Behold! The era of the bean is here.
It took a few decades, but after a long while waiting on the sidelines, beans are having a moment. They may have to share it with kale and cauliflower—but for any legume that ever felt forgotten, chilly, or unwanted on a child’s plate, the data today show there’s something to live for. Over the last five years, bean and lentil consumption in the US increased by 73% to a combined 14.5 pounds per capita.
Beans have notoriously played supporting roles on dinner plates, cast as a food to be tolerated or choked down in the name of healthfulness. US children gave legumes such poor reviews that the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations in June 2018 created a whole web page devoted to creative ways to try and get kids to eat their beans. “Many kids hate the mushy texture of beans,” the global organization stated. Their bad reputation has been immortalized in children’s literature, too: In 1993, author Rita Schweitz published “I Hate Lima Beans.” That specific bean variety was pummeled again in 2001, when Dan Yaccarino published “The Lima Bean Monster.”
But the era of the spurned bean appears to have ended—at least for now.
Much of the recent enthusiasm around legumes has coincided with the ascendance of the health and wellness sector in the US. Bean-based flours have been developed to replace wheat flours for some breads, bean powders can be found across a range of products marketed for their high protein content, and plant-based meats based on beans are in vogue. In 2016, the foodservice insights firm Technomic released a report showing that vegan options on menus in the US increased by 71% between the start of 2015 and end of 2016, and they often included beans.
So what kinds of beans are getting the most attention?
Not the kinds you typically find in stews and chili recipes, such a red beans, butter beans, or Great Northern beans. In fact, the biggest driver of legumes aren’t those hearty stalwarts, but a few that the US Department of Agriculture classify as “other”—including black beans, small red beans, pink beans, cranberry beans, garbanzo beans (also known as chickpeas), black-eyed peas, and all other dry edible beans.
A closer look at those revealed three standouts: lentils, black beans, and especially chickpeas.
According to the food market research firm Farmlead, the demand for chickpeas in the US has increased from around 47,000 tons to well over 200,000 over the last decade. And domestic production is having a tough time keeping up with rising consumption. In 2017, for instance, more than 58,000 metric tons of chickpeas were imported into the US—up 27% from the year prior. Mexico and Canada are the biggest foreign suppliers of chickpeas for the US.
So where are all those chickpeas going?
For starters, chickpeas are extremely versatile. The liquid from the bean has proven—like eggs—to be a good emulsifier. The bespoke condiments brand Sir Kensington’s got its start using the liquid from chickpeas as an egg replacement in its plant-based mayonnaise. It’s also been used in cocktails. At-home viral garbanzo recipes have cropped up, too—Alison Roman’s now-famous chickpea stew with coconut and turmeric stands out.
And, of course, the country’s appetite for hummus has skyrocketed. It became so popular that Pepsico in 2008 bought a 50% stake in Sabra, a well-known hummus brand. Some hummus makers in the last couple years have even tried to expand into controversial dessert-themed hummuses.
It’s not just boom times for chickpeas. Chefs are contributing to the popularization of beans, too, adding them to their recipes and menus in creative ways that appeal to the public. And The Washington Post‘s food editor, Joe Yonan, just published a cookbook devoted to beans that has been described as “the perfect cookbook for this moment in beans.”
This new bean era won’t likely alter the public’s attitude toward legumes indefinitely. Trends come and go. But for one of the world’s longest-serving and hardworking proteins, it’s a well-deserved moment to soak up some spotlight.