Refried Beans Are Better For You Than You Think

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When you break them down nutritionally, they’re far from what rocks this seven-layer dip with calories.

There is an innate quality in a bean that gives it the undistilled essence of what food is meant to be. Perhaps this is due to the challenge of formulating a principled argument against eating beans that would make rational sense. Or, from a nutritional standpoint, maybe it’s because beans are tiny, satisfying capsules of protein and carbs. Either way, beans top the list of the most versatile and nutrient-dense foods, and burritos certainly wouldn’t be the same without them.

Speaking of burritos, one item I can never bring myself to invite to the party inside the tortilla alongside brown rice and chicken is refried beans. In my mind, there’s just something about them that taints the theme of unprocessed (or lightly processed) foods that otherwise find their way through my burritos (and my body).

Aren’t refried beans just made from leftover beans anyway?

First things first: refried beans are do not beans that have been refried more than once. The word “refried” comes from the Spanish word “refritos”, which may have a similar meaning to something that is fried, but the actual connotation in this sense is closer to a food that has been extremely well cooked or fried.

With that out of the way, let’s get to the heart of what refried beans actually are. Here is the list of ingredients for a can of traditional refried beans sold by Old El Paso: cooked pinto beans, water, lard, salt, vinegar, onion powder, garlic powder, spices, chili.

In this case at least, we’re evaluating a pinto bean version that’s been tossed in with fat and some extra seasoning. However, we really don’t know how much of an influence the extra ingredients had on pinto beans when they were converted into refried beans until we compared them to regular pinto beans. So here’s what you’ll find in a box of Bush Pinto Beans: prepared pinto beans, water, salt, calcium disodium, EDTA.

When we compare the two on a head-to-head, portion-to-portion basis — with the caveat that we’re not going to rinse canned pinto beans, which means we take no steps to reduce the sodium content freshly taken out of the can and ignoring that a serving of canned pinto beans is 8% larger (130 grams to 120 grams) – it ends up looking like this:

Supposedly, rinsing pinto beans can remove up to 30 percent of the sodium from them, which could reduce their sodium content to 330 milligrams. It would also reduce the amount of sodium per serving to 15% of the recommended daily value in your diet.

Other than that, there honestly isn’t enough of a nutritional difference between these canned beans for anyone to make a fuss of. If you want prepackaged beans to be a little more fun—criteria that obviously favor refried beans—you should totally go for it.

But that, of course, is only true if you’re not going to toss those refried beans with sour cream and melted cheese, and turn relatively ordinary beans into a 300-calorie-per-serving dip.

I promise I won’t! I just want to eat ordinary refried beans!

If so, you can also buy your own pinto beans and handle converting them to stovetop refried beans yourself. In most homemade versions of refried beans, the essential ingredients basically boil down to pureed pinto beans, onions, salt and some form of fat, so there’s no reason you can’t keep added calories – mainly from the oil or lard used in the frying process – to a minimum.

In the end, it’s really kind of the sum of the parts. In other words, the refried beans aren’t necessarily the problem. It’s often anything you pile on top of them in a seven-layer dip, for example, that ruins what they bring to the table nutritionally.

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