Health in a Hard Shell:
Whether you want an on-the-go snack or a creative kitchen
ingredient, turn to a variety of nuts for flavor, nutrition and crunch.
By Yael Grauer
Almonds are a quick, easy and tasty snack, and a great source of vitamin E to boot. “They provide about 35% of your daily value for vitamin E in just a one-ounce serving,” says Joy Dubost, RD, CSSD, spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (eatright.org). Vitamin E is a fat-soluble antioxidant, working to prevent free radical damage (which may contribute to cardiovascular disease and cancer). Almonds are high in fiber and magnesium, as well as calcium, which strengthens bones and teeth, and potassium, which is necessary for normal function of the kidneys, heart and other organs. American diets are typically low in both potassium and calcium.
Although they’re delicious on their own, almonds can be sprinkled on breakfast oatmeal or mixed with granola. Almond slices or slivers are often used in salad to provide crunch and flavor. They can also be used to top salmon, chicken or other meats. Almond butter can be eaten with carrot sticks or as a spread instead of peanut butter. Some people use almond meal to bake with, which is a particularly popular choice for those on low-carb or gluten-free diets.
Botanically related to blueberries, cranberries and even tea, the Brazil nut tree grows in the Amazon basin and other large forests. It is native to Venezuela, Brazil, the Guianas and the eastern parts of Colombia, Peru and Bolivia. These nuts are very high in fat as well as magnesium. “Magnesium is an essential nutrient which plays a role in moderating and regulating blood pressure,” Dubost explains. The nuts also provide the antioxidant mineral selenium. It’s not entirely clear why, but those with certain health conditions such as HIV infection and Crohn’s disease, a form of intestinal inflammation, often have low levels of selenium.
Brazil nuts are usually served alone or as part of a bowl of mixed nuts instead of being used in cookery, although they are sometimes used as a substitute for macadamia nuts in recipes. They go well with chocolate, and the oil may be used in salad dressing. One downside: The rich nuts are difficult to crack.
Cashews are indigenous to Brazil, but are widely grown in tropical climates. “They have a higher carbohydrate mix than most nuts, but what’s notable about them is that they’re higher in iron than any other nut,” says Dubost. Iron helps the body make hemoglobin, which helps red blood cells carry oxygen, and myoglobin, which does the same thing in muscle cells. That makes cashews a great dietary option for women, who lose iron through menstruation and need extra amounts if pregnant or lactating, and vegetarians looking for non-animal sources of iron. Cashews contain other vital nutrients as well, including zinc, which helps balance blood sugar and improve the immune system; antioxidants, especially alkyl phenols; and the trace mineral copper.
Cashews are a valuable pantry resource. They are often added to stir fries and casseroles, or cooked directly with brown rice for a little crunch and flavor. Many Asian cuisines include cashews in soups and desserts. These soft, tender nuts are also often found in Indian curries.
Technically a member of the legume (bean and pea) family, peanuts are incredibly nutrient-dense. They’re high in folate, a B vitamin crucial for women of childbearing age. They have a vast array of amino acids, including arginine, which helps dilate blood vessels and therefore improves blood flow.
Peanuts supply fiber, magnesium, potassium and vitamin E. In addition, “they provide many of the essential nutrients we need in our diet: calcium, iron, copper, selenium and riboflavin,” Dubost says. Peanuts also contain resveratrol, an antioxidant best known as a key component in red wine.
Peanuts are often eaten roasted and salted, in peanut soup and in the peanut butter and jelly sandwiches we all grew up with. Various world cuisines use peanut sauce as an ingredient. Because peanuts are inexpensive compared with other nuts, they are often featured prominently in trail mixes and mixed nuts. The nut is also found in many candy bars and sweets such as peanut brittle as well. Unfortunately, allergies to peanuts are one of the most common food allergies, and even trace amounts can cause an allergic reaction.
Before Europeans settled North America, pecans were eaten by native tribes due to their caloric density. “Pecans are high in fiber and protein and have more than 19 vitamins and minerals, including antioxidants. They have a really high antioxidant capacity, containing an array of antioxidants beyond those 19 vitamins and minerals,” says Dubost. Eating pecans may lower the risk of gallstones and reduce “bad” cholesterol, due to the presence of plant sterols. Compounds found in pecans may also play a role in neurological health.
Pecans are often used in spinach salads to add flavor and texture, and are sprinkled on top of potato soup and split pea soup. You can also use pecans as a crust instead of breadcrumbs when cooking chicken in the oven. Of course, pecans are often used in baking pies, cobblers and other desserts. Because pecans have a high oil content, it is best to buy them in the shell; otherwise they turn rancid quickly. Care must be taken when storing pecans as well, as they absorb odors and flavors. Keep them in closed containers.
Pistachios are harvested primarily from Iran, the US and Turkey. These tasty nuts are rich in antioxidants and in phytosterols, which are similar to the cholesterol found in animals. In fact, phytosterols “help you absorb less cholesterol, which can potentially decrease your total cholesterol,” Dubost explains. Pistachios are also the only nuts containing significant amounts of lutein and zeaxanthin; these antioxidants are associated with a reduced risk of age-related macular degeneration, an irreversible form of blindness that is a major health concern for people over 65. In addition, pistachios are high in copper, manganese, phosphorus and vitamin B6.
Pistachios are a healthy alternative to sugary or salty snacks, as their fiber and protein help you feel fuller sooner. Pistachios are used in ice cream, baklava, biscotti and other pastries. You can also make pistachio salad, in which fresh pistachios served along with whipped cream and canned fruit.
Walnuts are the only nut containing alpha linolenic acid (ALA), a plant-based omega-3 fatty acid (as opposed to EPA and DHA, which are derived primarily from fish and other marine life). One ounce of walnuts has 2.5 grams of ALA, “greater than 100% of the recommended intake, and we all know we need omega-3s in our diet,” says Dubost. ALA is believed to aid in the prevention of cardiovascular disease. Omega-3s may reduce inflammation and even lower the risk of rheumatoid arthritis, depression and Alzheimer’s. Walnuts are also rich in antioxidants, protein, fiber, phosphorus and magnesium.
In the kitchen, walnuts are often added to desserts and baked into breads and muffins. A handful of crushed walnuts can be sprinkled on oatmeal in the morning. Sometimes they are added to meatloaf, or used on the outside of fried chicken as a bread- (and gluten-) free crust. Whether raw or roasted, walnuts add crunch and texture to sweet or salty food.