Can tinned baked beans really be considered a superfood?

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So, Heinz has spilled the beans. The US company that makes our beloved toast topper, jacket potato filler and essential fry-up component (if that’s the way your breakfast rolls) is rebranding baked beans. Marketeers want to “liberate” this iconic tinned snack from its old-fashioned image so it can join the ranks of superfoods.

“Consumers understand the benefit, but they don’t recognise them as a superfood yet,” Jojo de Noronha, Kraft Heinz’s Northern Europe president, told The Grocer this week. “We want to take them from a family comfort to a health and wellness food that is recognised as good for your body.”

Many baked bean fans will be puzzled. Why would manufacturers want to turn a cherished symbol of lazy Sunday night TV dinners into “the new avocado”? Heinz baked beans might not be a British invention – they first arrived in the UK from the US in 1886, when Fortnum & Mason in London proudly sold them as an imported luxury. But they’re very much a stalwart of the nation’s dinner tables now and manufacturers should mess with them at their peril.

Last year sales of Heinz Beanz exceeded £229 million, so why change their image? More to the point, can tinned white beans swimming in a vivid tomato sauce justifiably be called a superfood? 

The truth is – and I’ll whisper it lest I turn you off your beans on toast – baked beans are very good for you.  So much so that one 80g serving – around three heaped tablespoons – counts as one of your five-a-day.

“We wouldn’t refer to any food as a ‘superfood’, as no food can provide all the nutrients that we need to be healthy,” says Bridget Benelam, a nutrition scientist with the British Nutrition Foundation. “But baked beans provide protein, fibre and micronutrients including thiamine, copper and manganese, so they are a nutritious food.”

The beans are the haricot variety (known in the US as navy beans), stewed in a tangy tomato sauce. But there are many other tinned beans available, mostly sold in water, including kidney, butter (or Lima), cannellini, flageolet, pinto, borlotti and broad beans. 

They’re all varieties of pulses and all are similarly good for you, says Benelam. However, beans with coloured skins (like black, kidney or borlotti) contain more valuable antioxidants – compounds that help protect cells against damage – than white beans like haricot or cannellini. “There are small differences in the amounts of nutrients different beans provide, but they are broadly similar in terms of the amounts of protein, fibre and micronutrients they contain,” she says.

Beans are an excellent alternative source of protein people who avoid eating meat, fish and dairy. In fact, when consumed with wholegrain bread or grains, beans can supply all the protein your body needs.  They’re also a good source of iron and are brimming with fibre, something we don’t eat enough of in the UK (A diet high in fibre is linked to a reduced risk of heart disease and Type 2 diabetes.

The good news is that tinned beans, which are cooked before going into the can, are “nutritionally similar” to the dried versions you have to soak and simmer yourself, says Benelem. 

There are a couple of things to bear in mind. Only one serving of pulses per day – beans, chickpeas and lentils – counts towards your five-a-day tally. That’s because they contain lots of starch, and lack the same variety of vitamins, minerals and other nutrients as fruit and vegetables. 

Tinned beans can also contain lots salt and sugar, especially baked beans, so check the labels and opt for those with reduced amounts, or none added. (Most tinned beans will also contain some form of preservative and an additive like calcium chloride to help retain firmness and colour).

Jenny Chandler, author of Pulse, always has a stash of tinned beans to hand.  “Baked beans are brilliant for an emergency meal,” she says. “But tinned beans generally are fantastically versatile and useful.” 

She suggests draining and rinsing them in cold water before use unless your recipe involves using the liquid in the tin. Then, leave the beans to sit in a little warm olive oil and garlic to soften and absorb the flavours. 

“Then, add them to your salad,” she suggests. “The fibre in them will keep you feeling full for hours afterwards,” she says.  Or mash them into the warm oil for a delicious alternative to potato. 

“I always think of beans as the chameleons of the kitchen because they are as happy in a South Asian curry as they are in an Italian salad or a Spanish chorizo stew,” Chandler says. “Wherever you put them they seem at home.”

So, are tinned baked beans really a superfood? They’re certainly super delicious, nutritious, comforting and versatile. But up there on the same superfood pedestal as avocado?  No, they deserve to stand on their own merits.

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