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The humble bean is a heavyweight in diet benefits and economic possibilities.
March 29, 2006

The dry edible bean has been described as the Rodney Dangerfield of food products, no getting enough respect from consumers.

So says Gerald Combs, director of the U.S. Department of Agricultures Human Nutrition Research Center in Grand Forks and a member of a partnership including UND that is working to reposition beans in the American diet.

Beans are very healthful, very versatile, but they tend to be under consumed, Combs told a symposium of bean industry experts in 2003.  His lab is now in the middle of a research project to better understand the cancer-fighting qualities of the bean.

In retrospect, that two-day conference about the health benefits of beans was a seminal event, asserts Bill Lesch, professor and chair of UNDs Department of Marketing.  Sponsored by the Human Nutrition Research Center, the College of Business and Public Administration, it brought together collaborators from the nations leading bean production area.  One result was a commitment to research, both to verify the health-enhancing qualities of beans and to increase sales.

Thats great news to farmers in the Red River Valley of North Dakota and Minnesota, who grow about half the beans in the United States, including the vast majority of the most popular variety, the Pinto.  One of the big players in this business is Northarvest, headquartered in Frazee, MN.

As part of UNDs commitment to research and public service, Lesch and marketing faculty members Mary Askim-Lovseth and Robert Tangsrud have collaborated with Northarvests executive vice president, Tim Courneya, doing market studies and consulting in their areas of expertise.

The grant-funded work is a win-win situation, Lesch observes, contributing directly to the regions economic wellbeing and generating superb, real-life teaching materials for UNDs undergraduate and graduate business students.

Until recently the bean industry had focused almost exclusively on production, notes Courneya.  Little attention was given to understanding the consumption side: basic information about institutional and retail customers and the types of volumes of beans being distributed through the system.  Who is eating beans these days (and perhaps as important, who isnt), where, and in what form?

When a misstep can cost millions of dollars, he said, this kind of structural: data is mandatory to evaluate opportunities and decisions for increasing bean use. Take school cafeterias, for example.

That segment of the food service market is favorably inclined toward the nutritional component of menu decisions.  But according to Professor Askim-Lovseths research, the reality is that beans are, for the most part, not being included there.  If the health benefits of beans beyond their nutritional value can be documented and the product tailored to the preferences of kids, the result could be very big for Red River Valley growers.

There are other possibilities besides the health connection upon which to base market growth, Lesch says, including the creation of new beans-based foods and even, as with the soybean, value-added applications not yet imagined.  His colleague Tangsrud is working with North Dakota State Universitys Food Processing Center to begin exploring industrial possibilities at the USDA research facility in Peoria, Ill. Biomass fuels and lubricants, fiber for producing specialty papers, and feed stocks for the pharmaceutical industry are among the possibilities.

Still, it is additional scientific research into the health benefits of beans that has the highest promise of reinvigorating sales, Lesch says.

According to the Human Nutrition Research Center Director Combs, existing studies indicate that beans have properties that ward off the incidence of deadly bowel cancer, second only to lung cancer in the toll it takes among Americans.  A team headed by Philip Reeves and John Finley is about halfway through a 16-week study of human subjects that will hopefully verify and expand upon this earlier work.  Final results are due later this year.

The Center is testing the notion that eating a single daily meal of beans  compared to a meal of meat and pasta that is nutritionally comparable but low in fermentable fiber  will alter the microflora in the colon in ways that reduce the risks of cancer.

Previous studies with rats, used as a model of human metabolism, suggest that what we eat induces a kind of Darwinian survival of the fittest effect among the hundreds of species of bacteria that live in the bowel. The fiber provided by eating beans, it is hypothesized, encourages a population boom among those species that love to ferment substances known to enhance colon health and fight cancer.  Evidence suggests this result can have other benefits for a person at risk for heart disease and diabetes.

The project involves 40 volunteers each in the study and control groups.  For the first four weeks, baseline physiological data are collected, including even the sampling of each subjects breath.  Then for 12 weeks both groups report to the Center each day for their meals.  The last five days involve new measurements and, most critically, the collection of stool samples for analysis.

The scientists will seek to determine what species of bacteria now reside in the subjects bowel and what changes can be observed in the two groups compared to the baseline data.

More importantly, Reeves says, they will use the bacteria to recreate the digestive processes in the laboratory, where, with the most advanced analytical equipment in the world, they can observe and learn in ways not otherwise possible.

Combs, who left his tenured position at Cornell to take over the Grand Forks center, admits he has a missionary zeal when it comes to the health benefits of crops grown in the region around his facility.  For example, he is intrigued by the high levels of selenium  know to be an anticancer agent  in much of the soil in this part of the world, as well as the possibility of growing more specialty crops such as buckwheat, which he believes can help in the fight against diabetes.

Combs says he understands that the face of nutritional research is changing in America, especially as the big food companies increasingly spin off such efforts to third parties, including universities. Contrary to the common wisdom, the budget of his own Center is not funded entirely by the U.S. taxpayer.  Rather, his bosses in Washington insist that he and his staff leverage their federal budget with outside dollars.  The current bean study, for example, is paid for in large part by the Beans for Health Alliance, funded by a coalition that includes the U.S. Agency for International Development, Northarvest, and the giant food processing companies H.J. Heinz and Bush Brothers.

As a former faculty member where the practice is a way of life, Combs is comfortable competing for outside research funding.

He also believes part of the USDAs mission to improve the nations health means that new knowledge must be disseminated as soon and as broadly as possible.  Thus, getting to know  and involving  the faculty in UNDs Marketing Department was an early priority.

Jerry is an experienced collaborator, someone who understands the power of partnerships in scientific research as its highest level, notes Peter Alfonso, UNDs vice president for research.  He understands that one should prepare the way early to transfer new knowledge to those who can develop it for the ultimate benefit of our society.  This guy has a million ideas and the credibility, energy, and persuasiveness to make them happen.

Source: University of North Dakota, Office of University Relations. Reprinted with permission.



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