Q & A – How Beans Contribute to Sustainable Nutrition

In this month’s Q & A, we chat with  Amy Myrdal Miller, MS, RD, FAND, the founder & president of Farmer’s Daughter Consulting, Inc.

Bean Bulletin (BB): Hi Amy, thanks for chatting with us. To start, please tell us about yourself. Where did your interest in food and farming come from, and what do you currently do today?  

Amy Myrdal Miller (AMM): I grew up on a farm in northeast North Dakota, in the Northarvest growing region. As the youngest of five kids—including three brothers who are farmers—I spent a lot of time listening to my family talk about the weather and the business of farming. When I was living on the farm, my dad had a big cow-calf operation. He also grew wheat, barley, and corn for silage for the cattle. Today, with my brothers running the farm, wheat is still the largest crop, but they also grow soybeans, canola, dry beans (pintos and black beans), and sunflowers.

My interest in cooking came from my mom who got me working in the kitchen at an early age. By the time I was 10 years old, I was often in charge of making dinner and supper for the family. I love to cook and bake, and I do a lot of recipe development for clients.

I now run a business called Farmer’s Daughter Consulting. I do nutrition marketing and strategic communications work for a variety of food and agriculture clients. I’ve also been a flavor seeker, but after working at The Culinary Institute of America for seven years, I now focus more than ever on ingredients and techniques that make healthy foods delicious and craveable.

BB: The word sustainability is a big buzzword in food today, but there really isn’t a single definition. As a thought leader in food, nutrition and agriculture, what do you consider to be a sustainable diet?

AMM: I think it’s important to first look at sustainable agriculture, for which there is a definition that came from the 1990 “Farm Bill” (Food, Agriculture, Conservation, and Trade Act of 1990).

Sustainable agriculture is an integrated system of plant and animal production practices having a site-specific application that will, over the long term:

  • Satisfy human food and fiber needs
  • Enhance environmental quality and the natural resource base upon which the agricultural economy depends
  • Make the most efficient use of nonrenewable resources and on-farm resources and integrate, where appropriate, natural biological cycles and controls
  • Sustain the economic viability of farm operations
  • Enhance the quality of life for farmers and society as a whole.

There are many significant points in this definition, including the fact that sustainable agriculture is about plant and animal production, that it is site-specific, and that the economic viability of a farm is as important as the use of nonrenewable resources. Farmers today are faced daily with making decisions about the best use of their time, money, and natural resources. Sadly though, people who have never visited a farm or talked to a farmer are often the ones most critical of agriculture practices.

When I, as a registered dietitian nutritionist, think about sustainable nutrition, I consider the many factors that play into this. Of course, I think about food and beverage choices, but I also think about culture, socioeconomic status, and cooking skills. Someone who has little money or cooking skills simply can’t make the same food decisions as the person who has more money and training. But thankfully there are many ways to create a healthful, sustainable diet.

BB: Beans receive a lot of attention and praise in the sustainable nutrition conversation. Can you share a little perspective on why beans are an important food for those looking to eat more sustainably?

AMM: Beans are a wonderful example of a very healthful food that can provide sustainable nutrition for anyone, no matter a person’s socioeconomic status. Anyone can open a can of beans, heat them, and enjoy a protein, fiber, and potassium rich food.

If you add a little more time and a few more ingredients, you can turn a humble can of beans into an amazing dish or meal! This time of year, I love to combine canned black beans with corn freshly cut off the cob, diced red pepper, minced cilantro, extra virgin olive oil, a little lime juice, ground cumin, salt, and pepper.  This makes a gorgeous, aromatic salad.

BB: In addition to eating sustainably, we know you’re a big believer that foods also need to taste delicious. What are some tips or ideas to make a sustainable diet also taste awesome?

AMM: There are two ways to create flavor, through the ingredients you choose and the cooking techniques you use. Then there’s the concept of flavor balance, using of five senses of taste–sweet, sour, salty, bitter, umami—to create balanced, pleasing flavor. Beans are a food that often becomes more interesting and delicious when a little acid is added. My corn and black bean salad gets its brightness from fresh lime juice. My beef and bean chili gets balanced flavor from the addition of diced tomatoes and red wine vinegar for acid.

When I worked at The Culinary Institute of America the best advice I ever got from a chef was this: If you want your food to taste great, taste your food. As you’re making a dish, taste as you go along to see if it needs a little more salt, a little more acid (from vinegar, tomatoes, citrus juice, etc.). Does it need savory richness? Add some soy sauce? Is it too acidic or too bitter? Add some honey or sugar.

BB: For people looking to eat a more sustainable diet, what are some of the key strategies or daily habits you recommend?

AMM: The 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend making half your plate fruits and vegetables. This is the single best piece of advice I can offer. Focus on getting more fruits and vegetables, including beans, into your grocery cart, refrigerator, pantry, and meals.

A sustainable diet is an eating pattern that promotes good health, includes a wide variety of foods from all food groups, fits your lifestyle and budget, and makes you happy.

My sustainable eating pattern changes throughout the year. During the summer, I use much more fresh fruits and vegetables in my cooking. In the winter, I use more canned and frozen fruits and vegetables. While I like cooking with dry beans, I always have canned beans on hand. They are such an awesome convenience food.

I also consider eating at restaurants part of a sustainable diet. I don’t feel like cooking every night. I love going out to eat with my husband to try new foods I may never make at home. I also love the social aspects of eating in restaurants, spending time talking and laughing while enjoying great food and beverages.

BB: Last and most important question, what is your favorite bean dish?

AMM: I love refried pinto beans. I make mine with lots of sautéed onions and garlic, cooked in extra virgin olive oil. I add lime juice and toasted cumin to balance the flavor. I didn’t grow up eating refried beans, but after living in California for most of my adult life, I think they are incredibly appealing and comforting!