Foods Indigenous to the Western Hemisphere

Haricot Beans

Phaseolus vulgaris

By Jeremy Trombley

When you think of beans, the image that probably comes to mind is one of the many varieties of the Haricot bean. If you have beans in your kitchen, they are also probably from the family of Haricot beans. These are the most diverse, most common and most widespread bean species in the world, and they are a staple food in many cultures.

Origin and Description

The wild ancestor of the haricot bean is native to Central and South America, and was domesticated independently in both Mexico and Peru. Domestication took place over 5,000 years ago, and cultivation had spread throughout the Americas before the arrival of Europeans in the 16th century. By that time, the species had been diversified into many different varieties, each with unique shape, color, nutritional qualities, and cultivation patterns. These varieties fall into four general categories; French beans, which are consumed in the pod, Popping beans, which burst from their seed coats when heated in oil, Shell beans, which are extracted from fully grown, but not dry pods, and finally beans which are generally dried including navy beans, black beans and kidney beans.

Traditionally, in many parts of the Americas, beans were grown with two other important food crops of the continents – corn and squash. These were termed the “three sisters” because they are particularly well adapted to growing together, each one providing essential functions for the others. The squash offers ground cover, which keeps weeds away, retains moisture and prevents erosion. Corn provides a stalk for the beans to grow on, and the beans (as legumes) provide nitrogen for the other two. In addition to being an efficient combination for cultivation these plants, when consumed, provide a remarkably nutritious diet, rich in protein, nutrients and carbohydrates. It was upon these crops and these methods of agriculture that many of the great American civilizations were founded.


After the arrival of Europeans to the Americas, the Haricot bean varieties spread around the world rapidly. They provided an ample food resource to many growing nations, and were easily adapted to growing in most climates.

In Europe, the beans were easily accepted because they were believed to be new varieties of the Old World beans, which were already well established. Early on, class distinctions influenced the consumption of the beans. The dried bean varieties were consumed by peasants and other lower class people while the pod beans were reserved for upper classes.

Some researchers have suggested that the introduction of beans has driven dramatic population growths in many parts of the world. In fact, beans may have driven the industrial revolution as much as the increasing use of fossil fuels. As a cheap and abundant food resource, beans provided the impoverished workers with enough nutrients and energy to get through the long, grueling work days.

Canned beans appeared on the scene in the late 19th century, and provide a cheap and easy food. The original canned beans were the Boston Baked Beans, but now many different recipes have been adapted for canning purposes. A sub-culture devoted to the preparation of beans and unique bean recipes has arisen, and beans are an important part of pop culture as well.


The flatulence experienced by the bean eater is the result of complex carbohydrates known as oligosaccharides. These are not easily broken down by the human digestive system, and so cause a build up of gas. The solution is to break down the oligosaccharides before consumption (by soaking the beans in bicarbonate of soda) or to consume an enzyme supplement (such as Beano) which will break them down in the digestive tract.


Albala, Ken. Beans: A History. New York: Berg Publishers, 2007.

Davidson, Alan. The Oxford Companion to Food 2nd Ed. 2nd ed. Oxford University Press, USA, 2006.