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Beans: Nutritious, but watch for the sodium

A wintertime treat has become a summertime favorite. Food editor Phil Lempert has a quick 101 on baked beans (and some cousins).

In England, where baked beans are a staple at breakfast, lunch and dinner they’re often thought of as a winter warmer to guard against the winds blowing in from the cold North Sea.

And in Boston otherwise know, of course, as “Beantown” — beans, typically made with molasses, have been a wintertime favorite since colonial times.

But if you are like me, you don’t even think about buying canned baked beans except when the weather gets warm and the barbecue gets fired up. Meanwhile, other beans, such as the refried beans made popular by Mexican restaurants, are finding their way into our homes (and backyards).

Here’s a quick 101 on this tasty accompaniment, which is a terrific source of protein and fiber and should be a regular part of our diet.

Don’t succumb to sodiumThe Nutrition Facts label and ingredient listing on canned beans are must-reads: in addition to high quantities of added salt — some brands have a tremendous amount of sodium, from 140 to 500mg for just a half-cup serving, even in “low salt” version — some canned beans contain excessive amounts of sugar. In addition, soybean or canola oil and textured soy flour or autolized yeast come in varying quantities to thickening the sauce. Remember that all that is necessary to preserve cooked beans in cans are the beans, water, and salt. You might want to do what I do rinse canned beans thoroughly with cold water before cooking them or even using them in your recipes, although that won’t eliminate all the salt cooked into the beans.

Beans, beans, beansNearly every bean that is sold in dried form is sold pre-cooked in cans including garbanzo, red kidney, Great Northern white or black beans, pinto, and navy beans; and can offer a unique and very flavorful alternative to those beans that are loaded with sugars.

From south of the border…With the rise in the popularity of Mexican and other Latino foods, refried beans are popping up everywhere. Refried beans begin with onions and garlic sautéed in lard or oil, to which spoons full of cooked pinto beans are added, mashed, and cooked until they are thicker than mashed potatoes. Sometimes a little broth or water is added. The funny thing is that they are not re-fried at all. One theory for this misnomer is that in Mexican Spanish, “re” is a way to emphasize doneness, such as these beans are well-done or cooked thoroughly. They are not, however, fried two times. They’re hearty tasting, rich and filling, and high in the good complex carbohydrates and proteins of pinto beans. However, search the shelves because there are brands that offer more healthful versions as well as the traditional ones made with lard or bacon grease. Refried beans are a great alternative to the traditional baked beans.

Don’t do as the cowboys do, dudeWhile folklore images conjure up cowboys sitting around a campfire and placing the opened can of beans directly on the fire, don’t do that. Make sure you empty the can in a pot and be sure to use a oven mitt as the handle gets much hotter than it typically will in a kitchen environment.

Beans don’t last foreverCanned beans can last anywhere from six to 18 months when stored in a cool dark cupboard. Leftover beans from opened cans should be stored in a new container with a tight-fitting lid and used within three days. And remember, as with any canned food, never buy any canned item that is dented, rusted, or appears to have bulging anywhere, an indication of bacteria and spoilage.

Phil Lempert is food editor of the “Today” show. He welcomes questions and comments, which can be sent to