The term “white bean” can be correctly applied to any bean that is white or off-white in color. Most of the time, white beans that are sold commercially, either as seeds or as a food product, are marketed under more specific names, such as navy beans, Great Northerns, or cannellini. Though different white bean varieties have slightly different tastes and sizes, their nutritive values tend to be very similar, and they are often interchangeable in recipes.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.