Three-quarters of the world’s food comes from 12 plants and five animals. Three of these plants (rice, wheat, and maize) make up nearly 60% of all plant-based calories humans consume. Of the earth’s estimated 400,000 plant species, we could eat around 300,000. And yet, we only eat 200.

This narrow range of eating habits is having a negative impact: Not only are we limiting our vitamin and mineral intake, but overreliance on a few species leaves us prone to disaster with harvests vulnerable to pests, diseases, and climate change. But there are foods that are nutritious, sustainably produced, and farmed in responsible ways that enrich the soil. Let’s rethink what we consider smart foods to be. As the title of this issue, smart food is a term used to describe food that is healthy, sustainable for the environment, and good for those who produce it—especially the small farmer. Using this definition, beans are truly a smart food to consider.

Smart for the planet

Beans are produced and harvested in a way that does not degrade the environment’s ability to create that food in the future. Given that beans in many parts of the world typically constitute 70% of a meal and are often eaten three times a day, diversifying them can have a pronounced impact on overcoming malnutrition and poverty and coping with climate change and environmental degradation. Beans increase food security for those with shortages and can help tackle the increase of lifestyle diseases such as diabetes and obesity.

San Diego-based food blogger and cookbook author Holly Haines explores a field of beans at Rio Del Rey Farms.

Smart for the farmer

Tepary beans survive in high temperatures. They survive with very little water and are often described as the last crop standing in times of drought.

Legumes (including beans) have long been recognized and valued as soil-building crops. Growing legumes improves soil quality through their beneficial effects on biological, chemical, and physical conditions. Legumes make an important contribution to soil nutrition by enhancing the nitrogen-supplying power of soils and increasing the soil reserves of organic matter.

Smart for you

Beans are safe, healthy, and nutritious, and an excellent nonfat source of protein. Just one cup of beans provides up to 16 grams of protein. Tepary beans offer the most protein of any bean. One cup provides between 21–27% of the USDA-recommended daily allowance of protein.

Beans are high in minerals and fiber without the saturated fat found in some animal proteins. They may aid in weight loss due to their high protein and fiber content, which can keep you feeling full for longer.

Beans may help reduce your risk of heart disease by lowering LDL (bad) cholesterol, blood pressure, and inflammation.

Studies show that beans can aid people with type 2 diabetes. Their high fiber content gives them a low ranking on the glycemic index. In one study, blood sugar, insulin, and triglyceride levels all decreased significantly when people with diabetes ate beans instead of red meat. What’s more, beans are very affordable compared to most other nutritious, whole foods.

On a global scale, smart food speaks to some of the largest issues facing the world today:

• poor diets that contribute to dietary-related health issues from malnutrition to obesity

• environmental issues like climate change, water scarcity, and soil degradation

• rural poverty

Beans demonstrate that the smartest foods are low-tech to their core.


Make Three Sisters Salad by Holly Haines with black and white tepary beans.

Three Sisters Salad with charred corn, squash, and tepary beans by Holly Haines.

What's Smart About Smart Food originally published in issue 71.

Onion pie in blue casserole dish on wood table.
Cover photo by Haley Hazell for Edible San Diego.
About the Contributor
Mike Reeske
Mike Reeske grows Rio Del Rey organic heirloom dry beans. For more information about heirloom beans and recipes, visit