There Are Good Reasons to Go Nutty for Nuts
Last month, when the Iran nuclear deal was implemented, everyone wondered about oil, shipping, and banking. Me? I could practically taste the pistachios. Those from Iran are beyond intense—I’m talking undiluted ur-pistachio flavor here, from a land where the small chlorophyll-tinged nuts have been renowned for about 7,000 years. As of Feb. 20, the Iranian pistachios export ban was lifted.
This was not for the first time. The United States has banned Iranian pistachios off and on since 1979, following the takeover of the U.S. embassy in Tehran, but it’s been about five years since I depleted my Iranian pistachio cache, and I can’t wait to get my hands on some soon.
In general, nuts are full of protein, dietary fiber, and heart-healthy fats. They’re one of nature’s most convenient and portable powerhouses of nutrition. For the purposes of discussion, let’s include peanuts in the mix. Although properly classified as legumes, their nutrient content is similar to tree nuts', and they’re treated as nuts in many epidemiological studies.
A number of those analyses have found links between nuts and improved health. Among the most recent was a major study published in the spring of 2015 in JAMA Internal Medicine by a team of researchers at Vanderbilt University who examined the association between nut/peanut consumption and mortality. It involved almost 72,000 people (black and white, male and female) living in the American South with mostly low incomes and more than 134,000 Chinese men and women living in Shanghai.
The researchers’ conclusion was that “consumption of nuts, particularly peanuts given their general affordability [italics mine], may be considered a cost-effective measure to improve cardiovascular health.” It’s not a determination of a cause-and-effect relationship between eating nuts and a lower death risk but still—nice news for anyone on a tight budget.
When it comes to nut allergies, two interesting studies have clued us in to ways that may help us prevent kids from developing them. One study, published in 2014 in JAMA Pediatrics, found that the more peanuts/tree nuts the mother consumed, “the lower the risk was of her child developing physician-diagnosed P/TN allergy,” supporting the hypothesis that early allergen exposure increases the likelihood of tolerance, thus lowering the risk of childhood food allergy.
The second study, published a year ago in The New England Journal of Medicine, found that the early introduction of peanuts to the diet may offer protection from the development of peanut allergy.
So, time to get cracking. Below find a glossary of six favorite nuts, as well as a few suggestions on how to work them into your culinary routine.
In a nutshell: Almonds are a great source of dietary fiber; the antioxidant vitamin E (at 25 grams per 100 grams, they yield about 170 percent of the recommended dietary allowance); important B-complex vitamins (riboflavin, niacin, thiamin, pantothenic acid, vitamin B-6, and folate); and minerals, such as manganese, potassium, calcium (more than any other nut), iron, magnesium, zinc, and selenium.
How to use:
• Almonds are related to peaches and apricots, so chopped or slivered, they make a great addition to a fruit crisp or crumble topping.
• Whiz up whole almonds in a blender, lightly toast them in butter, then toss them with cooked green beans or brussels sprouts.
Whether to use: Almonds, California’s principal nut crop, are frequently trotted out as an example of a water-hogging crop. It’s true that the huge expansion of almond orchards in California has a detrimental impact on community water supplies, but it’s not as simple as that, as Peter Gleick explained on Science Blogs in May 2015. Also, according to The Washington Post, we should probably be more concerned with how much water California’s pot growers use.
In a nutshell: In the U.S., hazelnut production is concentrated in the Willamette Valley, in Oregon. Like other nuts, they’re rich in dietary fiber, minerals, and vitamins—in particular, vitamin E (100 grams yield 100 percent of RDA); folate, a B vitamin that helps prevent megaloblastic anemia; and most critically, neural tube defects in newborns (100 grams yield about 28 percent of RDA).
How to use:
• Hazelnuts are delicious simply roasted, lightly salted, and eaten out of hand.
• They’re also wonderful in a warm vinaigrette for dandelion greens.
• Most famously, they’re paired with chocolate in the spread called gianduja. One common brand is Nutella, and guess what? It’s incredibly easy to make your own.
In a nutshell: As I mentioned above, peanuts are botanically a legume. They’re a good source of protein, manganese, vitamin E, the B vitamins niacin and folate, and resveratrol, the phenolic antioxidant that’s also found in red wine and dark chocolate and thought to be a factor in the so-called French paradox—the observation that in France, people consume a diet that is not low in fat, yet they have a lower risk of cardiovascular disease compared with the U.S.
How to use:
• Shelled peanuts are especially nice with Southeast Asian flavors. Try tossing a handful of chopped, salted (or not), dry-roasted peanuts with cooked jasmine rice, chopped cilantro and scallions, and with a little seasoned rice vinegar and fresh lime juice.
• It’s worth noting that, cup for cup, boiled peanuts in the shell (a great seasonal Southern roadside specialty that, yep, you can make at home) contain more resveratrol than raw peanuts or peanut butter.
• For all you Cactus or Grapefruit League baseball fans, spring training is here! Treat yourself to a bag of roasted in-shell peanuts.
In a nutshell: Pecans are rich in fiber, thiamin, and zinc, and they provide an abundance of monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. Marketed in China as a “long life” nut, they boast an ORAC value (a measure of antioxidant capacity) higher than that of wild blueberries—although for several reasons, the USDA ORAC Database for Selected Foods has been withdrawn from the USDA Nutrient Data Laboratory. Pecans are also a good source of beta-sitosterol, a plant steroid that may help relieve symptoms of benign prostatic hyperplasia, or enlarged prostate in men.
How to use:
• Pecans are buttery and suave in flavor. They are as good eaten with honey and yogurt as they are given a smoky-spicy kick before toasting.
• Substitute them for almonds in a crisp or crumble topping for cooked fruit.
• Swap them for hazelnuts in a warm vinaigrette for dandelions (see above link).
• If you need a pecan pie recipe, look no further—I’ve got you covered.
In a nutshell: Pistachios are high in potassium, which is good for lowering blood pressure—salt counteracts the effect of potassium—and they’re the most fun nut to eat. Do as they do in the Middle East, and use one half of a nut shell as a lever to pry open any stubborn shells. Iranian pistachios are more rounded in flavor and a bit sweeter than the Turkish variety. Both Iranian and Turkish pistachios are dry and crisp. In comparison, pistachios from California are sweeter, softer, and lack the same depth of flavor. My source for Iranian (aka Persian) and Turkish pistachios is Kalustyan’s (they ship too).
How to use:
• Persian rice with pistachios and dill is a great example of a side dish that always steals the show. The addictively crunchy, rich, golden crust of rice that forms on the bottom of the pot is served on a separate plate or broken into shards and placed on top of or around the rice—that is, if it makes it out of the kitchen.
In a nutshell: Walnuts are a great plant-based source of omega-3 fatty acids. Just one-quarter cup of walnuts provides 2.5 grams of omega-3s, including a significant amount of alpha-linolenic acid, an omega-3 that’s linked to cognitive function. Walnuts are also full of antioxidants (including ellagic acid), protein, fiber, magnesium, and phosphorous.
How to use:
• As I mentioned in a 2013 column on omega-3s, try using walnuts and arugula in a pesto.
• Instead of ending a dinner party with dessert, open another bottle of red and set out a cutting board with walnuts, oranges, and a bar of good chocolate broken into pieces.
• Sauté greens in a little walnut oil (brief cooking won’t damage the ALAs).
• Use walnut oil in a vinaigrette, or drizzle it over raw or cooked vegetables.