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Don’t Let Anyone Tell You That Refried Beans Are Bad for You

When you break them down nutritionally, they’re far from the thing that’s making that seven-layer dip topple over with calories

There’s some innate quality to a bean that infuses it with the undistilled essence of what food is supposed to be. Perhaps that’s owed to the challenge in formulating a principle-based argument against the consumption of beans that would make any rational sense. Or, from a nutritional standpoint, maybe it’s due to the fact that beans are tiny, satisfying capsules of protein and carbohydrates. Whatever the case may be, beans are high on the list of the most versatile and nutrient-dense food items, and burritos certainly wouldn’t be the same without them.

Speaking of burritos, one item I can never quite bring myself to invite to the party inside the tortilla alongside brown rice and chicken is refried beans. In my mind, there’s just something about them that taints the theme of the unprocessed (or gently processed) food that’s otherwise working its way through my burritos (and body).

Aren’t refried beans just made of leftover beans anyway?

First things first: Refried beans are not beans that have been fried more than once. The word “refried” stems from the Spanish word “refritos,” which can have a meaning akin to something being refried, but the actual connotation in this sense is closer to a foodstuff that’s been cooked or fried extremely well. 

With that out of the way, let’s drill down to the core of what refried beans actually are. Here’s the list of ingredients in a can of Traditional Refried Beans as sold by Old El Paso: cooked pinto beans, water, lard, salt, vinegar, onion powder, garlic powder, spice, chili pepper.

In this instance at least, we’re evaluating a version of pinto beans that’s been mixed with fat and some additional seasonings. However, we really don’t know how much of an influence the additional ingredients have been on the pinto beans during their conversion into refried beans until we compare them to ordinary pinto beans. For that, here’s what you’ll find in a can of Bush’s Pinto Beans: prepared pinto beans, water, salt, calcium disodium, EDTA. 

When we compare the two on a head-to-head, serving-to-serving basis — with the caveat that we’re not gonna rinse the canned pinto beans, meaning that we’re taking zero steps to reduce any of the sodium content fresh out of the can, and ignoring that a serving of canned pinto beans is 8 percent larger (130 grams to 120 grams) — it ends up looking like this: 

Supposedly rinsing the pinto beans can remove up to 30 percent of the sodium from them, which conceivably would trim their sodium content to 330 milligrams. This would also take the amount of sodium per serving down to 15 percent of the recommended daily value in your diet.

Aside from that, there is honestly not enough of a nutritional difference between these canned beans for anyone to raise a fuss over. If you want the beans that are prepackaged to be marginally more fun — criteria that obviously favors the refried beans — you should totally go for it.

But that, of course, only holds true if you aren’t going to mix those refried beans with sour cream and melted cheese, and transform relatively ordinary beans into a 300-calorie-per-serving scoopable snack dip.

I promise I won’t! I just want to eat the ordinary refried beans!

If that’s the case, you can also buy your own pinto beans and manage their conversion into refried beans on a stovetop all by yourself. In most of the homemade versions of refried beans, the essential ingredients basically come down to mashed pinto beans, onions, salt and some form of fat, so there’s no reason why you shouldn’t be able to keep the caloric additions — stemming predominantly from the oil or lard used in the frying process — to a minimum. 

In the end, it’s really a sum-of-the-parts kinda thing. That is, refried beans aren’t necessarily the problem. It’s often everything else you stack atop them in a seven-layer dip, for instance, that ruins what they bring to the table nutritionally.