GRIFFIN, Ga. — Food scientists in Georgia have developed a new brand of beans for folks who love to eat them but hate the aftereffects.
Beans are an important source of fiber, protein, carbohydrates and B vitamins and could be a leading nutritional staple in the United States as well as developing countries. But it's tough to get people--even Third World famine victims--to make them a major component of their diets because they can cause digestive discomfort.
But scientists say this need not be true for much longer. The University of Georgia, working with the University of Nigeria, has come up with a way to make beans more digestible.
Working under a grant by the U.S. Agency for International Development at the Georgia Experiment Station in Griffin, university researchers have created the "gasless bean," a mildly manipulated cowpea that provides essential nutrition without the odious and odorous aftermath.
The discomfort caused by beans may be considered just a social problem or the subject of off-color humor, said food scientist Dick Williams of the Georgia Experiment Station.
"But it's often accompanied by diarrhea, cramping and other discomfort, especially in children," he said. "For this reason, mothers in developing countries hesitate to give beans to their children because of fear of digestive upset."
As a result, Williams says the already fearsome problem of malnutrition in such countries as Nigeria, home of the cowpea or black-eyed pea, is worsened.
In addition to providing essential proteins, legumes--the family name for soybeans, navy beans, cowpeas and many others--contain none of the cholesterol associated with animal protein sources such as red meat. Beans also may actually reduce blood cholesterol levels, cutting the risk of heart disease.
While a good source of nutritious carbohydrates, beans also contain some polysaccharides, complex sugars that humans can't digest. These sugars pass through the stomach and small intestine and are captured in the colon, where they ferment and create the gas that creates the dreaded discomfort and embarrassment.
Williams said the solution to the problem is simple--just remove the indigestible components. The trick was finding a way to do so economically and easily so the process would be useful in developing nations.
Williams and his colleagues, including a graduate student from Nigeria who came up with the idea, discovered cowpeas create enzymes when germinated that break down the indigestible sugars.
"The problem is we get the rootlets and leaflets in the germinated seed,' Williams said. "We're not used to eating that. We wanted to germinate them just enough to start those enzymes."
By germinating the seeds 12 to 24 hours, then cutting off the oxygen supply by putting them underwater, the team stopped the transformation from seed to plant. The enzyme action on the complex sugars continued.
To test the process, the scientists fed rats germinated and untreated peas, then put them in a closed atmosphere. They later sampled hydrogen in the air, a measure of gas production, and found the beans' gas-making potential had been drastically cut.
While the primary purpose for the gasless bean is improving food for poor countries, Williams said making them more palatable could revive U.S. production after years of decline, providing new markets for farmers.