Whether you want to lose weight, prevent cardiovascular disease or just lead a healthy lifestyle, you will always be advised by health care specialists or nutritionists to introduce nuts to your diet. Nuts have many health benefits – packed with omega-3 fatty acids, protein, vitamins and minerals. Discover how almonds, hazelnuts and cashews can benefit your health.
Nuts – a very special fruit
There are two definitions of nuts: the botanical and the common one. Strictly botanically speaking nuts are fruits with a seed and a hard shell, that doesn’t open at maturity to release the seed. This definition is very restrictive and excludes many of the nuts we commonly use in our diet. According to the botanical definition nuts are hazelnuts, chestnuts, acorns, beech and not many others.
There are however almonds, walnuts, pecans, peanuts, cashews, Brazil nuts, pistachios, coconuts, pine nuts, macadamia and many others that are not nuts in the botanical sense of the word, but are commonly known as nuts.
Nuts – a staple food of our ancestors
Archaeologists found evidence that early humans used nuts in their diet some 780,000 years ago. Wild almond, prickly water lily, water chestnut, and two varieties of both acorns and pistachios were smashed with “nutting stones” by our early relatives. Shelled nuts were eaten raw, used for making flour or nut butter. Nuts were also cooked and when the broth cooled down, fat that congealed on the top of it was collected to be used later. Even the broken shells were not thrown away, they were used to fuel fire. With so many different uses nuts can be considered a staple food of our ancestors.
There are so many types and varieties of nuts, that it is very hard to write about all of them in one article. This is the start of a series of articles about nuts that will cover the characteristics and health benefits of the varieties that are regularly used in our diet.
Healthy nuts in your diet
Almond (Prunus dulcis) is a tree that originates from the Middle East and South Asia, and is a stone fruit (drupe). This nut (technically a seed) has been around for millenniums. Current archeological findings suggest that humans domesticated it in the Early Bronze Age, or possibly even a little earlier.
Wild almonds are toxic, containing glycoside amygdalin which is transformed into hydrogen cyanide if crushed, chewed, etc., hence domestication.
The biggest producer of almonds are the United States, accounting for more than 80% of the entire world production, followed by Spain and Iran.
Almonds are sold shelled, or unshelled, raw, roasted, salted, or blanched.
There are several almond products that can also be used as food, most notably almond milk, oil, butter and flour. These are used in cooking throughout the world mostly for making desserts, but for salty dishes as well.
Health benefits of almonds
When it comes to healthy nutrition, almonds are considered the most valuable of nuts and one of the healthiest foods all together. They are rich in vitamin E, calcium, magnesium and potassium. Almonds are also a good source of fiber, naturally low in sugar, full of healthy unsaturated fats and low on saturated fats at the same time. Here are some of the health benefits of almonds:
- Heart health. Their magnesium content makes them good for heart health, because magnesium is critical in preventing heart attacks and hypertension.
- Reducing cholesterol. Several studies have shown that almonds are effective in reducing bad cholesterol.
- Colon Cancer. Certain studies suggest that regular consumption of almonds may reduce the risk of colon cancer.
- Bone and teeth health. Phosphorus and calcium in almonds help the bone and teeth health, and can even prevent the onset of osteoporosis.
- Inflammation and arthritis. Content of linoleic and linolenic acids in almonds help in reducing inflammation, thus helping in prevention and regulation of arthritis.
- Constipation. Rich in fiber, almonds help in maintaining a healthy digestive system, and are especially good in the prevention of constipation
There are certain risks when introducing almonds to your diet. As all tree nuts, almonds too, may induce allergies in some people. Because of this it is not safe to feed almonds to children under one year old, or any other nut for that matter. Almonds are also susceptible to mold that can produce aflatoxin: a carcinogenic chemical.
The healthiest way to consume almonds is roasted with their skin on. Tweet this
How to eat them?
To get most out of them eat almonds raw and unsalted. That way they contain the highest dose of minerals and nutrients. However raw almonds also contain phytate, which makes them difficult to digest and may cause stress to your pancreas. To neutralize phytate you can soak or roast them.
Roasted almonds have less unsaturated fats, because some amount is lost in the roasting process, but the amount left is still considered beneficial. Dry roasted almonds are a better choice than those roasted in oil. Try to roast them yourself, without adding salt, sugar or anything else. Gentle roasting in the oven at 160 to 170°F (70 to 78°C) for 15 to 20 minutes will preserve most of the healthy oils. It is better to consume almonds with their skin because it contains lots of antioxidants.
Keep almonds in an airtight container in a dark, cool place like the refrigerator. This way almonds can remain fresh for up to two years.
Hazelnuts are nuts of the hazel tree (Corylus avellana). Also known as filbert nut or cobnut, this is the only true nut (according to the botanical definition) that I am going to write about in this article. Archeological evidence shows that there existed large-scale nut processing in Mesolithic Scotland, some 9000 years ago. Today, major hazelnut producing countries are Turkey (accounts for approximately 75% of the entire worldwide production), Italy and the United States (mostly in Oregon and Washington). An interesting fact is that a quarter of the world’s hazelnut production is used for making Nutella.
Hazelnut oil, flour and butter are used in many cuisines, mostly for desserts. Hazelnuts may be eaten raw, or roasted.
Health benefits of hazelnuts
As most of the nuts, hazelnuts are full of healthy components: fats (like oleic acid), proteins, carbohydrates, Vitamin E, minerals, fibers and antioxidants.
- Fetal development. Apart from peanuts, hazelnuts have the largest concentration of folate, necessary for the proper development of human fetuses and as such they are good for pregnant women.
- Constipation. Hazelnuts have the amount of dietary fibers, which can help in keeping the gastrointestinal tract healthy and constipation free. Only almonds have more fiber than hazelnuts.
- Anemia prevention. One servings of hazelnuts will supply 65% of the Daily Recommended Intake (DRI) for copper, which helps in iron absorption thus preventing anemia.
- Healthy bones. Post-menopausal women often lack manganese, and this deficiency can lead to osteoporosis. One serving of hazelnuts make up to 90% of the DRI for manganese, which is necessary for bone formation.
- Cancer prevention. Vitamin E is a powerful antioxidant protecting the body from free radicals and helping in prevention of bladder cancer. Hazelnuts are among the nuts with the highest level of this vitamin.
- Cholesterol. The biggest part of hazelnuts fat content comes from oleic acid. Studies show that it plays an important role in lowering the level of LDL (“bad”) cholesterol, and raising the level of HDL (“good”) cholesterol.
- Neurological benefits. Vitamin B complex, necessary for the production of neurotransmitters like serotonin, is found in abundance in hazelnuts. Also vitamin B is well known as the vitamin that may ease stress, depression, anxiety, improve memory and overall health of the nervous system.
Roasted hazelnuts have slightly higher levels of thiamine and potassium, while raw hazelnuts are slightly richer in folate and vitamin C.
Similar to other nuts, hazelnuts, too, may cause allergic reactions, with symptoms ranging from mild to severe, life threatening even. If you are allergic to any other nuts, hazelnuts and products containing them are best avoided. Children under one year old should not eat hazelnuts.
How to store and eat hazelnuts
Hazelnuts without shells can be stored in a dry, cool place for years. Shelled nuts should be stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator.
When it comes to consumption, it is best to eat hazelnuts either raw or roasted. Roasted hazelnuts have slightly higher levels of thiamine and potassium, while raw hazelnuts are slightly richer in folate and vitamin C. If you want to remove the skin, roast them on a medium heat for 10 to 12 minutes until the skin begins to split and the hazelnuts become golden.
The botanical name of this plant is Anacardium occidentale. It is native to Brazil, from where it was taken to Goa in India by the Portuguese in the sixteenth century. It was then spread throughout Southeast Asia and Africa. It needs a hot and humid climate to grow, that’s why cashew trees can be found in India, Nigeria, Tanzania, Vietnam, Indonesia, etc. Vietnam is the largest producer of cashews, accounting for nearly 30% of the worldwide production. It is followed closely by Nigeria and India.
Apart from the nut, cashew oil made by cold pressing the nuts, and cashew shell oil are also commonly used. Cashew oil is used for cooking and salad dressings. Cashew shell oil is a natural secretion found in cashew nutshells and is used by the chemical industry for developing drugs, antioxidants, etc.
Health benefits of cashews
When it comes to health benefits, cashews are similar to the rest of the nut family . They are rich in fibres, minerals, Vitamin E, antioxidants, proteins and unsaturated fat.
- Cholesterol. They are good for your hearth, and can lower LDL cholesterol.
- Cancer prevention. They are also rich in antioxidants, which is a major asset in heart disease and cancer prevention.
- Bone health. Copper found in cashews is excellent for iron absorption and development of bone and connective tissue.
- Gallstones. Regular consumption of cashews lowers the risk of developing gallstones by 25%.
- Weight maintenance. Many people avoid cashews (and other nuts) because they fear they will gain weight. Granted, they do have a lot of calories per ounce and are full of fatty acids, but a handful of nuts everyday will not add too much calories to your daily diet. Those fats are mostly unsaturated, i.e. good for your health. Studies even show that if consumed regularly (and moderately) nuts can lower the risk of gaining excessive weight and even help weight loss. To avoid weight gain, you should have about one portion of nuts per day. Check out what a portion of nuts should look like.
- Constipation. Cashews are also rich in fiber, which makes them an excellent choice for regulation of gastrointestinal tract functions.
Cashews are better consumed roasted than raw, because roasting increases antioxidant activity in them.
Cashew health concerns include allergies, so avoid them if you are allergic to them or any other nuts. Children under one year old should not be fed cashews. There is also an oxalate concern.
Oxalates in cashews can become concentrated in bodily fluids, crystallizing and causing problems in people with preexisting kidney or gallbladder conditions. However, these conditions are rare.
How to store cashews
When it comes to storing cashews, an airtight container in the refrigerator is the best way to go. That way they can remain fresh for six months. If you use cashew butter, refrigerate it after it has been opened.
Raw vs. heat treated cashew debate
Cashews are better roasted, because roasting increases antioxidant activity in them. Be gentle when you roast them in order to preserve healthy oils. Preheat the oven to 160 to 170°F (70 to 78°C) and roast them for 15 to 20 minutes. You can even go for slightly higher temperatures, if you want to shorten the roasting time, but not too much. If you want to buy them in the store make sure to read the label. They are usually covered in either salt, honey, sugar or corn syrup so it is better to buy them raw and roast them yourself.
This is just the first part of the series, more information on nuts will follow. Until then let us know which one of these three do you prefer? Leave a comment.
Photo credit: Cashew apples by Abhishek Jacob