Nutritional Value Of The Nut

Nuts are probably the oldest food known to mankind. Learn more about a variety of nuts, how good they are for you, and how to use them in your diet.

Nuts have been around for a long time. It is thought that even prehistoric man and woman foraged the forests of the Ice Age world for simple foods such as berries and nuts, as well as beasts of surf and turf. Whatever nuts our ancestors ate, however, there's a good chance they were not even nuts. What exactly are nuts, are they good for you, and if so, what are some new ways to enjoy them?

First of all, to clear up some misconceptions, some foods we generally call nuts, such as walnuts, almonds, pecans, peanuts and Brazil nuts, are not actually nuts at all. A true nut is a one-seeded fruit that has developed from a compound ovary, has a hardened external wall with a woody consistency, and is indehiscent, meaning it does not split open to release its seed. Some true nuts are hazelnuts, acorns, chestnuts and beechnuts. Some true nuts are edible, and others are not.

What we refer to as nuts in this article, however, will be the fruit more commonly called "nut," usually the fruit of a tree, the seed of a pod, or in the case of peanuts, the fruit of an underground legume-type plant which yields a one or two-seeded food substance in a thin, fibrous shell, or pod. Most nuts are an excellent source of protein, and for many vegetarians, particularly vegans, are often a primary protein source. Generally speaking, nuts are high in both protein and fat, dietary fiber, and sometimes Vitamins A, B and C, as well as calcium and iron. Although anyone using a diet rich in nuts should be wary of total fat content, nuts are virtually cholesterol free.

Nuts work well to keep hunger at bay, partly because of their high protein and fat content, which is why airlines persist in providing bags of peanuts as snack food when they want to hold passengers over without providing a meal. Of course, they err in providing highly salted nuts, a real problem on an airplane, whose dry air tends to already dehydrate most passengers, and salt just finishes the job.

Speaking of peanuts, these legumes are grown in China, India and the United States, and they are grown primarily for the oil, which is used in food preparation mainly in the Orient. About half the peanuts grown in the United States are used for peanut butter, and the state of Georgia provides around half the country's crop. Interestingly, peanuts are a valuable source of B vitamins, and provide 20-30% of their food value as protein. Many people are allergic to peanuts, however, and food products containing even a trace of peanuts or peanut oil must now detail the fact on their labels. For those who can and do enjoy peanuts, they make a delightful addition to stir fries, Oriental noodle dishes, and salads, as well as baked into enjoyable cookies, cakes, candies and other confections.

The traditional nuts used for baking in this country, however, are walnuts, pecans and almonds. Pecan is the name of a hickory of the walnut species, favored in its papershell variety, and grown primarily in the southeastern part of the United States. It is indigenous to North America, and while it grows in many localities, it requires a particularly sandy, loamy soil with a clay subsoil to produce a fine nut crop. Pecans are favored for pies, praline candies and cookies, and are delicious toasted for snack foods, or crumbled on top of buttered vegetables such as cauliflower or asparagus.

Walnuts themselves come in more than one variety. The Eastern Black Walnut has a particularly piquant taste which does not appeal to some people, although it is used in cakes and pastries and indispensable to some recipes. The more favored walnut for most people is the western walnut.

Extremely popular eaten out of hand or chopped into cakes, cookies, brownies and candy. While generally considered a healthy whole food, walnuts are among the nuts featuring a high fat content, higher than cashews, macadamias, and pine nuts.

Pine nuts, the kernel found at the interstices of certain pine cones, and grown in this country mainly in northern California, are a popular addition to foods of Mediterranean nature. They have only one gram of carbohydrate and 13 grams of fat in a one-ounce serving, which will break the bank, since they are an extremely costly nut. We chop them into our pesto sauce, and find them delightful toasted and sprinkled on antipasto platters or in caponata relishes. They are used as the piece de resistance on Italian cookies, and pine nut macaroons will always be the first cookie to disappear from an Italian holiday tray.

Almonds are an extremely serviceable nut offering similar nutritional value and a bit more fiber than pine nuts or walnuts. They are used in either the blanched or unblanched condition, for a quite different effect. Blanched and slivered, toasted in butter or oil, they make a wonderful dressing for green beans, spinach or asparagus. Unblanched and toasted they add extra zest and crunch to cakes and other baked goods, and slivered and added at the last minute to stir fry dishes, particularly with brown or wild rice, they are a perfect high protein accompaniment.

Hazelnuts, one of the true nuts, are a bit richer in fat than those already discussed, but do have a more distinctive and pleasing flavor. Many coffee-drinkers prefer a hazelnut-flavored blend, and hazelnuts liqueurs and syrups are popular for this and other purposes. At our house we enjoy them instead of almonds roasted and slivered over vegetables such as green beans. Hazelnut cakes and cookies are always attractive, especially when they are of the Italian type such as biscotti. Since hazelnuts are a true nut and not easily separated from their shells, the popularity has grown in recent years when they have become available in the shelled condition.

Pistachios are a healthy nut, provided you can keep people from dying them a hideous red! They are probably the lowest in calorie of all nuts, although they do not provide much dietary fiber, either. Pistachio ice cream has always been a favorite, and many cooks are leaning toward desserts such as flans, tortes and other items made primarily with pistachios. On the savory side of the table, pistachios are a great complement to a Bibb lettuce and arugula salad dressed with a balsamic vinegar dressing. As a snack, lightly salted pistachios provide a healthy alternative to chips and greasy cheese snacks.

The king of the edible nut in my opinion is the macadamia nut, although heart patients have been duly warned that it is high in fat content and calories, not as low as other nuts in carbohydrates, but wonderful adaptable to many treatments. Hawaii is the chief grower of macadamia nuts, which are a sweet nut meat with a center not as hard and crisp as an almond. Because it is difficult to just eat a few, they are so good, they are considered the downfall of the less than serious dieter. Covered in chocolate, slathered with a crisp caramel coating, or roasted and salted, they must be tried to be believed.

It's hard to understand that something that tastes so good and adds such a pleasing texture to our food can also be good for you, but even macadamias, and their South American cousins, Brazil nuts with their high fat content and sweet taste, have a place in a diet that requires more protein from non-flesh sources.

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