What's really in your tin of baked beans?

Baked beans are a great source of nutrition, so does it make a difference which brand you buy?

Who doesn’t love baked beans? Cowboys, Irish mammies and even actor Joan Collins are all fans of cooked haricot beans in rich tomato sauce. They are nutritious, satisfying and highly moreish.

As a family favourite, a tin of baked beans is good value too, though the price varies widely. The difference between the cost of a 420g tin of Batchelors baked beans in the local convenience store and a similar one in Lidl recently was €1. Lidl’s Simply Baked Beans cost 28c, while the same size tin of Batchelors Beans cost €1.28. In supermarkets, that Batchelors tin costs closer to €1.10, but that is still quite a gap.

The expectation is that you are getting a better product, but are you?

What can the labels tell you about that?

Let’s take Batchelors first. The brand is owned by multinational group Valeo Foods and the tins of beans are produced in Ireland, as noted on the front. The label declares that the beans sit in “Ireland’s favourite sauce”, though that is a matter of opinion.

More importantly, it says the beans are "low in fat", a "source of protein" and a "source of fibre". This is true of all baked beans regardless of brand, but is worth trumpeting, particularly as about 80 per cent of Irish people tend not to get enough fibre in their diets, according to the National Adult Nutrition Survey from 2011. The European Food Safety Authority recommendation is that we get at least 25g per day. Just one-third of a can yields 5.5g, so it's a good start. Being naturally low in fat and a source of protein ticks a few other nutritional boxes too.

The back of the label notes that the product is gluten-free. This may seem like a nod to food faddists, but it is a relief for coeliacs as many companies used to add wheat or barley, which contain gluten, to foods during processing.

Batchelors does well by giving us a hefty serving of beans at 56 per cent and tomatoes at 34 per cent, which adds up to 90 per cent. Water is the third ingredient listed, so there could be as much as 9 per cent there, but there is no way of knowing precisely from the label. There is salt and seasoning too.

Added sugar

It also includes added sugar, but then so did every tin of baked beans that I found, except for those using artificial sweeteners. Sugar-sweetened drinks may be going out, but sugar-sweetened processed food is increasingly common. Most tins of beans have almost 5 per cent sugar, but how much of that is from the tomatoes and how much from added sugar is impossible to tell from this label alone.

In Batchelors No Sugar Added Beans, the sweet taste is achieved by using saccharin, which is about 300 times sweeter than sugar. These tins promise 65 per cent less sugar, leading to 25 per cent fewer calories, which hardly seems worth it.

Extra flavour is added with yeast extract and “natural tomato flavouring”, because tomatoes alone are not considered enough. The halo over the list of ingredients slips further with “modified cornflour”, a starch that will have been altered by a food ingredients company using physical or chemical means, such as bleach, acid or enzymes. This ingredient pops up repeatedly on the labels of processed food as it is a boon to food manufacturers given that it can be stable at high or low temperatures, is easy to work with and cheap.

It is used in standard tins of all the beans I looked at, with the exception of Heinz’s Organic Baked Beans, which cost about €1.40. Rather than modified starch, it uses cornflour as a thickener. Other ingredients include beans (52 per cent), tomatoes (33 per cent) water, sugar, salt, spirit vinegar, spices and onion powder.

Most baked beans had very similar ingredients, including Heinz’s regular offerings. So there is little difference between the cheapest of beans and the best-known brands.

Baked beans are a great store-cupboard ingredient.

Aside from being nutritious, they last for ages and the use-by marks stamped in ink onto the lids of those I bought recently were for 2019 or 2020.

 Being a successful shopper
2) Bread
3) Milk
4) Cereal
5) Rashers
6) Yoghurt
7) Soup
8) Hummus
9) Pasta sauce
10) Chinese ready meals
 Frozen chips
12) Chilled fish
13) Egg

14) Chicken Kiev
15) Crisps
16) Mayonnaise
17) Baked beans
18) Tomato ketchup
19) Chocolate digestive biscuits

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