Beans. What does the word conjure up for you? Heinz 57? A full English breakfast? An incredibly healthy source of protein and fibre? Or flatulence?
Now the Prim or 'social bean', engineered to reduce the farting problem and being grown in East Anglia, could provide a solution to the bean's more negative connotations.
Dr Colin Leakey, a world authority on the subject, was instrumental in developing Prim "the first scientifically bred yellow bean" which emulates the yellow beans eaten by rich folk in Chile, Mexico and Peru, to avoid the notorious side-effects common with other varieties. The bean's problems are caused by its high levels of tannin which make it indigestible, claims Leakey. Tannins also cause astringency, which is a reason manufacturers add sugar and sweeteners to canned products.
Baked beans, which feature the Navy Bean, are not surprisingly the nation's favourite. Around 1.2m cans are eaten each week. Other dried varieties ranging from Red Kidney Beans to Blackeye and Pinto Beans are imported and are now commonly sold in supermarkets and other outlets. However, the growing popularity of dishes like chili con carne, have resulted in the spread of more user-friendly cooked and canned Red Kidney Beans, while a similar trend has occurred for Chick Peas.
The main obstacle, preventing food processors using beans more widely, is that if they have been stored incorrectly at too high temperature and too high humidity their cooking time can be lengthened considerably. Dried beans also have to be soaked for a long time before cooking.
Clearly a cooking time that may vary between 30 minutes and five hours is of no use in a sector where product quality and consistency is the name of the game. And consequently, high levels of wastage have been a common problem in the past.
This is where a company called Phaseolus comes in. The people behind Phaseolus Sandra Hooper and her partner Alan Cooper realised these processing problems were a major barrier to more widespread use of beans by manufacturers. So they came up with the idea of converting the beans to a texture-stable form.
Phaseolus has pioneered the cook/freeze individually quick frozen (IQF) route to consumers' plates instead of via the can. It hopes to release the untapped potential of the humble bean, used whole or chopped in stews, cassoulet, meat substitutes and soups, or puréed and used to thicken and texturise other foods, such as sauces.
Phaseolus now sources beans from a variety of UK sources, which are said to offer buyers security of supply. "As UK growers we are in a very strong position to show full traceability, said Jeremy Marshall, a director of Peas & Beans, one of five organic growers supplying Phaseolus. Their aim is to replace imported beans. "The cooking/freezing processing route has enabled a much larger variety of pulses to be used in a convenient form," says Marshall.
As well as the Prim Bean, growers are coming up with other bean varieties that meet their needs. These include Red Kidney Beans which are smaller and rounder for better 'flow' and which also have thinner skins.
But will consumers buy more bean-based products? There is clearly a big marketing job to be done. Currently in the UK we eat just 0.5kg of beans per person per year, compared with 33kg in Burundi, 27kg in Rwanda and Nicaragua and 18.5kg in Uganda, says Dr Andrew Ormerod of the Eden Project.
However, with interest in healthy eating and local provenance growing, as well as more vegetarian and meat substitution occurring, UK bean producers have an opportunity to compete with those producing tofu, made from soya beans, and Quorn from mycoprotein.
The challenge they face is to convince the food industry of the convenience of IQF beans. And the challenge for manufacturers is to develop tasty new recipes that consumers want to buy. FM