by Janet Spencer

About 40,000 different kinds of beans can be found worldwide, though only about 200 are commercially cultivated. Come along with Tidbits as we eat beans!


Beans were some of the very first plants cultivated by people worldwide. Evidence suggests that natives of Mexico and Peru were cultivating bean crops as far back as 7,000 BC. Ancient peas unearthed by archaeologists in Thailand were carbon dated to 9,750 BC. Beans were also found in the tombs of the kings of ancient Egypt. The oldest varieties of beans are thought to be fava beans and broad beans.

• The top bean-producing countries are India, Myanmar (Burma), and Brazil. Likewise, the countries that consume the most beans are India, Myanmar, and Brazil.

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• The states that produce the most beans are North Dakota (32%), Michigan (17%), and Nebraska (11%). North Dakota has retained its position as the top-ranking producer of dry edible beans in the United States since 1991.

• The most popular dry beans in the U.S. on a per capita basis are pinto, navy, Great Northern, red kidney, and black.


“Edamame” is a Japanese word meaning “branch and bean” and denotes soybeans that have been cooked.

• Navy beans were used widely by the U.S. Navy. Great Northern beans were first cultivated widely in North Dakota.

• “Carat” comes from “carob” which is a small Oriental bean. The beans are remarkably uniform in size and therefore became a standard for weighing gemstones.

• “Legume” comes from the Latin verb “legere” meaning “to gather.”

• Lima beans are named after Lima, Peru, where they have been cultivated for some 6,000 years.

• The word “lens” comes from the Latin word for lentil beans “lentes” because they have a similar shape.

• “Garbanzo” comes from the Spanish term for chickpea, “garvance,” which is a compound of “garau” meaning “seed,” and “antzu” meaning “dry.”

• Beans are also known as lentils, legumes, and pulses.

• “Pulse” comes from the Latin word “puls” meaning “thick soup.” Pulse crops are the seeds (beans) of legumes. Although all beans are legumes, not all legumes can be classified as beans.


Puritans were forbidden from working on the Sabbath, and that included cooking. The local natives showed them how to submerge a bunch of beans in a pot of water, put the pot in a hole, and fill the hole with hot stones. This slow method of cooking meant that the Puritans could put a pot of beans into the hole on Saturday night and eat them for dinner on Sunday night. This is the origin of Boston baked beans, and it’s why Boston is known as Beantown.

Today the official recipe for baked beans starts with white pea beans which are canned in tomato sauce.

• There are approximately 465 beans in a standard can of Heinz baked beans.

• The earliest reference to baked beans was in 1832 in a book called “American Frugal Housewife.”

• The world record for eating six pounds of baked beans is 1 min 48 seconds by Don Lerman of New York.

• The largest pot of baked beans ever created contained almost 1,500 gallons (5,600 liters) and was cooked up in Macedonia in 2012.

• The longest recorded time for sitting in a bath of cold baked beans is 100 hours by Barry “Captain Beany” Kirk of Britain.

• The 1967 album “The Who Sell Out” by The Who featured on its cover a picture of Roger Daltrey sitting in a tub full of baked beans.


In their raw or undercooked form, red kidney beans are highly toxic, because they contain high amounts of phytohaemagglutinin (PHA), a carbohydrate-binding protein. PHA causes red blood cells to clump together, leading to symptoms of food poisoning, and can damage the gut. PHA is destroyed by high cooking temperatures, which is why raw dried beans, especially red kidney beans, should be soaked in water for a few hours and then boiled for at least 30 minutes. Cooking them in a crock pot at a lower temperature can be dangerous.

• A genetic disease called favism results from a genetic deficiency. Victims have red blood cells that are so sensitive to oxidants found in fava beans that any contact with fava beans, no matter how casual or brief, will bring on a severe allergic reaction resulting in anemia, shock and sometimes death.


Fava beans contain L-dopa, the precursor to dopamine, an essential neurotransmitter.

• In the movie “Silence of the Lambs,” Hannibal Lector said, “I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice chianti.” Hannibal Lector would have been treated with psychiatric drugs called monoamine oxidase inhibitors. The three things you can’t eat with those are liver, beans, and wine. Hannibal is making a joke referencing the fact that he’s not taking his meds.


Beans contain raffinose, a type of carbohydrate that’s poorly digested by the body. Bacteria in the large intestine break down raffinose, resulting in gas and bloating.

• Beans do not cause gas if they have been zapped with low intensity gamma rays prior to being cooked.

• A product called Beano is well known for suppressing flatulence. The main ingredient is an enzyme extracted from a particular strain of a common mold which suppresses the creation of methane inside the human intestinal tract.

• If you eat beans regularly, you will have less flatulence from them.

• “Flatulence” comes from the Latin root word “flatus” meaning “blowing wind.”


Legumes are important to farmers because they enrich the soil with nitrogen, which is essential for all plant growth. No other plants can produce nitrogen. Legumes don’t actually fix nitrogen in the soil, but they host a species of bacteria called Rhizobia in nodules on their roots, and these bacteria convert nitrogen in the air into nitrogen in the soil. Outside of these bacteria, the only force powerful enough to do that is a bolt of lightning.