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What Are White Beans? Unveiling the Nutritional Powerhouse in Your Pantry

By Mandi R. Hall
Updated May 16, 2024
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What Are White Beans?

White beans, a term encompassing various pale-hued legumes, are a nutritional powerhouse. According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), a cup of cooked navy beans, a common type of white bean, provides 19 grams of protein and 13 grams of fiber. While they come in different shapes and sizes, from the small navy beans to the larger cannellini, their nutritional profiles are remarkably similar, offering a rich source of minerals like iron and magnesium. Whether you're looking to enhance a soup or craft a hearty stew, white beans are a versatile ingredient that can be substituted for one another with ease, ensuring your meals are not only delicious but also nutritionally balanced.

Physical Characteristics

Most white beans have more in common with each other than just their coloring. With few exceptions, all are generally quite small — usually anywhere from a quarter-inch to a half-inch (about 0.6 to 1.3 cm) long. They are typically oval shaped, and carry a mild, often slightly nutty flavor.

Origins

White or off-white beans grow in a range of climates. They are commonly found throughout Central and South America, but grow equally well in North America, including many parts of Northern Canada. They are also abundant throughout Europe and the Middle East. Some varieties have also been known to thrive in Africa, though few white bean varieties grow there indigenously.

Varieties

Beans sold as “white beans” in the U.S. and Canada are usually either navy beans or Great Northern beans. Navy beans, as their name might suggest, were used as a primary food supply by U.S. naval forces in the early 1900s. They are typically the smaller of the two, and are popular in soups and stews. They break down easily when exposed to heat, which makes them excellent thickeners.

Great Northern beans tend to hold their shape better than navy varieties, but often take longer to cook and have a nuttier, denser flavor. The Great Northern is often likened to a miniature lima bean owing to its slightly flattened shape.

In Europe, the cannellini bean — which is indigenous to Italy — is one of the most common white beans. A variety known as “European soldier beans,” which are similar in both horticulture and name origin to navy beans, are also popular. Many botanists believe that the navy bean and the soldier bean are one and the same, just with different growing areas.

Canned, Dried or Fresh

White beans are widely available in supermarkets around the world, and usually come in two forms: dried and canned. Canned versions are usually more expensive, but are quick and easy to prepare, as rinsing and heating is usually all that is required. Most canned beans are packed shortly after harvesting, and are typically preserved in some sort of water or brine solution. If unopened, canned beans will stay fresh for years.

Dried white beans are usually a much more economical option. These legumes are dehydrated, and must usually be soaked in water or simmered for long periods of time before they will be soft enough to consume. Eating dried beans without cooking them can lead to a number of digestive problems.

In some areas, the white bean may be available fresh, either directly at farms or at local farmer’s markets. Fresh beans are typically sold in pods that must be opened or peeled away before cooking. Fresh beans must usually be cooked before consumption, though there is nothing wrong with eating them raw — though they do not usually taste like much.

Culinary Uses

Cooked white beans are used in the cuisines of many different cultures. They can be boiled in soups and strews, mixed with rice or other grains, or used in casseroles. Baked beans, a popular side dish in the United States, is almost always made with white beans.

It is also common for the legumes to be boiled and seasoned, then served as an accompaniment to other foods, from spicy sausage and smoked chicken to roasted vegetables and grilled meats. The beans can also be mashed or blended to make a savory dip that is similar in texture to hummus.

Nutrition

Like most beans, white varieties are typically very high in fiber, usually between 10 and 11 grams per U.S. serving. The United States Department of Agriculture sets a “recommended serving allowance” for most foods, and for white beans, that serving is ½ a cup, or about 86 grams. The beans are also a protein source, which can make them an attractive meat substitute for vegetarians. White bean varieties are typically also high in potassium, folate, vitamins C and B6, calcium, and iron.

Health and Disease-Fighting Attributes

Many medical professionals recommend diets rich in white-colored beans as a means of preventative health. The beans are believed to help lower cholesterol, and can regulate blood sugar levels. A number of academic studies have also linked regular bean consumption with a decreased risk of heart disease thanks in part to the heart-friendly minerals, like manganese, that most contain.

All White bean varieties are usually considered a health food, but their nutritive value can be diminished depending on what they are paired with. Loading baked beans with sugar or bacon, for instance, or simmering them in butter or animal fat, may outweigh their attributes.

Downsides of Bean-Rich Diets

One of the biggest complaints of regular bean-eaters is flatulence, which is caused when the body fails to break down all of the beans’ sugar molecules. Flatulence can be uncomfortable or embarrassing, but is not an inevitable part of enjoying beans. In many cases, simply rinsing the beans thoroughly — or soaking them a number of times, in the case of dried beans — can reduce the risk of gas-trapping by reducing some of the bean’s latent sugars. Using the freshest beans possible may also help.

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Discussion Comments
By anon312528 — On Jan 07, 2013

I just made this in my crockpot: white beans, onion, celery, garlic, pepper, dill weed, seasoned salt with water. Towards the end, I put in a Hawaiian Jalapeno glaze. It is divine.

By anon305918 — On Nov 28, 2012

A recipe for navy beans and ham with corn bread,

Put beans (one bag, washed, picked) in a crock pot with a ham bone left over from previous meal with some meat still on it. Cover with water and leave on for low 8 hours or longer, or on high for 4 to 6 hours. Season with salt and pepper as needed. Serve with sweet corn muffins.

By anon280059 — On Jul 16, 2012

I make a delicious spread using one can of drained and rinsed white beans, a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil, juice of a lime, cracked black pepper and a little salt. Mash all together with a fork. I spread onto wholemeal crackers and sometimes garnish with strips of red capsicum for a splash of color. Delicious! I have been known to have this as a meal, with a green salad!

By mhall — On Dec 09, 2010

I found one online called Creamy Italian White Bean Soup. Yum!

By CellMania — On Dec 09, 2010

@stormyknight: This is a really good recipe for white beans and sausage. You need a pack of great northern white beans, a little olive oil, 1 pound sliced smoked sausage (you can use turkey sausage), 1/2 pound chopped mushrooms, 3 cloves garlic (minced), 1 onion (chopped), chicken broth, fresh sage and rosemary ( a good bit), salt and pepper.

Soak the beans overnight in the chicken broth. Drain and rinse the next morning. Cover by at least a half inch again with chicken broth and start to boil. While that is boiling, sauté the sliced sausage, onion and garlic together in a skillet. Cook over medium heat until the sausage is brown. Pour into the pot with the beans. Bring it all to a boil and then turn the heat down.

Add sage and rosemary until you like the taste. Simmer all afternoon. Use as many spices as you desire. After an hour, add the mushrooms. Cook until it is the desired consistency.

By StormyKnight — On Dec 07, 2010

Does anyone have a white kidney bean recipe?

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