Graduate student Shelly Palmer, left, and Assistant Professor Donna Winham surveyed a group of low-socioeconomic Iowa women regarding their knowledge of beans. They determined many do not know the health benefits of beans and are hoping to develop nutrition education modules to overcome that. Photo by Whitney Sager.

Discovering how much low-socioeconomic women know about beans

While healthy diets can decrease a person’s likelihood of developing chronic health conditions, having the means and resources to purchase nutritious foods can prove a challenge for low-socioeconomic populations. Pulses, which include dry beans, chickpeas, lentils, and split peas, may provide a solution to this problem, as they have a positive nutrient profile – high in protein, dietary fiber, and several micronutrients - store easily, are versatile, and are widely accessible. However, there are knowledge gaps among low-socioeconomic individuals regarding perceptions and knowledge of pulses, discovered by Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition researchers.

Assistant Professor Donna Winham and graduate student Shelly Palmer surveyed a group of low-socioeconomic Iowa women, and the results of the survey have been published. The cross-sectional study asked participants about their knowledge of beans, as well as their current consumption.

“We wanted to determine baseline intakes and attitudes to see how we could modify women’s diets in order to decrease prevalence of chronic diseases,” Palmer said.

One hundred fifty-eight Iowa women between the ages of 18 and 65 completed the survey and differences between acculturation groups were analyzed. Less acculturated and bicultural Latinas reported they ate beans 3-4 times a week (39 percent and 33 percent, respectively), in comparison to more acculturated Latinas and non-Hispanic white women (8 percent). Of those women, more than half did not know beans could lower LDL cholesterol, reduce some cancer risk, help control blood sugar and aid in weight loss.

“It is well documented in the scientific literature that dry bean consumption can lower blood cholesterol values, but most individuals name oatmeal, not beans, when asked about foods for cholesterol reduction,” Winham said. “Just half a cup of beans is as effective as one-and-one-half cups of oatmeal.”

In a second study, Palmer moderated seven focus groups with low-socioeconomic women to talk about grocery shopping habits and perceptions of pulses based on the socio-ecological model. This model incorporates the individual, interpersonal, community, and policy influences on food purchasing and consumption. At the individual level, there was a gap in knowledge of the health benefits of pulses. Households had a major influence on food shopping patterns and the foods regularly eaten. Participants noted beans are widely available in the grocery stores in which they shop. However, a problem the women mentioned is they can purchase dry pulses with WIC vouchers, but the vouchers cannot be used to purchase canned pulses. This may lead to a problem, as many women did not know how to soak and cook dry pulses.

Currently, pulses may be promoted as a “cheap” protein source or meat substitute, which could be discouraging consumption due to inappropriate messaging. Women voiced concerns about stigma associated with cheap food, and feeling that meat provided optimal nutrition for children. These views may be lessened by promoting the health and nutrition benefits of pulses instead.

These two studies contribute to the pulse literature and indicate more formative research is needed to best promote the health benefits of pulses with low-socioeconomic women. Results from both of the studies indicate low-socioeconomic women are interested in learning more about pulses through hands-on cooking demonstrations that use simple ingredients. Another implication is to encourage a look at Iowa WIC policy to allow voucher redemption for canned pulses or dry bagged pulses.

While Palmer will be graduating in the spring semester, she hopes another student will continue this research she and Winham have started. The goal is to develop a nutrition education module related to dry beans to be utilized by existing Iowa State University Extension and Outreach and WIC nutrition programs.