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Are Canned Beans Healthy? Here’s The Biggest Safety Danger

[toc]If there’s one food you never want to eat raw or undercooked, it’s beans. At least for the most common varieties like black, pinto, chickpea (garbanzo), navy, and lima.

This is because they contain a specific type of carb – known as oligosaccharides – which humans don’t have the enzyme to digest. Many animals do, but we don’t.

As a result, they ferment in the large intestine where your body’s probiotics break them down. During that process, those bacteria produce gas and hence, why beans cause you to fart.

Fortunately, there are ways to minimize how much oligosaccharides are present, but the process isn’t fast with dry.

Soaking dry beans overnight and rinsing is a tried a true technique. Then you cook, to make them even more digestible.

This is why buying a can versus dry beans is the go-to choice for most people. Preparing the latter from scratch is too time consuming and requires advance planning. Not a feasible option for when you’re in a time crunch to feed the family after a long day at work, right?

Sure, they cost a little more, but the added convenience of canned is well worth it. The question is, are you sacrificing your safety by taking this shortcut?

Consider these 3 health risks, but based on the science, the biggest danger among them is not the one you’re expecting. The good news is that you can avoid all of these risks if you buy the right brands and prepare them in a safe manner.

1. BPA cans (but risk may be exaggerated)

BPA lining on canned foodSimilar to the scientific reasons why many organic foods can be a waste of money because pesticide degradation is not well understood, consumers have freaked out so much over BPA (Bisphenol-A) without knowing much about it.

Often times if you actually ask someone about it, they can’t tell you much – if anything – as to why BPA is bad.

Not even enough to tell you the basics, like knowing that it’s a suspected endocrine disruptor.

Yes, the idea of something affecting or mimicking hormones in the human body can be scary stuff. Just like how pesticides being sprayed on plants is frightening.

However once you understand their half-lives (how fast they breakdown) the pesticides used in the field become a lot less scary. It is true we know less about BPA and for that reason, it should be avoided as much as possible as a precaution. Still, what the science suggests about it doesn’t appear to match the risk perceived by the public.

Even when rats were fed up to 70,000 times the concentration of BPA that the typical American eats, they didn’t experience a change in hormone levels, weight, or reproductive orders (1). There were “no biologically significant changes observed at all” said Daniel Doerge, a chemist who works for the National Center for Toxicological Research (2).

While that may bring a sigh of relief, there is still plenty of data out there which infers avoidance is best. Plus, rats are nut humans.

Fortunately, you can avoid this controversial chemical. Choose the following brands of canned beans without BPA:

BPA-free can brands

  • Amy’s – They manufacture a variety of BPA free canned baked beans.
  • Bearitos – In addition to taco shells and chips, they sell refried black beans.
  • Eden Foods – This small independent company out of Clinton, Michigan is who pioneered the BPA free movement over 20 years ago.
  • Health Valley – Try their organic black bean soup with no added salt. They also make lentil, split pea, and vegetarian chili with different flavors of spice.
  • Sprouts Farmers Market – This store brand doesn’t use BPA.
  • Walnut Acres – Seller of organic baked beans, whole black beans, and garbanzo.

Those are some of the healthiest canned bean brands and every year, more join that list. The stubborn exception seems to be the tomatoes products, as their acid content inevitably means most canned food containing tomatoes – including things like bean chili – likely have BPA used in their inner lining.

2. Is your other food packaging safe?

Phthalates, perchlorate, and polybrominated diphenyl ethers are hard to say and spell. No wonder you don’t hear them as much.

BPA rolls of your tongue easily, and hence, probably why it has garnered the most attention.

Our beef with the BPA hype is not that we believe it’s unwarranted, but rather that the same scrutiny isn’t being given elsewhere.

man holding paper cup of coffee with plastic lidWhy do so many of the mommy bloggers obsess over BPA free bottles, but remain silent about the plastic wrap they’re using in the microwave? Or if that piping hot coffee is causing chemicals to leach from the plastic lid as they drink it?

Not all, but most bloggers don’t discuss those other things.

BPA aside, there are at least hundreds of other known hormone disruptors and likely, thousands of chemicals we regularly encounter which may have these effects (3) (4).

To review them all here would entail a textbook-length article, but let’s highlight one in particular which may relate to you eating beans, even when they’re not in a can.


Short for orthophthalates, this is a category of chemicals which is used to make plastics softer, flexible, and more durable. Polyvinyl chloride (PVC or vinyl) are the types of plastics which often make use of phthalate additives.

Examples include building materials like vinyl flooring, shower curtains, and the phone or mouse you’re holding at this very moment.

However, they also are used in some unexpected places like the face cream you wear and the perfume/cologne you spray on your neck. To be clear, we are talking about the liquids which come out of the containers!

With the exception of deli and meat wrapping, it’s less common in food packaging, but coffee machines, blenders, kitchen utensils, and other things used for food prep might contain phthalates.

cover of Report on CarcinogensThese are suspected endocrine disruptors and some may even cause cancer. Di(2-ethylhexyl) phthalate that is now listed as “reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen” in the latest Report on Carcinogens published by the U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services (5) (6).

If you’re worried about the BPA in your can of beans, then shouldn’t you also be paying attention to the phthalate in your own kitchen equipment that you may be using to cook and store them?

Are other plastics safe?

We have heard from people who refuse to order anything with beans at restaurants due to fears they might be canned, and those cans might contain BPA.

However, they express no worries over the other types of plastic they’re much more likely to encounter during their meal. Like the to-go order of hot lentil soup in a plastic lined paper cup, the piping hot pinto beans in the foam clamshell, or the plastic utensils they use to eat these. All seem to be given zero consideration.

Polyethylene terephthalate (PET, PETE), high density polyethylene (HDPE), and polystyrene (PS) are some of the most common types used for food packaging and storage.

Each has varying degrees of controversy in their own right.

For example, there is limited research which suggests PETE may “may yield endocrine disruptors” even though it’s currently considered one of the safest plastics for food (7).

At the grocery store, instead of spending a dollar or two for a can of beans, some consumers spend $4 for a container of the “uncanny” Better Bean brand. They assume that aluminum cans are unhealthy and since Better Bean is marked as BPA free and non GMO project verified, it must be worth the premium price.

Better Bean brand of "uncanny" refried black beans

The #5 on the bottom of the container is for polypropylene (PP).

Polystyrene is also used in egg cartons, foam meat trays, and plastic cutlery. It’s not a popular choice for items like this, because of its low melting point and brittleness. Yet many of the same people who obsess over the health risks of canned beans because of potential BPA don’t give a second thought as to zapping these black beans in their microwave, in that #5 container.

To be clear, we are not beating up on Better Bean. This photo comes from the fridge of one of us here at Superfoodly. He pays the premium because he likes the convenience of using just a scoop or two at a time, not because he fears eating canned food.

Before heating, he transfers the beans to his cast iron cookware before heating. On a related note, you may want to read is Teflon & Calphalon safe to cook with.

If you don’t already own some, a good set of microwave-safe glass containers is an affordable investment in your health.

Are canned beans good for you? Assuming they use a BPA-free lining, the scientific evidence does not suggest that they are any less healthy for you versus dry beans, frozen beans, or those sold in the refrigerated section.

3. Too much salt

We spend so much time worrying about the unknowns, while ignoring the known health risks staring us straight in the face.

The nutrition facts label may not warn you about what the can or package is made of, but it does fully disclose something which is a known health hazard.

1,500 mg per day of sodium should be the max, according to the American Heart Association (8).

Even if you’re young and healthy, without any blood pressure issues, did you know that excess sodium causes inflammation throughout your body, which is a worsening factor in almost any disease? It’s also bad for your kidneys.

True, humans and animals need sodium, but it’s already naturally found in almost everything we eat. You get more than enough sodium daily from even plain and unprocessed vegetables, meats, and dairy. That’s even before any salt is added to them.

Whether it’s sea salt, real salt, or Himalayan pink salt, don’t be fooled by marketing and myths. High blood pressure is only one potential problem. Getting too much sodium, regardless of source,  can cause other adverse side effects in your body (9) (10) (11).

Have you seen how much salt there in canned beans? The number can be shocking.

Take a gander at these 10 random cans we pulled off of grocery store shelves…

Brand Serving Size Calories Protein (g) Fiber (% DV) Sodium (mg) Sodium Per Can (14 or 16 Oz.)
Amy’s Lentil Soup 1 cup (245g) 180 8 24% 590 1,180
Bioitalia Organic Black Eyed Peas 1 cup (130g) 150 10 40% 340 1,041
Bush’s Best Pinto Beans 1/2 cup (130g) 100 6 28% 450 1,575
Del Monte Fresh Cut Green Beans 1/2 cup (121g) 20 1 8% 390 1,365
Old El Paso Refried Black Beans 1/2 cup (123g) 100 6 25% 620 2,170
Progresso Dark Red Kidney Beans 1/2 cup (127g) 110 8 25% 340 1,360
Rosarita Vegetarian Refried Beans 1/2 cup (128g) 120 7 28% 540 1,890
Safeway O Organics Chickpeas 1 cup (250 mL) 220 12 48% 770 1,232
Safeway Chickpeas (non-organic) 1 cup (250 mL) 210 11 28% 390 842
Trader Joe’s Refried Black Beans With Jalepeno 1/2 cup (121g) 120 8 28% 440 1,760

Low calories with high protein and fiber is good. The same cannot be said about the high sodium!

You can buy almost any brand of canned legumes and regardless of which bean, lentil, or pea type you choose, your arteries will be slammed with a sodium bomb. Even the organic, non GMO, and “healthy” brands are often just as guilty and sometimes even more so.

Staying within 1,500 mg can be quite hard when you’re eating these canned foods. Especially if you’re eating them as the main part of a meal. If that’s the case, it’s unlikely you’re going to eat just 1 serving (100 to 120 calories) of pinto or black beans, right?

Even a side portion can exceed that serving size.

chipotle menu
Photo credit: Ben Popken via Flickr (CC by 2.0)

Who makes McDonald’s actually look good for you in comparison?

Chipotle is bad for you and it’s not just because of the unhealthy beans drenched in salt. Almost every ingredient has stunning amounts.

Just 1 scoop of their salsa has more salt than 2 medium orders of fries from McDonald’s.

But at home, are non-canned beans healthier for you?

The dry you buy in bulk are safe, because those don’t have salt added to them. But then again, those are a huge hassle to make.

Are refrigerated better for you? Maybe, but they’re still too salty if want more than one serving.

The Better Bean brand pictured above does tend to contain less than most of what you find in a can, but you’re still getting hundreds of mg per serving. The “uncanny” flavor pictured above has 230 mg per 1/2 cup. Their Cuban black beans are 220 mg and their skillet refried red beans are 240 mg.

To put it in perspective, if you relied solely on Better Bean “uncanny” refried black to fulfill your 2,000 calorie intake for one day, you would have consumed 3,250 mg of sodium in the process.

Are beans healthy? The verdict

dry lentils, pinto, kidney, and heirloom beansBased on their salt content, it seems like they’re more bad than good. Your first inclination may be to avoid legumes and instead, rely more heavily on meats for protein.

That’s not the solution, either.

Whether they were made from scratch or obtained using a can opener, you would be missing out on the many health benefits of beans.

They are an excellent plant-based source of protein that rivals even many meats, on a grams per calorie basis.

Ground beef has 7.8 grams of protein per 100 calorie serving, according to the USDA National Nutrient Database (12).

Beans offer a comparable 6 to 8 grams of protein for a 100 to 120 calorie serving, as seen in the table above for many of the varieties.

Cholesterol? Beans don’t have, but beef and all meats contain it.

Fiber? There’s zero in meat, lots in legumes.

Antioxidants? On average, vegetables have 6,400% more antioxidants than meat.

Vitamins and minerals? Legumes are great sources of non-heme iron, thiamin, magnesium, phosphorus, and potassium.

Cost? Meat is not cheap, especially the hormone-free organic. According to the study we are about to share with you, a serving of dry beans from the supermarket costs only 20 cents on average. Canned are roughly 3x more at 60 cents. Both are peanuts in comparison to meat.

The National Cancer Institute evaluated the diets of 16,000 random Americans in 2010. The paper detailing it was titled “Americans Do Not Meet Federal Dietary Recommendations” and that’s accurate, considering that they found 96% of Americans don’t eat the recommended amount of beans and legumes (13).

study showing 96% of Americans eat unhealthy amounts of beans

Beans are healthy and statistically speaking, there’s only a 4% chance you are eating enough of them daily. Likewise for dark green vegetables. That’s according to leading cancer researchers. Out of all the potential dangers, the biggest risk with beans is actually that you’re not eating enough of them!

The takeaway?

Eden Organic BPA free canned kidney, pinto, and black beansYou do need to eat more of them, but you don’t need to slave away in the kitchen with the tedious process of soaking and rinsing hard and dry legumes. Eating cans of beans can be a healthy and cheap food, but you need to buy the no added salt versions. While less common, you will find them for sale on the same supermarket shelf which sells the sodium bombs.

Use BPA-free cans of no salt beans and avoid having them sitting in plastic containers when they’re hot. With these simple steps, you’ve squashed any concerns about whether they’re safe or not.

Well actually, there is one remaining potential side effect to address…

Gas and bloating.

This risk too can be mitigated. The benefit of canned is that they have already done the soaking and prep work for you, which does help reduce oligosaccharides.

If they’re already pre-cooked (and most are) then the oligosaccharides will be even easier to digest.

Yet some will still remain and all humans will lack the enzymes needed to digest these sugars normally.

VeggieGest digestive enzymes bottleThe best solution?

The following two things can help you digest beans with less side effects, as well as other problematic veggies like broccoli, onions, and more.

If you want to be toot-free or at least toot less, try taking an Enzymedica VeggieGest capsule before you eat that burrito.

Tried and tested Beano tablets are another good solution.

If you’re too embarrassed for that cute cashier at the store to see you buy Beano, then do what we do – add a bottle to your Subscribe & Save on Amazon.

You can discreetly chew or swallow a couple of these tablets the next time you are dining out with friends and family at your favorite Mexican restaurant.