Baked beans are so loved they have their own playground song – but are they as good for us as the song suggests?

If you grew up in the UK, it is quite likely you were given beans on toast at some point in your childhood.

Originating in the USA, baked beans have become a staple for Brits everywhere — we get through an estimated two million cans every day — and they’re synonymous with comfort food.

Served on buttered toast, on baked potatoes with cheese, as part of a cooked breakfast, or simply eaten cold from the can, they are a go-to food for both ease and price.

Plus, they’ve been immortalised in playgrounds everywhere through the song: “Beans beans, good for your heart; the more you eat, the more you…” Well, indeed.

But are they? And do they?

Research indicates the a­ffirmative: beans may certainly be good for our heart and may even lead to the gas expulsion that rhymes with ‘heart’, as prophesied by generations of school children.

However, this is not because baked beans in their sweet tomato sauce are a health food. It is because of the beans alone.

Are beans good for you?

“Experts are divided on the health benefits of beans,” says registered nutritional therapist Paula Werrett.

“They contain lectins, which are thought to promote inflammation and damage the gut lining. They can also cause gas and bloating particularly in those with gut symptoms.

“However, pulses are [widely eaten] in the Mediterranean diet which is associated with many health benefits. They are high in dietary fibre, protein and contain iron, potassium and magnesium.”

Health benefits of baked beans

At its most basic level, a tin of baked beans comprises haricot beans (called navy beans in the USA), tomatoes, sugar, herbs and spices.

Unless you are trying to avoid sugar, there is a lot to like.

On their own, like many legumes, haricot beans contain carbohydrate, protein, fibre and fat along with calcium, zinc, iron, potassium, magnesium and folate (vitamin B9).

As well as soluble fibre, they also contain resistant starch, which is a type of fibre that passes further along the digestive system and helps to feed gut bacteria. Hence, the potential for gas.

When it comes to being good for the heart, eating beans — but any variety, not just haricot beans — has been associated with a lower risk of ischemic heart disease and cardiovascular disease.

This may be for a variety of possible reasons; people who typically eat legumes may eat a healthier diet overall, or it could be because of the fibre that beans provide.

Increasingly, it is understood that foods which feed our beneficial gut bacteria may be good for our health overall.

Baked beans don't just have to go on toast. Would you ever stick a tin of baked beans in a chilli?

Beans vs baked beans

But these potential health benefits are due to the beans in their natural form.

Baked beans may be convenient and cheap but they are also an ultra-processed food; the category that many experts now advise us to avoid.

“Shop bought baked beans are cheap and convenient to eat,” says Werrett. “However, they are generally very high in sugar, salt, additives and BPA contaminants.”

BPA (bisphenol A) has been used for decades in the manufacture of tinned cans and has been found to leach into foods, acting as a hormone disruptor.

Whilst some manufacturers have stopped using BPA, labelling cans as ‘BPA-free’, one of its replacements bisphenol S (BPS) has also been identified as a hormone disruptor and both BPA and BPS have been identified as potentially harmful for the heart.

A 2020 study found when mice were given bisphenol BPA or BPS in amounts that mimicked typical human exposure, within minutes of exposure their heart function worsened, especially in the females.

The human body is thought to get rid of bisphenols quickly, but because they are present in a range of consumer goods they can be easily replenished.

Some experts suggest avoiding canned foods as much as possible to limit exposure.

Some manufacturers may use alternatives, but the only way to find out is usually to check their website or contact them directly to ask.

Another issue with ultra-processed food is the sugar content. “Lower sugar varieties may be preferable depending on sugar levels and other sweeteners used,” says Werrett.

“Better still, Greek-style beans in a tomato sauce — available in some supermarkets — are preferable, or make your own at home.”

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