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By: Martin L. Price
Published: 1988-12-19


I am devoting three pages to this question because velvet bean is generating so much interest and the pressure to use it for human food is considerable. The multiple uses of velvet bean (Mucuna pruriens) as a green manure plant, for weed and erosion control and for moisture conservation has been discussed in EDN #12 and #20. Its use by World Neighbors and others in Central America is increasing rapidly. It has now become the most frequently requested seed in ECHO's seedbank and others are starting to get excited too. For example, Felix Quero in the Philippines says, "What impresses us most is its aggressiveness. It could even compete with the problem grass Imperata cylindrica and has potential of at the same time controlling this grass and providing food."

Yet its safety as a human food is questionable. The book Food Legumes says the plants are mainly used for grazing although mature seeds are also fed to animals. "They are used mainly for feeding cattle or sheep [i. e. ruminants] and can only be fed to pigs if they constitute less than 25% of the diet. They are considered unsuitable for poultry." [This may not be as bad as it sounds if, as I presume, they are speaking of raw beans. You cannot feed very much raw soybean either and a raw kidney bean diet will kill rats]. "Velvet beans can be used as a human food but require considerable care in their preparation... In many parts of Africa and Asia they are regarded as a famine food. The toxic principle can be removed by boiling and soaking the seeds in several changes of water."

Their safety is a very important question. The vines produce beans abundantly. It would be a terrible waste to not use such a nutritious bean [28-32% protein] for human food unless it is indeed dangerous. For example, when I visited the World Neighbors project in Honduras last December a drought had destroyed the regular bean crop. Yet there was a heavy yield of velvet beans. Because velvet beans were all they had, I understand that the people were eating and enjoying them regularly. They would boil them with corn, remove the seed coats by hand, then grind equal amounts of beans and corn to make tortillas. I also tasted and enjoyed refried velvet beans there.

Roland Bunch reports that velvet bean coffee is becoming popular in their project area, where it is sold as "nutricafe." Daniel Salcedo's organization Pueblo to People wants to market nutricafe in the States to provide income to small farmers in Honduras. He mentions that older people who have had trouble with coffee because it is diuretic (increases urination) love nutricafe, which does not have this effect. But if the toxic material is removed by boiling the beans and discarding the water, might this be a dangerous drink? Or does roasting the beans or the boiling process itself render it harmless?

TOXICITY The instruction to "boil in several changes of water" does not provide perspective. The same warning could mean that velvet beans that are not so prepared could prove fatal with a single meal or that they would cause some slight symptom if consumed regularly for a year -- or any degree in between.

The most likely toxic principle is L-dopa. Velvet beans contain so much L-dopa (6-9% of the dry weight of seeds with seed coats removed) that they are the primary natural source of this compound. It is one of the most effective drugs against Parkinson's disease. Neurophysiologist Dr. Judy Toronchuk tells us that L-dopa causes neurological symptoms. These can include hyperactivity, muscle spasms, cardiac irritability, hypotension and vasoconstriction. But it causes nausea at much lower doses. "So probably if people were to ingest the un-degraded L-dopa they would voluntarily stop eating it, due to nausea, before they had eaten enough to affect the brain."

Judy checked with a pharmacology professor. He felt that the L-dopa would break down sufficiently with cooking, particularly if cooked in water. It breaks down readily in the presence of moisture and forms the harmless pigment melanin. In fact the drug must be stored in dry, brown bottles which must not be allowed to exceed room temperature. (Might beans that have been stored for a year in the hot, humid tropics have less L-dopa than freshly harvested beans?)

There is also an unusual compound (a cyclic amino acid) that presumably is a natural derivative of L-dopa. The articles I reviewed mentioned no biological effect of this compound.

RESEARCH This brings us to an aspect of ECHO's ministry that is not normally visible to our network. Many undergraduate programs require research as part of the science major. ECHO encourages such students and their professors to undertake projects that would benefit small farmers in the Third World. One of the projects we suggested in our "Research Opportunities" write-up was to look into this question of safety of velvet bean. Senior premedical major Sarah Kramer and her advisor Dr. Bob Kistler at Bethel College in Minnesota did just that, and came up with some very interesting information.

First, a computerized literature search turned up two journal article reports of people eating velvet beans. One study mentioned that they found a village in Ghana where some people ate velvet bean daily. Another study found that rural people in southern Nigeria use it as a soup thickener by first boiling to remove the hard seed coat, then grinding it.

Tom Post in Belize forwarded us a report like none other I have encountered from the book Poisonous Plants of the United States and Canada by J. M. Kingsbury. Using the velvet bean grown in Florida years ago "even boiled for an extended time, the beans were unpalatable and produced, an hour or more after ingestion, symptoms of nausea and discomfort. While cooking, the beans gave off a volatile substance which produced a smarting sensation in the eyes and a pronounced headache among those experimenting with them." This is so unlike recent reports where the tropical velvet bean is being used that there must be considerable differences in toxicity between varieties. ECHO distributes two varieties of velvet beans. One is the kind that has no itch-producing fuzz on the pods and produces seed only during short days. We call it our "tropical velvet bean." That is the one we normally send overseas unless specified differently. Seeds may be white, mottled or colored. The other is the less vigorous kind grown in the southeastern U. S. A. which we call the 90-day velvet bean and is possibly the kind mentioned in this report. However, Sarah's experiments with mice described below were with this 90-day type and she found no such problems.

Sarah's computer search turned up a rat feeding trial in Ghana using velvet beans. Results were reported in terms of grams of weight gain per gram of protein eaten (the protein efficiency ratio or PER). Rats fed raw beans lost weight (PER -3.03). The PER for rats fed autoclaved (i. e. pressure cooked) beans was 2.31 and for rats fed only the ideal diet 3.41. The lower value for beans does not necessarily mean there was still some toxicity. The protein of many legumes is not always digestible, or may be lower in one of the essential amino acids than the ideal control diet. The latter appears to be the case here because rats fed autoclaved beans to which the amino acid methionine (which is often in inadequate supply in legume seeds) was added had a PER of 3.59.

A study in the States showed that the likely benefit to the plant of such a high concentration of L-dopa is protection of the seed. "Mature seeds of velvet bean are conspicuously free from attack by small mammals and insects." Small amounts of L-dopa that they added to an insect diet produced toxic effects. Concentrations as high as found in velvet bean seeds inhibited feeding completely.

SARAH'S EXPERIMENT Sarah did a 27 day feeding trial with mice. She used the 90-day variety of velvet bean because we did not have enough of the tropical kind to do a feeding trial. Four mice were assigned to each of 9 experiments. The control mice were fed commercial mouse chow. When an experimental diet was used, every third day 4.0 grams of the control diet (mouse chow) was added to provide nutrients missing in the experimental diet. This amount was chosen because that is the average daily amount eaten by rats fed only the control diet. Mice fed the control diet gained 8 grams. Mice fed the control plus the amino acid methionine gained 7.5 grams, which statistically was not significantly different at the 1% confidence level.

[A note to those not familiar with statistics. In everyday English we use the word "significant" about the same as the word "a lot." "A Mercedes is significantly more expensive than a volkswagon" means it costs a "lot" more. A scientist uses the word differently. If the weight of rats in two experiments is "significantly" different we mean that statistically speaking the probability is small that random chance could have accounted for the results.]

EFFECT OF "NUTRICAFE." One set of mice was fed the control diet except that velvet bean coffee was the only thing available to drink. Beans were roasted at 300 F on a cookie sheet for one hour. To make coffee, 40 g of roasted beans were boiled in 700 ml of water for one hour. Mice gained 10.2 grams, which was not significantly different from the control.

EFFECT OF RAW VELVET BEANS. Mice fed raw beans lost 5.6 grams. With added methionine they lost 6 grams. This could be caused by the L-dopa, but so many harmful things occur in raw bean seeds that some other cause cannot be ruled out. This was significantly different from the control.

EFFECT OF BOILING THE BEANS. Beans that had been soaked with one change of water were boiled 30 minutes (40 g in 700 ml water) then another 30 minutes in fresh water. They gained 4.8 grams. Mice fed boiled beans with added methionine gained 3.8 grams. These were not significantly different from the control.

EFFECT OF ROASTING THE BEANS. Mice fed beans roasted at 300 F on a cookie sheet for one hour gained 1.5 grams. Those fed roasted beans plus methionine gained 3.0 grams. Both were significantly less than the control but not than the cooked beans.

WHAT PERSPECTIVE CAN I GIVE? There is not enough evidence to say with certainty that there are no problems from eating cooked velvet beans. We very much need more research, but human need does not wait for science. What should you recommend in the meantime? Considering everything that has been said above, if velvet beans were available and I was hungry or my diet was low in protein, I would definitely eat them after thorough cooking. I probably would not change the water unless velvet beans became a regular food, then I might consider it. If I were neither hungry nor malnourished, but was living at a subsistence level, I would occasionally eat velvet beans. (I am none of the above and do not eat velvet beans except as a curiosity if they are offered). I would definitely eat modest servings at first, and consider changing my cooking methods if nausea occurred. If at all possible I would "learn a lesson from the deer" (see note on peach pits as food in this issue of EDN).

If buying coffee was hard on my budget I would drink velvet bean coffee in moderation. If neither I nor anyone in my community had problems, I might drink it freely after a time. I base this on the fact that people in several places are drinking it without problems, Sarah's mouse trial showed no problems, and the two "treatments" of first roasting then boiling are substantial. The "nutri" part of the name is probably misleading. Daniel Salcedo told me he had brewed nutricafe tested for protein and found little.

I would feel a little safer eating beans that had been stored for several months in the tropics than freshly harvested beans, but do not really know if this matters. I would warn families of possible symptoms and ask them to report any problems to me.

I would not eat the wild velvet beans unless forced to do so and would be doubly cautious. The same would go for any new variety that I might obtain unless I knew that it was eaten elsewhere.

I would feed them freely to pigs and chickens only if I had the firewood to cook them first.

You can be a great help to the entire ECHO network if you will QUICKLY report any problems or lack of problems from people or animals eating velvet beans in your community. Have any of you found them to become a weed problem? We would also be interested in recipes and public acceptance.

[Ed. Note: New evidence has required us to modify our recommendations. Currently (7/93), we offer the following guidelines. Has there been a failure of the bean crop in your area, but velvet beans are abundant? If so, it is almost certainly better to make use of velvet bean than to suffer hunger or protein malnutrition. Is the food situation a bit less desperate than that, but people still do not have enough to eat? If so, consider using velvet beans in moderation and not every day. Are there plenty of alternative sources of protein? If so, don't eat the velvet beans. Velvet bean coffee has a lot of L-dopa in it. It should not be consumed regularly. EDN #37 for more details.]