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Despite their bad reputation, beans offer healthy benefits

Hey, who cut the cholesterol? So goes a proud chant from the dry edible bean industry in North Dakota and Minnesota, where 2,700 growers raise about half of the United States' total annual production of pintos and other bean varieties. More beans...

Hey, who cut the cholesterol?

So goes a proud chant from the dry edible bean industry in North Dakota and Minnesota, where 2,700 growers raise about half of the United States' total annual production of pintos and other bean varieties.

More beans in the diet would help consumers reduce the risk of heart disease, cancer and other health problems, they say, but they acknowledge that beans suffer from an image problem that has left markets stagnant.

And, forgive us, the bean people are having a gas with their new promotional campaign, embracing one of their product's widely perceived negatives even as they toot ... uh, tout the health benefits of beans.

Another poster produced by the Northarvest Bean Growers Association, based in Frazee, Minn., features a fat kidney bean speared on a fork with the promise, "Live to be an old fart."

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OK, it's serious business. At an all-day conference Thursday in the Grand Forks Human Nutrition Research Center, bean growers joined marketing professors, nutritionists, food researchers, government regulators and physicians -- including a gastroenterologist from Maine -- to develop plans to give the lowly bean a higher profile and make it more consumer-friendly.

Since the first Red River Valley field was planted to dry edible beans near Oslo, Minn., nearly 50 years ago, beans' share has grown to about 750,000 acres, said Tim Courneya, director of the growers' association. That's half of the U.S. total of 1.5 million acres.

Some farmers "love the Las Vegas aspect" of raising dry edible beans, which have no federal subsidies and depend entirely on market forces, he said. "But until the consumption moves up, production has to be stabilized. We have to build that market -- or at least try to maintain it."

Part of the problem, Courneya said, is that people "remember the chili they fed us in school, with rock-hard kidney beans, and guys who came back from the armed services vowing they'd never eat beans again." Many children today couldn't tell a navy from a pinto from a kidney bean, he said, adding a line that may be on the association's next promotional poster: "Kids today don't know beans."

Thursday's conference was meant to chart a course toward greater public appreciation for the role dry edible beans could play in healthy diets.

"If you're going to market beans as good for your bones, good for your health, you need good scientific data to back those claims," said Jerry Combs, director of the host research center. "The bean industry doesn't have a huge corporate entity behind it, like General Mills pushing whole grains."

Bill Lesch, a professor of marketing at UND, said the bean growers could grow markets "both in parts of the world where malnutrition is the problem and where over-nutrition -- obesity -- is the problem."

Consumer interest in healthier diets is high and growing, he said. But despite the bean's claim to being a low-fat, low-cholesterol, high-fiber protein alternative to meat, per capita consumption of dry beans is falling. According to an industry study, home-produced meals that contained beans declined 25 percent from 1995 to 2005.

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"These numbers don't look good," Lesch said. "You're being pushed off the plate by potatoes," partly because bean growers have been slow to champion their product as a healthy food.

Consumers "are starting to connect the dots as they look for things to do to affect high cholesterol" and other health problems, he said. "They're receptive, but they're not getting the message. The message isn't out there."

But the noise about beans' airy byproduct is out there.

"Is flatulence a resistance issue for consumers?" one conference participant asked.

"I don't think it's a significant barrier" to raising the profile of beans, Lesch said, "especially when it's compared with concerns about health."

Another participant demurred. "My teenage sons associate beans with gas," she said, "and they just say no."

Reach Haga at (701) 780-1102; (800) 477-6572, ext. 102; or send e-mail to chaga@gfherald.com .

Related Topics: AGRICULTURE
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