Spilling the beans about snap beans

Farm Forum

FARGO, N.D. – Most of us remember the story of “Jack and Beanstalk.” You may recall that Jack traded his widowed mother’s cow for some magic beans. Jack planted the magic beans, which grow into a giant beanstalk overnight. When Jack climbed the beanstalk, he discovered the home of a giant high above the clouds.

The rest of the story includes Jack stealing gold coins and a hen that lays golden eggs. Ultimately, the giant meets an untimely demise when Jack cuts down the beanstalk. By the story’s end, Jack and his mom enjoy newfound wealth.

Those old fairy tales didn’t always teach morals, did they?

I was always a little worried about planting beans when I was a child. Did the manufacturer slip some magic ones in the envelope? Would we be dealing with a giant plant or, worse yet, a giant in our backyard?

Fortunately, I didn’t encounter any magic beans. When gardening with children, bean seeds are large enough for little fingers to manipulate. Like the beans in the story, snap bean plants grow fairly quickly.

For the past several years, I have been working with bean breeders from across the U.S. The Common Bean Coordinated Agricultural Project (BeanCAP) aims to strengthen the bean research, education and Extension communities by focusing on the genetics and genomics aspects of nutrition in this important food crop.

The researchers in the BeanCAP project (http:// are studying dry edible beans, such as navy and pinto beans, and snap beans. In the Extension area, we have done projects teaching preschool-aged children about growing beans and gardening in general, and we have developed educational programs for youth and adults.

The other day, I visited the children in this year’s gardening project and checked over their string bean plants. They were excited to show me how tall their bean plants have grown this summer.

Snap beans, also commonly referred to as green beans or string beans, are close relatives to dry edible beans. They both belong to the same genus/species and together are referred to as “common beans.” However, snap beans are harvested and consumed while immature, before the inner bean in the pod has begun to develop.

On the other hand, dry edible beans are the inner seeds of the pod and are not harvested until mature (when the pod is too firm and fibrous to be consumed fresh). Because snap beans are picked at this young stage, the beans can be snapped in half with a simple twist of the fingers, hence the name “snap” beans.

Snap bean varieties include purple, wax (yellow) and the very common green bean. Although snap beans are botanically similar to dry edible beans, they differ greatly in nutritional value. Snap beans are an excellent, low-calorie food that contains a variety of nutrients, such as vitamin A, vitamin C, vitamin K, folate and potassium.

However, snap beans contain less starch, protein, fiber and folate than dry edible beans. While snap beans are a very nutritious food, they are not quite as nutrient-dense as dry edible beans, so they are not classified as beans or protein foods in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

Instead, snap beans are classified as vegetables. Snap beans can be an important part of a healthy diet for several reasons. They are naturally low in calories, fat, cholesterol and sodium, which may contribute to the prevention of obesity and heart disease. Snap beans, along with many other fruits and vegetables, also may protect against the formation of cancerous cells in the body because of their antioxidant properties.

Snap (green) beans are found in a variety of forms in the grocery store, including fresh, canned and frozen. When selecting fresh green beans, look for beans that are deep green and straight, and snap easily. Snap beans are a delicious and versatile vegetable that can be prepared in a number of ways, including steamed, stir-fried or even tossed in a salad.

If you have a surplus of snap beans, be sure to preserve them properly for safety and quality. Green beans should be blanched (heated in boiling water) for three minutes to inactivate the enzymes that can lead to losses of color and texture during freezing. They are then chilled quickly and packaged in labeled containers.

Canning green beans requires the use of a pressure canner. Green beans are a low-acid food, so they cannot be processed safely in a boiling-water bath. A pressure canner allows you to reach a high enough temperature (240 F) to inactivate the spores. Without proper canning procedures, the deadly botulism toxin could be produced in the sealed jar.

The NDSU Extension Service has free home food preservation materials available online, or you can contact your local Extension office for information. The “Food Freezing Guide” has directions for freezing many types of food and is available at If you would like to can green beans, see “Home Canning Low-acid Vegetables” available at


Here is a recipe provided by Jim Myers, bean breeder at Oregon State University and a member of the BeanCAP project. For more bean recipes, see the new NDSU Extension Service cookbook “Spillin’ the Beans” at

Green Bean Provencal

1 (16-ounce) package of frozen green beans

1 Tbsp. olive oil

1 Tbsp. fresh parsley (Italian flat leaf) or 1 tsp. dried parsley

Salt and freshly ground pepper (add to taste)

Heat olive oil over moderate heat in a skillet. Add green beans and saute until heated through and soft-textured. Salt and pepper to taste and add parsley just before serving.

Makes eight servings. Each serving (before added salt) has 40 calories, 2 grams (g) of fat, 1 g of protein, 4 g of carbohydrate, 1 g of fiber and 0 milligrams of sodium.