MEXICO CITY (CN) — Beans have been a dietary staple in Mexico for millennia, but their per capita consumption in the country has dropped by nearly 50% in recent decades, according to one food scientist.
“It’s real sad because the average Mexican now consumes less than 20 pounds of beans per year,” said Amanda Gálvez Mariscal, a food and biotechnology researcher at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM).
That figure is almost half of what it was in 1980, when the per-person consumption of the humble frijol was as much as 35 pounds a year, according to the federal government’s agricultural trusteeship FIRA.
“It’s a shame, not only because beans are an important source of vegetal proteins, but also because Mexico is a center of origin and diversification of beans,” said Gálvez.
One reason for the decline in the bean’s popularity on Mexican dinner plates is the reputation it has for being cheap and therefore a “poor man’s food.”
But the bean’s undeserved infamy doesn’t fully explain the drop.
Gálvez also attributed the trend to the fact that, like elsewhere in the world, processed foods have become much more popular in Mexico over the last four decades — and there aren’t very many bean-based processed food items on the market.
Also to blame is the bean’s well-documented “magical” quality.
“Beans also cause flatulence if they’re not prepared properly at home,” added Gálvez.
But beans weren’t always held in such low esteem in this part of the world, according to renowned culinary historian José Iturriaga de la Fuente.
He included beans — most commonly pinto in the north, and black in the central and southern parts of the country — in what he called a gastronomical “trilogy” alongside corn and chiles.
“There are many other ingredients in our cooking, of course, but this trilogy is the core of the Mexican diet,” said Iturriaga.
The trilogy is so important thanks to the manner in which these three foods compliment each other.
As a cereal, the corn in the tortillas provides calories in the form of carbohydrates, as well as a small amount of protein, but the human body doesn’t process these proteins easily.
The beans provide the main supply of high-quality proteins, which are much more easily processed by the body and, when combined with those in the corn, approximate to the levels of protein derived from meats.
The third branch of this trilogy, the spicy chiles, provides the same things that any other fruit provides: vitamins and minerals.
However, Mexican scientists have found that the capsaicin — the substance in the pepper that bites back — helps the body better process those stubborn proteins in corn.
The well-balanced diet of this trilogy has been nurturing bodies in this part of the world for thousands of years, and the beans weren’t always so looked down upon.
“It’s interesting, because it has been seen historically as an underdeveloped diet, a ‘third-world’ diet, an Indigenous peoples’ diet,” said Iturriaga.
“The pre-Hispanic Indigenous peoples of Mexico — Mayans, Zapotecs, Aztecs, and others — who constructed what are now some of the world’s most important archaeological sites — Chichén Itzá, Uxmal, Monte Albán, Teotihuacan, Tajín, etcetera — they all ate corn, beans and Chile,” said Iturriaga.
“But it wasn’t just the builders and bricklayers. We’re talking about the priests, the military generals, the rulers. Everyone, people from all social strata ate this basic trilogy,” he said.
Chef Lalo Plascencia also hailed the nutritional value of the corn-bean-chile trilogy, and noted how public opinion of this diet has clashed with that brought over from Europe and industrialized over the last century.
“Unfortunately, this diet has been given pejorative connotations that are evidenced in some of the most lapidary popular phrases in the vernacular of Mexico,” said Plascencia, founder of the Center for Gastronomical Innovation in Mexico.
He cited phrases that associate beans with poverty, such as “Even if it’s just a humble plate of beans,” and “To add water to the beans,” the latter meaning to get the most out of a scarce resource.
Readers north of the border will most likely be aware of a certain racial slur based on the not humble, but venerable and nutritious, bean.
In 2019, the United Nations named Feb. 10 World Pulses Day (pulse is the proper term for the dried seeds of legumes such as beans, lentils, and chickpeas) to increase awareness of the nutritional value of these low-fat, high-protein and high-fiber foods.
Beans and other pulses have been shown to increase food security, improve soil quality and combat obesity, among other benefits. They truly do not deserve the bad rap they often get.
Chef Plascencia travels the world sharing his expertise in Mexican cuisine, including techniques on how to properly cook beans to make them not only taste delicious, but also avoid that unwelcome “magical” property that often impels diners to order a different side with their enchiladas.
The best way to avoid a gassy evening is to take the time to cook beans properly, which means cooking them slowly. It is best to soak them overnight and change this water out before boiling them.
Gálvez, the food scientist, said herbs and spices like cumin, fennel, cilantro and epazote (which might be called Mexican tea in supermarkets north of the border) can also be added to a pot of beans to reduce unwanted post-dinner emissions.
Courthouse News correspondent Cody Copeland is based in Mexico City.
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