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?