Bean Bulletin Q&A with Julie Garden-Robinson, PhD, RD

The Bean Institute recently sat down with Julie Garden-Robinson, PhD, RD, professor and extension specialist with North Dakota State University (NDSU). Julie has done extensive research, writing and educating about how and why to regularly enjoy simply delicious, naturally nutritious beans.

BB (Bean Bulletin): Julie, you’ve done a lot of research and projects to promote bean use and consumption. Can you tell us a little about your “bean history”?

Julie: Actually, homemade bean soup was my favorite food as a child, so my history goes back a long way! In my role as a nutrition specialist, I have focused attention on beans and other members of the pulse family for many years because of their fiber, protein and overall excellent nutrition profile. We work with limited-resource families, and we let people know beans are an economical and versatile option on their menus. I also had the opportunity to be part of a five-year project with plant breeders who were working to identify bean varieties higher in natural antioxidants. Being involved from the “ground level” was exciting.

BB: That is exciting. Beans and other pulses are a pretty desirable food right now. Why are consumers looking to add more beans to their diet?

Julie: I think consumers have become aware of the need for foods higher in fiber.  And while beans are a good source of fiber, they also are a source of low-cost protein, so they provide a way to extend our food budget. Beans also “fix nitrogen” into the soil, to make it available to other plants, so they are good for the soil, too.

We did a national survey of 733 dietitians, nutrition educators and other food-related professionals who work directly with consumers. We wanted to learn their and their clients’ perceptions of beans. The professionals were aware of the protein content (98 percent), fiber (97 percent) and low-fat content (94 percent) but less aware of the folate (58 percent) and antioxidant (41 percent) content. Most rated their knowledge and use of beans higher than that of their clients. Based on their feedback, we used this information to create bean education resources for anyone to use.

You can read more about the study here:

BB: Since you work with Extension, you provide education that helps all people try to live a healthy life. What are some of your key recommendations to make healthy living a priority?

Julie: We focus on simple strategies based on the Dietary Guidelines for Americans in our outreach to consumers. Key messages such as “fill half your plate with fruits and veggies” seem to resonate better with consumers than more complex messages. Of course, beans count as a vegetable or a protein, so they certainly fit within that message.

I am a strong believer in setting goals, and we often integrate goal-setting activities in our Extension education efforts. We have found significant improvements in healthful living behaviors when children and adults set goals and track their progress related to eating more fruits and vegetables, increasing their physical activity levels, having more family meals and getting enough sleep. Setting goals is the first step to achieving those goals.

BB: March is National Nutrition Month and this year’s theme is “Put Your Best Fork Forward.” What does it look like to put your “best fork forward”? And how does one put their “best fork forward” with beans?

Julie: As we developed and tested bean recipes, my student interns and I became more tuned in to the versatility of beans as menu items, ranging from salads to desserts. My students made the black bean brownie recipe several times, “just to test them”!

In putting your “best fork forward,” I would encourage others to try the various forms of beans available in grocery stores, including dry, canned and frozen. Keep your menus interesting by experimenting with the wide range of available recipes, including international cuisine.

BB: What are your favorite strategies to get more beans in your diet? And do you have any great tips for getting kids to like and eat their beans?

Julie: Being the mother of three, I have found the best strategy for getting my own kids to eat nutritious foods is to invite them into the kitchen to help me cook or to help grow vegetables in our backyard garden. My collaborators and I did a research project with preschoolers and their families a few years ago. We helped the children grow a wide range of beans, including dry edible beans and snap beans, in their preschool gardens. The children helped make simple recipes, such as black bean salsa and bean muffins. We found significant improvements in their willingness to taste foods if they helped grow and prepare them. We also found a significant increase in bean use at home among the families.

BB: Many consumers believe that eating healthy costs a lot. What are some ways consumers can eat well while saving money?

 Julie: Planning menus, shopping with a grocery list and eating at home more often are typical cost-saving strategies. I’d also recommend adding more beans to your grocery cart. Beans cost much less than animal-based protein, so they can help stretch our protein dollar while helping us get fiber and key nutrients in the process. In fact, the U.S. Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends that we include 3 cups of legumes in our diet every week.

BB: The research related to beans is always growing. What emerging area of bean research do you find most interesting or promising?

Julie: Beans increasingly are being shown to play a role in weight management and preventing and/or managing heart disease and diabetes. Canadian researchers reported that just one-fourth of a cup of beans/pulses per day reduced blood glucose levels by 20 percent. I am keeping my eyes open for new published research on the “MIND” diet. It combines the features of the Mediterranean and DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diets. It includes beans and studies their role in potentially delaying the onset of dementia.

BB: Finally, we know you’ve developed a lot of bean recipes over the years. Do you have a favorite?

We have an entire cookbook of bean recipes, so choosing one is challenging. I always enjoy salsa, so here is one that combines tropical fruit and beans. See for the entire cookbook and teaching materials.

Black Bean and Fruit Salsa

Credit: NDSU Extension Service

Black Bean Fruit Salsa-001
½ c. mango, peeled and cubed
1 c. papaya, peeled and diced
½ c. pineapple, diced
½ c. black beans, canned, drained and rinsed
1 Tbsp. cilantro, minced
1 Tbsp. lime juice
1 Tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
1 tsp. cumin
¼ tsp. black pepper
1 clove garlic, minced

Combine all ingredients in a large bowl; toss gently to coat.

Makes eight servings. Each serving has 40 calories, 1.5 g fat, 1 g protein, 7 g carbohydrate, 1.5 g fiber and 30 mg sodium.