather B says:

    We haven’t found them to be a problem for any of our bellies. I soak overnight, but I start when i think of it..mid afternoonish so really they soak about 24 hours. I also read somewhere a bay leaf helps eliminate gas issues, so I throw one in when I simmer the beans. It seems to be working for us. We’ve recently begun eating beans a few times a week as the bulk of the meal. The increased fiber hasn’t given us any belly troubles.

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  19. [...] How do you extend grocery dollars? If you’re one of those for whom beans don’t agree, try kombu and longer soaking times. I had read kombu (a sea vegetable, look in the Asian aisle) helps aid digestion before, but I [...]

  20. [...] If you do whip up a batch of chili with beans, make sure to rinse canned beans thoroughly first; this article offers a plethora of suggestions about how to prepare beans to make them easier to [...]

  21. Kara says:

    I’ve found several other sources saying you must boil beans before soaking to avoid lecthin poisoning. Does anyone have insight on this and why it’s not done in these instructions?

    [Reply]

  22. [...] digest oligosaccharides in the case of beans. I like to soak and dehydrate nuts and seeds and use these tips for making beans more [...]

  23. Veena says:

    Asafetida (or hing), a spice from the resin of a rhizome, is usually used in cooking Indian dishes that involve lentils. Cumin and ginger are supposed to help as well.

    This is a great list, thanks! I didn’t realize the pH of water made a difference.

    [Reply]

  24. Shaina says:

    Would you recommend keeping these in a dehydrator while they soak to keep them warm??

    [Reply]

  25. Bernadette says:

    I have a question. If you change the soaking water three times, do you add more whey each time?

    [Reply]

  26. [...] simmer, I poured off the water and added new water and continued to simmer on low. I added kombu (to help break down the phytic acid and eliminate flatulation) half way through the process (6 hours of simmering with a lid). I love careful preparation. I also [...]

  27. [...] a few inches. Soak them at least overnight, but up to 48 hours if you have the time. Here’s how and here’s [...]

  28. Rachel says:

    First of all, thank you for your info! I made a batch of black beans last week from a bag of dry beans bought from the store. I soaked them 48 hours, cooked them, and they were awesome. This time, I cracked open a #10 can of dry black beans (packaged with an oxygen absorber) and they have been soaking almost 48 hours, and the gas/soaking water smells really strong of chlorine bleach. The store bought bag had hardly any bubbles by the end of the second day, and these still get a ton of stinky foam just a few hours after rinsing and changing the water. Thoughts? Should I soak them longer? Is there a danger in soaking them too long?

    [Reply]

  29. [...] butter in the icing.  For an even healthier treat get raw beans instead of canned and soak them overnight and then cook them in a crock-pot.  Scroll to the bottom of the page in the link below [...]

  30. [...] your garden or plants to have less daytime water evaporation.  And while you’re at it, start soaking some beans in the crock pot, oatmeal for breakfast, and if you are a real meal-planning rock star, brine or [...]

  31. bg says:

    Funny that you should not use hard water and not soak in temperatures above 150. I recently started soaking my beans (garbanzo and kidney) in salt water and for a quick soak I would bring pot to boil and then leave all day to soak. Low and behold, I am having major discomforts digesting. I think it is because I have killed the enzyme by bringing temperature too high and using salt water over plain filtered water. I’ll be making a new batch after reading this article. FYI: I have never had an issue with beans until I started quick soaking in hot water. Whoops!
    Thanks for the information.

    [Reply]

  32. SS says:

    Thanks a lot for this info. I have major problems digesting heavy carbohydrates or very high protein food, sprouted beans was the next great option , which wasnt a great help either. till this moment I would only soak them for 24 hours . Now I know why I disliked the feeling after eating .

    [Reply]

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