By Susan Raatz PhD, MPH, RD
Nuts are a healthy addition to any diet and may impart important health benefits, important nutrients and a good balance of fat for reduction of cardiovascular disease risk. Each variety of nut is high in plant based protein and fiber but has its own combination of vitamins and minerals. Nuts are a good source of plant sterols and heart-healthy monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. In fact, they are so healthy that the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved a qualified health claim for them. The claim states: "Eating 1.5 ounces per day of most nuts as part of a diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol may reduce the risk of heart disease".
Almonds are a source of vitamin E, folic acid, calcium, and magnesium. They are a very versatile ingredient that can be used whole, sliced or slivered, as paste, flour, or almond butter. In addition to being eaten as a snack, almonds are good in both sweet and savory dishes.
Brazil Nuts are from wild trees in the Amazon rainforest. Most contain large amounts of selenium, an important antioxidant nutrient, at levels greater than the daily requirement in a 1 ounce portion. The creamy texture of Brazil nuts is due to their high fat content and makes them great for snacking and use in confectionary products.
Cashews are native to South America. They are an excellent source of copper and magnesium. The cashew nut is a popular snack, and its rich flavor means that it is often eaten roasted, on its own, lightly salted or sugared, or covered in chocolate. Cashew nut butter is a tasty substitution for peanut butter.
Hazelnuts are also known as filberts due to the major flavor compound in them called filbertone. These nuts are rich in monounsaturated fat and an excellent source of vitamin E, copper and magnesium. Hazelnuts are used in confectionery products like candies and cookies (especially in Europe), and in some hazelnut paste products (such as Nutella).
Macadamia Nuts are native to the subtropical region of Australia but we think of them as Hawaiian because they are now grown there. They contain high levels of monounsaturated fat and are an excellent source of magnesium. These nuts have a unique flavor that makes them good alone as a snack or when baked into cookies.
Peanuts are classified as a nut by the FDA although they are actually legumes. Peanuts are rich in niacin, fiber and magnesium, and they contain more protein than any other FDA-classified nut. They are eaten boiled or roasted and are commonly consumed as peanut butter. Many people have peanut allergies and need to avoid them.
Pecans are native to North America and the US produces 80-95% of the world supply. They are rich in monounsaturated fat, vitamin E and minerals. Pecans have a sweet, mellow flavor and a meaty texture that lends well to use in a variety of dishes. They are well known for their use in pralines and pies but also make a great addition to salads and pasta dishes.
Pine Nuts are the edible seeds of pine. They are well known for their use in Italian cuisine, particularly in the basil and olive oil sauce called pesto. These nuts are a good source of vitamin E and phosphorus. They have a light and delicate flavor and go well in salads, breads and other baked goods. A variety of Asian pine nuts, recently available in the US, are associated with a mild allergic reaction causing a strongly bitter and metallic taste on the tongue after eating them that lasts for several days.
Pistachios are native to the Middle East but are currently grown in the US, particularly in California. In addition to their fat and protein content, pistachios contain the antioxidants lutein and zeazanthine which give them their green color. They are known for use in popular Middle Eastern pastries, such as baklava but are a snack item as well.
Walnuts are rich in the Vitamin E, an antioxidant, and unlike other nuts, contain predominantly polyunsaturated fat. They are an excellent source of alpha-linolenic acid (ALA); the plant based omega-3 fatty acid. Research on the heart health benefits of walnuts has led the European Union to allow a specific health claim: "Walnuts contribute to the improvement of the elasticity of the blood vessels." Walnuts have a crisp light texture and they blend well with other flavors. They are excellent when used in baked goods, candies, salads and in pasta dishes.
Each nut variety has its own unique taste and texture, allowing for a whole range of culinary uses. Because of the high fat content they may become rancid if stored too long at room temperature. Solutions to this are to either buy small quantities to use quickly or store them in the freezer for long term use.
To get all of the health benefits without going overboard on calorie intake, mind your portion size. A serving of nuts is one ounce or about a small handful. Although the calorie content depends on the variety, on average this provides 150-200 calories per serving which is similar to that provided by a portion of less nutritious snack chips.
The addition of nuts to your diet is a good way to improve your nutrient intake and possible confer health benefits. The nutrients found in nuts, such as Vitamin E, and the alpha-linolenic acid of walnuts, are widely under consumed in the American diet. It is a simple switch to use nuts to replace other high calorie, nutrient poor foods such as chips. A change such as this will provide more balanced nutrition and is a tasty way to add variety to your diet. Go nuts!