Sometimes called "butter beans" because of their starchy yet buttery texture, lima beans have a delicate flavor that complements a wide variety of dishes. Although fresh lima beans are often difficult to find, they are worth looking for in the summer and fall when they are in season. Dried and canned lima beans are available throughout the year.
The pod of the lima bean is flat, oblong and slightly curved, averaging about three inches in length. Within the pod are the two to four flat kidney-shaped seeds that we call lima beans. The seeds are generally cream or green in color, although certain varieties feature colors such as white, red, purple, brown or black.
Lima beans are a very good source of cholesterol-lowering fiber, as are most other legumes. In addition to lowering cholesterol, lima beans' high fiber content prevents blood sugar levels from rising too rapidly after a meal, making these beans an especially good choice for individuals with diabetes, insulin resistance or hypoglycemia. When combined with whole grains such as rice, lima beans provide virtually fat-free high quality protein. You may already be familiar with beans' fiber and protein, but this is far from all lima beans have to offer.
Sensitive to Sulfites? Lima Beans May Help
Lima beans are an excellent source of the trace mineral, molybdenum, an integral component of the enzyme sulfite oxidase, which is responsible for detoxifying sulfites. Sulfites are a type of preservative commonly added to prepared foods like delicatessen salads and salad bars. Persons who are sensitive to sulfites in these foods may experience rapid heartbeat, headache or disorientation if sulfites are unwittingly consumed. If you have ever reacted to sulfites, it may be because your molybdenum stores are insufficient to detoxify them.
A Fiber All Star
Check a chart of the fiber content in foods and you'll see legumes leading the pack. Lima beans, like other beans, are rich in dietary fiber. For this reason, lima beans and other beans are useful foods for people with irregular glucose metabolism, such as diabetics and those with hypoglycemia, because beans have a low glycemic index rating. This means that blood glucose (blood sugar) does not rise as high after eating beans as it does when compared to many other foods. This beneficial effect is probably due to two factors: the presence of higher amounts of absorption-slowing protein in the beans, and their high soluble fiber content. Soluble fiber absorbs water in the stomach forming a gel that slows down the metabolism of the bean's carbohydrates. The presence of fiber is also the primary factor in the cholesterol-lowering power of beans. Fiber binds with the bile acids that are used to make cholesterol. Fiber isn't absorbed, so when it exits the body in the feces, it takes the bile acids with it. As a result, the body may end up with less cholesterol. Lima beans also contain insoluble fiber, which research studies have shown not only helps to increase stool bulk and prevent constipation, but also helps prevent digestive disorders like irritable bowel syndrome and diverticulosis.
Lower Your Heart Attack Risk
In a study that examined food intake patterns and risk of death from coronary heart disease, researchers followed more than 16,000 middle-aged men in the U.S., Finland, The Netherlands, Italy, former Yugoslavia, Greece and Japan for 25 years. Typical food patterns were: higher consumption of dairy products in Northern Europe; higher consumption of meat in the U.S.; higher consumption of vegetables, legumes, fish, and wine in Southern Europe; and higher consumption of cereals, soy products, and fish in Japan. When researchers analyzed this data in relation to the risk of death from heart disease, they found that higher consumption of legumes was associated with a whopping 82% reduction in risk!!
A study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine confirms that eating high fiber foods, such as lima beans, helps prevent heart disease. Almost 10,000 American adults participated in this study and were followed for 19 years. People eating the most fiber, 21 grams per day, had 12% less coronary heart disease (CHD) and 11% less cardiovascular disease (CVD) compared to those eating the least, 5 grams daily. Those eating the most water-soluble dietary fiber fared even better with a 15% reduction in risk of CHD and a 10% risk reduction in CVD.
Lima beans' contribution to heart health lies not just in their fiber, but in the significant amounts of folate, and magnesium these beans supply. Folate helps lower levels of homocysteine, an amino acid that is an intermediate product in an important metabolic process called the methylation cycle. Elevated blood levels of homocysteine are an independent risk factor for heart attack, stroke, or peripheral vascular disease, and are found in between 20-40% of patients with heart disease. It has been estimated that consumption of 100% of the daily value (DV) of folate would, by itself, reduce the number of heart attacks suffered by Americans each year by 10%.
Lima beans' good supply of magnesium puts yet another plus in the column of its beneficial cardiovascular effects. Magnesium is Nature's own calcium channel blocker. When enough magnesium is around, veins and arteries breathe a sigh of relief and relax, which lessens resistance and improves the flow of blood, oxygen and nutrients throughout the body. Studies show that a deficiency of magnesium is not only associated with heart attack but that immediately following a heart attack, lack of sufficient magnesium promotes free radical injury to the heart. Want to literally keep your heart happy? Eat lima beans.
Lima Beans Give You Energy to Burn While Stabilizing Blood Sugar
In addition to its beneficial effects on the digestive system and the heart, lima beans' soluble fiber helps stabilize blood sugar levels. If you have insulin resistance, hypoglycemia or diabetes, lima beans can really help you balance blood sugar levels while providing steady, slow-burning energy. Studies of high fiber diets and blood sugar levels have shown the dramatic benefits provided by these high fiber foods. Researchers compared two groups of people with type 2 diabetes who were fed different amounts of high fiber foods. One group ate the standard American Diabetic diet, which contained 24 grams of fiber/day, while the other group ate a diet containing 50 grams of fiber/day. Those who ate the diet higher in fiber had lower levels of both plasma glucose (blood sugar) and insulin (the hormone that helps blood sugar get into cells). The high fiber group also reduced their total cholesterol by nearly 7%, their triglyceride levels by 10.2% and their VLDL (Very Low Density Lipoprotein--the most dangerous form of cholesterol) levels by 12.5%.
Iron for Energy
In addition to providing slow burning complex carbohydrates, lima beans can increase your energy by helping to replenish your iron stores. A cup of lima beans contains 24.9% of the daily value for this important mineral. Particularly for menstruating women, who are more at risk for iron deficiency, adding to their iron stores with lima beans is a good idea—especially because, unlike red meat, another source of iron, lima beans are low in calories and virtually fat-free. Iron is an integral component of hemoglobin, which transports oxygen from the lungs to all body cells, and is also part of key enzyme systems for energy production and metabolism. And remember: If you're pregnant or lactating, your needs for iron increase. Growing children and adolescents also have increased needs for iron.
Manganese for Energy Production and Antioxidant Defense
Lima beans are a very good source of the trace mineral manganese, which is an essential cofactor in a number of enzymes important in energy production and antioxidant defenses. For example, the key oxidative enzyme superoxide dismutase, which disarms free radicals produced within the mitochondria (the energy production factories within our cells), requires manganese.
Protein Power Plus
If you're wondering how to replace red meat in your menus, enjoy the buttery taste of lima beans. Limas are a good source of protein, and when combined with a whole grain such as whole wheat pasta or brown rice, provide protein comparable to that of meat or dairy foods without the high calories or saturated fat found in these foods. And, when you get your protein from lima beans, you also get the blood sugar stabilizing and heart health benefits of the soluble fiber provided by these versatile legumes. A cup of lima beans will provide you with 13 grams of fiber and almost 15 grams of protein. All this for a cost of only 216 calories with virtually no fat.
As lima beans are most often associated with succotash, a traditional Native American dish that combines this delicious bean with corn, many people think that they are native to the United States. Yet, one of lima beans' proposed places of origin, the place where the early European explorers were thought to have first discovered them, is actually reflected in its name "Lima," the capital of the South American country of Peru.
While there are many varieties of lima beans, the ones that are most popular in the U.S. are the Fordhook, commonly known as the butterbean, and the baby lima bean. The pod of the lima bean is flat, oblong and slightly curved, averaging about three inches in length. Within the pod reside two to four flat kidney-shaped seeds that are what we generally refer to as lima beans. The seeds are generally cream or green in color, although certain varieties feature colors such as white, red, purple, brown or black. Lima beans feature a starchy, potato-like taste and a grainy, yet slightly buttery, texture.
The scientific name for lima beans is Phaseolus lunatus.
Although lima beans have been cultivated in Peru for more than 7,000 years, historians are unsure whether they originated there or in Guatemala. Soon after Columbus' discovery of America, Spanish explorers noticed different varieties of lima beans growing throughout the South America, Central America and the Caribbean. They introduced them to Europe and Asia, while the Portuguese explorers introduced lima beans into Africa. Since lima beans can withstand humid tropical weather better than most beans, they have become an important crop in areas of Africa and Asia. Lima beans were introduced into the United States in the 19th century with the majority of domestic commercial production centered in California.
How to Select and Store
Dried lima beans are generally available in prepackaged containers as well as bulk bins. Just as with any other food that you may purchase in the bulk section, make sure that the bins containing the lima beans are covered and that the store has a good product turnover so as to ensure the beans' maximal freshness. Whether purchasing lima beans in bulk or in a packaged container, make sure that there is no evidence of moisture or insect damage and that the beans are whole and not cracked.
Fresh lima beans are generally not widely available, although they can sometimes be found at farmers' markets or specialty grocery stores. If you have the opportunity to purchase them, choose ones that are firm, dark green and glossy, and free of blemishes, wrinkling and yellowing. If they have been shelled, you should inspect them carefully since they are extremely perishable. Look for ones that have tender skins that are green or greenish-white in color and do not have any signs of mold or decay.
If you purchase frozen lima beans, shake the container to make sure that the beans move freely and do not seem to be clumped together since the latter suggests that they have been thawed and then refrozen.
Store dried lima beans in an airtight container in a cool, dry and dark place where they will keep for up to six months. If you purchase the beans at different times, store them separately since they may feature varying stages of dryness and therefore will require different cooking times. As cooked lima beans are very perishable, they will only keep fresh for one day even if placed in a covered container in the refrigerator.
Fresh lima beans should be stored whole, in their pods, in the refrigerator crisper where they will keep fresh for a few days. Frozen lima beans do not need to be thawed before being cooked.
Tips for Preparing and Cooking
Tips for Preparing Lima Beans
Before washing dried lima beans, spread them out on a light colored plate or cooking surface to check for and remove small stones, debris or damaged beans. After this process, place the beans in a strainer, rinsing them thoroughly under cool running water.
To shorten their cooking time and make them easier to digest, lima beans should be presoaked (presoaking has been found to reduce the raffinose-type oligosaccharides, sugars associated with causing flatulence.) There are two basic methods for presoaking. For each you should start by placing the beans in a saucepan and adding two to three cups of water per cup of beans.
The first method is to boil the beans for two minutes, take the pan off the heat, cover and allow to stand for two hours. The alternative method is to simply soak the beans in water for eight hours or overnight, placing the pan in the refrigerator so that the beans will not ferment. Before cooking the beans, regardless of method, drain the soaking liquid and rinse the beans with clean water.
The Healthiest Way of Cooking Lima Beans
To cook lima beans, place them in a pot and add three cups of fresh water or broth for each cup of dried beans. The liquid should be about one to two inches above the top of the beans. Bring the beans to a boil and then reduce to a simmer, partially covering the pot. Lima beans generally take about 45 minutes to become tender when cooking this way. Lima beans may produce a lot of foam during cooking. Simply skim any foam off during the first half hour or so of the simmering process. Because of the foam limas often produce, it is recommended to avoid cooking them in a pressure cooker.
Do not add any seasonings that are salty or acidic until after the beans have been cooked since adding them earlier will make the beans tough and greatly increase the cooking time.
While uncooked lima beans contain compounds that can inhibit a digestive enzyme and cause red blood cells to clump together, soaking and cooking the beans renders these compounds harmless. Therefore, it is important to always eat soaked and cooked beans and not to use them uncooked by, for example, grinding dried beans into flour.
A Few Quick Serving Ideas
- If you can find whole lima beans in the market, you can serve them as an appetizer sprinkled with seasoning just like edamame (whole soy bean pods).
- Mix puréed lima beans with chopped garlic and your favorite fresh herbs. Use this spread as a sandwich filling or a dip for crudité.
- The heartiness of lima beans make them a great soup bean, especially when added to a soup that features root vegetables such as carrots, turnips, beets, and/or rutabagas.
- For a twist on the traditional native American dish succotash, make lima bean burritos. Fill corn tortillas with lima beans and corn kernels, and then top with chopped tomatoes, avocado and scallions.
- Blend cooked lima beans and sweet potatoes together. Serve this tasty dish on a plate accompanied by your favorite grain and fresh vegetable.