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Rice & Beans: Perfect Protein or Myth?

Rice & Beans: Perfect Protein or Myth?

Last month Sean Hannity, conservative FOX TV personality, made an interesting comment about the state of hunger and nutrition in the United States. The context was Hannity defending prompts from a caller about whether Mitt Romney, being as wealthy as he is, is actually relatable to the masses of financially struggling Americans. Hannity jumped around a bit on his defense of the candidate Romney and claimed that, no one is actually going hungry in this country (not true) and poverty and hunger are just not linked within the borders of the United States. Then Hannity went on to explain the following:

“I don’t believe people are going to bed hungry. … For, instance I have friends of mine who eat rice and beans all the time. Beans protein, rice. Inexpensive. You can make a big pot of this for a week for negligible amounts of money and you can feed your whole family.

Look, you should have vegetables and fruit in there as well, but if you need to survive you can survive off it. It’s not ideal but you could get some cheap meat and throw in there as well for protein. There are ways to live really, really cheaply.”

I am not here to take issue with Mr. Hannity (as I think time will eventually undo all manner of untruths and divisiveness that Hannity has unleashed upon the world) but I am interested in the issue of rice and beans being all that you need to keep on keeping on. For years people have been making the claim that beans and rice, together, are a “complete protein.” This synergistic dish, which is a staple throughout most of Latin America, holds a sort of magical appeal because of its fortified nutritional value at a very low cost (for many, it is by far the cheapest thing to eat). “[The dish] was probably invented many times because it makes sense to put them together,” Indiana University cultural anthropologist Richard Wilk, co-author of the upcoming book Rice and Beans: A Unique Dish in a Hundred Places recently told NPR.

And as it turns out, this is a winning combination, just as long as the ratio to beans and rice is not too off balance. As far as the economics of the combination go, rice is the cheaper component of the meal. beans are a low-glycemic-index food that makes a person feel full, so they eat less of other things. Beans are also full of fiber, potassium, folate, iron, manganese and magnesium, and they are cholesterol- and fat-free. They’re a superfood. But people in the poorer countries tend to bulk up a bit on rice, as beans cost a bit more. So this complete protein also needs complete (or near complete) balance to provide the maximum nutrition.

However just rice and beans (even if it is the more healthy option of brown rice) is not enough to keep someone fully nourished (sorry Mr Hannity). You need fruits and vegetables for other vitamins, minerals, and essential nutrients. The lesson here is, eat more (brown) rice and beans, along with generous helpings of fresh fruit and vegetables, but don’t get all of your nutritional advice from FOX News.

What are some of your favorite rice and bean combinations? Is there something better and more appealing (lentils and pasta maybe)? Is this a staple you love or hate?

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Eric Steinman

Eric Steinman is a freelance writer based in Rhinebeck, NY. He regularly writes about food, music, art, architecture, and culture and is a regular contributor to Bon Appétit among other publications.


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10:33AM PDT on Jul 20, 2015

I have seen some stick figure, homeless people around in the US. Perhaps there were additional complications but they definitely were extremely thin.

8:47AM PDT on Oct 29, 2014

I like rice and beans. Could not eat them everyday though.

8:17AM PDT on Oct 29, 2014

Hannity is right. Nobody goes hungry in america. Americans are simply fat and spoiled. I've seen people at these food banks. They're fat and disgusting. Maybe a month of rice and beans and some vegs would do them good.

10:21AM PDT on Sep 5, 2014

Just thought I'd add to the whole "white is mostly starch and will give you diabetes" thing people have been throwing around.

If you cook up a big batch of rice and beans and let them cool back to room temperature (something you might do anyway to save time and fuel) a large proportion of the starch will turn in to resistant starch. This acts like a fibre, is not absorbed and so will not raise insulin. It will also (because it acts like a fibre) increase the satiety value of the meal and feed your stomach bugs too just like fibre from fruits and vegetables.

8:33AM PST on Nov 6, 2013

You are better off with rice and beans anyhow.Beef and pork are unhealthy.Stick to plants fellow americans.Just stay away from GMOs.Most people live off fast food now there is a complete food,right?

5:39PM PDT on Aug 31, 2013

I live in Ecuador. Rice and beans are a staple, and very good to eat. As a matter of fact, I just finished a dinner of black beans and rice with some onion and olive oil. As far as Hannity goes, he is not my favorite commentator, but I love Fox News! To all the people here drinking the Obama Kool Aid, good luck with the economy and the next war with Syria.

12:01PM PDT on Aug 13, 2013

I personally have friends that consistently eat bean and brown rice meals....with fruit for lunch.
Perfectly healthy and thin, to boot.
I'm sure everyone's aware of Fantasy Football! Well, FOX News is Fantasy News!
How anyone can watch that channel is beyond me.....they are mostly never aware of the Bill Maher says....they live in a bubble!

12:01PM PDT on Aug 13, 2013

I personally have friends that consistently eat bean and brown rice meals....with fruit for lunch.
Perfectly healthy and thin, to boot.
I'm sure everyone's aware of Fantasy Football! Well, FOX News is Fantasy News!
How anyone can watch that channel is beyond me.....they are mostly never aware of the Bill Maher says....they live in a bubble!

10:01PM PDT on Apr 16, 2013

Uh.. I would like to see these people starving to death on U.S. streets.... this seems highly unlikely... almost impossible to me, unless you're just totally brain dead or living out in the woods, I don't see how one could starve to death in the United States.

Now, as far as eating beans and rice.. you certainly could eat such a thing daily and live... it may not provide *optimal* nutrition but you're not going to die.. and you'd probably even be in fairly good health. Hell... I read about a woman once who ate nothing at all but potatoes.. french fries to be specific ...for something like 20 years all she ate were french fries, and not only was she alive, but (amazingly) she actually looked pretty damn good.

I hate Fox News, but on this.. Hannity is making a good point... you can survive in the U.S. very cheaply, it may not be the most optimal diet but you can survive. There's no reason why anyone in the U.S. should be starving to death, nor have I ever heard of such a story.

8:33AM PDT on Sep 22, 2012

Fox News? Why anyone would believe anything said on fox news is beyond me.

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