canned or dry beans - A Legume a Day

Dry or Canned Beans: Which Is Better?

I’ve spent the last few years researching beans and teaching many a class on them. Beans are also a staple in my home, so I have done my fair share of eating beans in all shapes, sizes, and forms – dry, canned, flours, frozen… you name it! One of the most common questions I hear about beans is: Which is healthier, dry or canned beans? And sometimes it is followed up with: What about for the environment? Are canned beans or dry beans cooked in the home better for the planet?

So, let’s dive right in! Which is better: dry or canned beans?

Dry beans and pulses - A Legume a Day
Canned beans and pulses - A Legume a Day

Which is Healthier, Dry or Canned Beans?

There is a perception that canned beans are not as healthy as dry beans cooked in the home, but is that actually true? What does the science have to say?

In a nutshell, the science says this: both canned beans and dry beans cooked in the home are very, very good for you. You probably want more details though, right? I don’t blame you, I would too. The reality is that there are some discrepancies in the literature about the nutritional differences between canned and dry beans cooked in the home. For example:

  • Some studies claim that canning can result in decreases in certain beneficial nutrients like fiber and magnesium (Margier et al., 2018).
  • Other studies suggest that canned beans actually demonstrate higher bioaccessibility (i.e., how accessible the nutrients in the beans are to our bodies) and mineral uptake (Faria et al., 2018), potentially making them better than beans cooked in the home.

Ultimately though, if you look through all the literature, here is what it boils down to: Despite slight differences, most studies agree that both home-cooked dry beans and canned beans are very healthful choices. Regardless of whether beans are canned or cooked in the home, we can already expect to see slight nutritional differences between different types of beans based on a variety of factors, including genotype and the environment in which they were grown. So, a little bit of variation is to be expected anyway, and focusing on the big picture is helpful here. The studies looking at canned versus dry are looking for any potential nutritional differences, even very minor ones. Don’t get me wrong – nutrition is important! I obviously think that, otherwise I wouldn’t have wanted to pursue my PhD in nutrition.

But, these studies are not actually looking at health outcomes of eating canned versus dry beans cooked in the home. Rather, they are looking for differences in dietary components like fiber, protein, and magnesium. When we instead look at the literature that examines the health benefits of beans, health benefits have been linked to beans as a whole. Many studies have been done on canned beans, and benefits have indeed been found. One example is this recent article by Doma and colleagues (2021), where daily consumption of canned beans helped reduce cholesterol.

And if you are looking for more information about how beans can improve our health, check out this recent bean interview with Dr. Henry Thompson, a globally respected bean researcher who has studied the impacts of beans on improving gut health and in cancer prevention.

What Are Potential Concerns of Canned Beans?

A primary concern raised about canned beans is their potentially high sodium levels (Zanovec et al., 2011). Indeed, one study by Mudryj and colleagues (2012) on Canadian adults found that pulse consumers (watch this quick video to learn what pulses are) tended to have greater sodium intake. The authors commented this could be due to sodium added during the processing of canned beans. Yet, it is important to acknowledge that home cooks may also add salt when cooking beans, and this is generally not taken into account in studies of canned versus dry beans. This then makes for a comparison that does not necessarily represent the reality many of us face in our home kitchens. For example, I usually add salt when I cook my beans – both for flavor and because salt helps beans cook faster, as my colleagues and I showed in our research.

Are Canned Beans Actually High in Sodium?

Canned beans can be high in sodium, but not necessarily. These days, we as consumers have lots of options. It is relatively easy to purchase low-sodium or even no-salt-added canned beans, which negates this concern.

If you want to reduce sodium content even further after purchasing the beans, that is also easy to achieve. Both draining canned beans and draining followed by rinsing have been demonstrated to significantly reduce the sodium content of canned beans with a “regular” sodium level, i.e., not a low-sodium option. One study conducted by Duyff and colleagues (2011) examined five different varieties of canned beans: pinto beans, black beans, great northern beans, red kidney beans, and garbanzo beans/chickpeas. The researchers found that:

  • Draining canned beans reduced sodium content by 36%.
  • Draining and rinsing canned beans resulted in an average reduction of 41%.

Other Considerations for Canned Beans

In addition to sodium, other concerns about canned beans are BPA and being canned in sauces with ingredients like added sugar. Thankfully, these points are easy to address:

  • Read the nutrition facts and ingredients. Choosing beans canned in only water (and a salt level that makes sense for you) – as opposed to a sugary sauce – is going to be the healthier option. I’m not saying you can’t enjoy some flavored beans! Just something to take into consideration.
  • You can choose BPA-free canned beans.
Canned beans and pulses - A Legume a Day

The Environmental Impact of Dry Versus Canned Beans

Which is better for the planet, dry or canned beans? It’s a good question, but there is not as much research out there on this topic as you may imagine. Part of that may be due to some challenges when conducting a study on this topic. The environmental impact of canned beans versus dry beans cooked in the home can vary with many factors, such as sourcing and processing differences, meaning there is not really a simple answer. But, to start to dive into this, let’s talk about the main article I have found that addresses the environmental impact of canned versus dry beans.

A recent study by Henn and colleagues (2022) found that environmental impact varied with the type of pulse (e.g., bean, chickpea, dry pea, lentil). Ultimately, the authors stated that canned pulses generally have a slightly higher environmental impact than dry pulses cooked in the home, largely due to energy used during the canning process. Although a couple pulses saw a quadrupled carbon footprint when canned, most pulse types only had an approximately onefold increase when the form of consumption was canned. Of course, there are still questions to address, like how economies of scale may further impact this. For example, canning companies with more efficient processing could eliminate this difference, or perhaps perform even better than beans that are cooked in the home. Or, consumers could impact this number by how they source and cook their beans, for instance reducing their carbon footprint even further by cooking in large batches. I will be keeping my eyes open for more research on this interesting topic and provide updates as I find them!

I want to highlight a quote from the Henn et al. 2022 article that I think is key: “However, pulse consumption does not evolve around optimizing but around providing an alternative to the current consumption of animal-based foods. Dried pulses are less convenient, and a realistic increase in consumption frequency by the general population can only be realized by offering appropriate alternatives. Canned pulses are a way to promote convenient products and are still more sustainable than animal-based food production, which causes an approximately 10-fold higher emission of greenhouse gasses.”

Now, I personally do not find cooking dry pulses to be inconvenient. In fact, I love to cook beans – I find it to be better than meditation (although that could partially be due to my inability to chill out long enough to meditate). For me, cooking beans is cathartic. Not to mention, I then have delicious and nutritious food to enjoy when I am done! But, I also love canned beans. I keep my pantry stocked with both dry and canned, so I have beans on hand for every occasion. I know that cooking beans does not fit well into everyone’s lifestyle, though. Which is part of why this is such a great point on the part of the authors! The overall goal – for both human and environmental health – is to be eating more beans and other pulses on a regular basis, so pick the form that works for you. You prefer canned pulses? Go for it! You want to enjoy dry beans you cook in the home? Great! Or mix-and-match and enjoy both canned and home-cooked beans.

For good measure, let’s talk about one more study. Tidåker and colleagues (2021) assessed how origin, processing, and transport impacts the environmental footprint of pulses, focusing on Sweden. They determined that home cooking of dry pulses resulted in a lower environmental footprint than canned pulses. Yet, the authors reach a similar conclusion to Henn et al. (2022) and also emphasize that canned pulses have an added benefit of convenience, and it is essential to provide options that are easily accessible to consumers.

Environmental benefits of beans - beans are good for the environment
Beans make Earth happy!

Deciding: Dry or Canned Beans?

Now that we have talked through the human and environmental health aspects of canned versus dry beans, I want to acknowledge a few other factors that may also factor into your decision:

  • Convenience. Canned beans are incredibly convenient. They store well and can be added directly to recipes without having to take time to soak and cook. Cooking dry beans can also be convenient, though! Check out my tips section below for more details.
  • Cost. Although cost varies with factors such as type of bean and brand, dry beans are generally a bit cheaper than canned beans. Dry beans tend to be around 2 to 3 times cheaper in the United States, based on prices I see in the grocery store. However, there will be some energy costs associated with cooking dry beans in the home, and some people prefer to pay a bit more for the convenience of canned beans. Do what works for you!
  • Control. When working with dry beans, you control the ingredients you cook with, so it is easy to minimize or eliminate the use of salt, added sugars, and any other ingredients you may prefer to avoid. Similarly, you can add seasonings such as herbs during the cooking process if using dry beans, and you have more control over the final texture of the cooked beans. At the same time, these days you can also select canned varieties that meet your dietary needs, such as those with low sodium and no or less sugar, if choosing a bean canned in a sauce.
  • Sourcing. It may be easier to know where your beans are sourced from if you purchase dry beans over canned. Whereas you can purchase dry beans from a farmer or processor implementing farming practices you support or to benefit local food systems, sourcing information can be harder to find in canned beans. But, you can choose a canned bean company whose values – sourcing and otherwise – align with yours.
  • Variety. Generally, there is a much wider variety of dry bean types available than there are canned. That being said, canned bean companies are increasingly incorporating a wider variety of beans, including heirloom varieties such as Jacob’s cattle (White et al., 2022).
Dry pulses - A Legume a Day - copyright

Tips for Cooking Dry Beans

Looking for tips to cook with dry beans? I am here for you!

Soaking pinto beans - how to cook beans

Further Reducing the Carbon Footprint of Dry Beans

A recent study by Bandekar and colleagues (2022) conducted a cradle-to-grave life cycle assessment (LCA) of the production and consumption of various pulses in the United States. This type of LCA evaluates the environmental impact from the extraction of resources for production through the consumption and ultimate disposal of the product. Three cooking methods were examined: 1.) cooking on the stovetop in an open cooking vessel, 2.) stovetop pressure cooking, and 3.) electric pressure cooking.

What did the authors conclude about how consumers may be able to reduce environmental impact when cooking dry pulses in the home?

  • Cooking larger batches substantially reduces environmental impact, even after taking increased electricity use (including storage in the refrigerator/freezer and reheating in the microwave) and food waste into consideration. Although it takes more energy to bring a larger volume of water to a boil, the energy used to maintain a simmer remained similar for smaller and larger batches. Therefore, electricity consumption decreased, normalized for the amount of pulses cooked, i.e., the energy consumption per gram of cooked pulse was much lower for large batches than for small batches.
  • When preparing smaller batches, the electric pressure cooker had the lowest impact scores. This is due to improved energy efficiency and lower energy demand. When cooking larger batches (i.e., 1 kg), then the environmental impact of cooking in an open vessel was determined to be similar to smaller batches cooked in an electric pressure cooker.

In summary, this research determined that pulse variety, cooking method, and batch size all influence environmental impact. When cooking beans or other pulses, one way consumers can reduce their environmental impact even further is to cook larger batches, as this increases resource utilization efficiency. Read more about this article here!

Summary of Dry or Canned Beans

dry or canned beans - which is better?

Overall, dry beans cooked in the home and canned beans are both a healthy, environmentally-friendly staple to have in the home and include in our daily dietary patterns. Choose options that facilitate eating more beans, whether that be canned or cooked from dry, or a mix of both.

Here are key takeaways from this post, which I hope you found helpful!

  • Both canned beans and dry beans cooked in the home are very healthy options.
  • When it comes to canned beans, simply choosing canned beans with a sodium level that matches your dietary needs can address the concern about high sodium. If you want to further reduce the sodium content, you can drain and rinse the beans. To reduce added sugar and other ingredients that may be of concern, choose beans canned in water instead of a sugary sauce.
  • Canned beans may have a slightly higher environmental impact than dry beans cooked in the home. However, both are environmentally friendly options with much smaller environmental impact than most sources of animal protein. Therefore, both dry and canned beans are good choices for the planet.

References for Dry or Canned Beans

  1. Margier, M., Georgé, S., Hafnaoui, N., Remond, D., Nowicki, M., Du Chaffaut, L., … & Reboul, E. (2018). Nutritional composition and bioactive content of legumes: Characterization of pulses frequently consumed in France and effect of the cooking method. Nutrients10(11), 1668. (https://www.mdpi.com/2072-6643/10/11/1668)
  2. Faria, M. A., Araújo, A., Pinto, E., Oliveira, C., Oliva-Teles, M. T., Almeida, A., … & Ferreira, I. M. (2018). Bioaccessibility and intestinal uptake of minerals from different types of home-cooked and ready-to-eat beans. Journal of Functional Foods50, 201-209. (https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1756464618305127)
  3. Doma, K., Ramdath, D. D., Wolever, T. M., & Duncan, A. M. (2021). Canned beans decrease serum total and LDL cholesterol in adults with elevated LDL cholesterol in a 4-wk multicenter, randomized, crossover study. The Journal of Nutrition151(12), 3701-3709. (https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0022316622004606)
  4. Zanovec, M., Carol E, O. N., & Theresa A, N. (2011). Comparison of nutrient density and nutrient-to-cost between cooked and canned beans. Food and Nutrition Sciences2011. (https://www.scirp.org/html/3-2700073_4521.htm)
  5. Mudryj, A. N., Yu, N., Hartman, T. J., Mitchell, D. C., Lawrence, F. R., & Aukema, H. M. (2012). Pulse consumption in Canadian adults influences nutrient intakes. British Journal of Nutrition108(S1), S27-S36. (https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/british-journal-of-nutrition/article/pulse-consumption-in-canadian-adults-influences-nutrient-intakes/90DBE365654870C2CBE7E8BBE4685D5F)
  6. Duyff, R. L., Mount, J. R., & Jones, J. B. (2011). Sodium reduction in canned beans after draining, rinsing. Journal of Culinary Science & Technology9(2), 106-112. (https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/15428052.2011.582405)
  7. Bandekar, P. A., Putman, B., Thoma, G., & Matlock, M. (2022). Cradle-to-grave life cycle assessment of production and consumption of pulses in the United States. Journal of Environmental Management302, 114062. (https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0301479721021241)
  8. Henn, K., Zhang, X., Thomsen, M., Rinnan, Å., & Bredie, W. L. (2022). The versatility of pulses: Are consumption and consumer perception in different European countries related to the actual climate impact of different pulse types? Future Foods6, 100202. (https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2666833522000880)
  9. Tidåker, P., Potter, H. K., Carlsson, G., & Röös, E. (2021). Towards sustainable consumption of legumes: How origin, processing and transport affect the environmental impact of pulses. Sustainable Production and Consumption27, 496-508. (https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2352550921000178)
  10. White, Brittany L., et al. “Processing and quality evaluation of canned dry beans.” Dry Beans and Pulses: Production, Processing, and Nutrition (2022): 191-223. (https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1002/9781119776802.ch8)

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