Are nuts a healthy snack? There are many types of nuts…but what are the healthiest nuts to eat? How do you store them? Learn the facts about healthy nut snacks.
On December 22, 1944, during the Battle of the Bulge, the U.S. Army’s 101st Airborne Division was under siege in the Belgian town of Bastogne by multiple German armored units. The German commander issued an ultimatum to the Americans: surrender or be annihilated. Army General Anthony McAuliffe dispatched a one-word response: “NUTS!”
That little word carried a lot of impact—the Americans went on to win the battle—just as nuts themselves deliver a lot of energy in a small package. Nuts are nutritional powerhouses, can be incorporated in a wide variety of foods, and are amazingly delicious. But what are they? Are nuts fruits? What are the healthiest nuts to eat? What are the most popular nuts? Are pistachios tree nuts? We’ve got these answers and more…
Types of Nuts
First off, yes: nuts are fruits. Unlike most fruits, in which the seed is surrounded by a (generally) edible flesh, the edible part in a nut is the seed itself; the seed is armored like a Panzer tank in an inedible hard shell that can only be breached by the jaws of a steel nutcracker or a squirrel.
There are many types of nuts. Botanically, true nuts come from trees such as the beech, chestnut, oak, and hazel. Other fruits that are not true nuts—for reasons that are interesting only to botanists—are still considered nuts because they are similar in construction and grow on trees…and for culinary purposes are essentially the same. This includes almonds, Brazil nuts, cashews, macadamia nuts, pecans, pistachios and walnuts. Many are drupe fruits (more closely related to cherries, apricots, peaches and olives), yet, together with true nuts, are known as “tree nuts”.
So what about peanuts? Is a peanut a nut? Or are peanuts fruits? No and yes. Peanuts are legumes, in the same family as beans or peas. They grow on the ground, as opposed to tree nuts like almonds or walnuts, and is why they are called “groundnuts” in some parts of the world. The seed (the part we eat) is the fruit of the plant, as is the case with tree nuts, but peanuts grow in a softer (or at least thinner) pod like other legumes. Culinarily speaking, peanuts have much in common with tree nuts—rich in oil and a good source of protein—and are treated the same way in the kitchen. But when it comes to those fancy mixed nut gifts in decorative tins people love to give at Christmastime, peanuts are considered filler; the truly premium blends of mixed nuts are promoted as being peanut-free.
Those who suffer from a tree nut allergy may still be able to eat peanuts; being allergic to tree nuts may not mean one is also allergic to peanuts, or vice versa. However, extra care must be taken because most companies that sell one variety also sell the other, and they may be processed on the same equipment. Even minimal exposure to the wrong nut can trigger allergic reactions.
The Most Popular Nuts
Here are some of the nuts you’ll find in those mixed nut blends or sold by themselves. While there are many more, these are the most popular nuts for general snacking (not including peanuts):
- Almonds: Have you noticed how an unshelled almond looks sort of like the pit of a peach, plum or apricot? They’re related! Almonds are an excellent source of fiber and vitamin E. They also contain mono- and polyunsaturated fats, which help reduce “bad” cholesterol in our bodies.
- Brazil nuts: The largest snack nuts, these come from a towering tree in the Amazon jungle. They’re nutrient-dense and contain protein, fiber, vitamins and minerals as well as monounsaturated fats.
- Cashews: These popular nuts come from a tree native to South America and Africa, but most today are imported from India and Vietnam. If you’ve ever wondered why they’re expensive, it’s because they have to be carefully shelled; their shells contain a poison ivy-like oil that is extremely irritating. Cashews have one of the lowest fat contents of all nuts, but a lot of what’s there is saturated fat.
- Hazelnuts: The fruit of the hazel tree, hazelnuts are also known as filberts, the traditional garnish of a vodka or gin gimlet. They’re much healthier without the alcohol, of course; hazelnuts may help lower HDL cholesterol through substances called plant sterols as well as a high monounsaturated fat content.
- Macadamia nuts: Named for Dr. John Macadam in their native Australia, these extremely rich nuts are higher in fat and calories than any other nut…but boy, are they delicious. They’re typically eaten for dessert, or made even richer by coating them in milk chocolate. One thing they have going for them nutritionally is that they have been shown to reduce total and LDL (bad) cholesterol.
- Pecans: Native to the southern United States, pecans are related to hickory nuts and look and taste like walnuts. They’re loaded with both mono- and polyunsaturated fats (and, of course, high in calories) as well as plant sterols and other nutrients.
- Pistachios: Botanically related to cashews (but not at all like them in appearance), pistachios are among the most popular nuts for snacking. Because they’re very easy to crack open by hand, they’re readily available both shelled and unshelled. Are pistachios healthy? Read for yourself; much has been written about the health benefits of pistachios, another excellent source of monounsaturated fats and plant sterols.
- Walnuts: The black walnut is literally one of the toughest nuts to crack, which is why you rarely find them in large pieces. The most popular snack nut is the English walnut, native to western Asia and Europe and grown mostly in California. Nutritionally, walnuts are the only nuts that contain significant amounts of alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), a healthy omega-3 fatty acid.
Since nuts are relatively diverse in flavor, nutrient content and health benefits, one of the best ways to enjoy them is in an assortment of mixed nuts.
What Are the Healthiest Nuts to Eat?
With all this talk about nutrition, what food group do nuts belong to? According to the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) ChooseMyPlate.gov, nuts and seeds are part of the Protein food group. While pumpkin and squash seeds have higher protein-to-calorie ratios, the best nuts for protein are good old-fashioned dry-roasted peanuts, followed by pistachios (dry-roasted) and almonds.
So, you ask, how many nuts should I eat in a day? As with most things dietary, that depends. USDA says adult women should have 5 “ounce equivalents” of protein foods daily (5.5 for women 19–30), and men should have 6 ounce equivalents (slightly more for young men, slightly less for older men). An ounce equivalent is 1 ounce of meat, poultry or fish, ¼ cup cooked beans, 1 egg, 1 tablespoon of peanut butter, or ½ ounce of nuts or seeds. To reach ½ ounce of nuts, you would eat 12 almonds, 24 pistachios, or 7 walnut halves.
Many experts recommend an ounce of nuts daily (about what fits in the palm of your hand), or 2 ounce equivalents. You don’t necessarily want all of your allotted protein to come from nuts, although with the beneficial oils they contain, it would be sensible to get a portion from them.
It’s those oils, plant sterols and other nutrients that make nuts nutritional powerhouses. A 30-year study published at Harvard University “found a correlation between relatively high nut consumption (two or more servings a week) and avoidance of weight gain and obesity.” Nuts can also have a beneficial effect on blood pressure and cholesterol levels, which affect heart health. Of course, those at risk for high blood pressure will want to watch their intake of salted nuts if they’re looking to avoid heart disease.
So what are the best and worst nuts for weight loss? According to EatThis.com, the best five are: 1) Brazil nuts; 2) walnuts; 3) almonds; 4) pistachios; and 5) peanuts. The worst, based on the ratio of fat and calories to protein, are macadamia nuts and pecans…but remember that these still offer good fats and, eaten sensibly, can fit easily into a heart-healthy diet.
How to Store Nuts
How do you store these storehouses of nutrition? Can you freeze nuts? The answer is: absolutely! In fact, if you’re not eating them right away, the best place to store them is in the freezer. Because of their high oil content, nuts can go rancid fairly quickly. To freeze them, just wrap them well in plastic, then put them in a resealable freezer bag.
Of course, if you’re anything like us, those nuts won’t be around long enough to go bad. They’re not just for desserts; incorporate them into your diet by trying new recipes like pesto or romesco sauce, or just break them out to share a heart-healthy snack with friends and family. You’ll find eating nuts can be an exciting part of a healthy diet.