Going Wild About Nuts

In ancient times, nuts were the “food of the gods.” Today, many nuts are used to add flavor, texture and nutrition to meals.

Most nuts are the seeds or dried fruits of trees. Nuts were once shunned as a high-fat, high-calorie food. Today, they’re one of the darlings of the menu due to their nutritional value and potential health benefits.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), per capita consumption of tree nuts rose from about 1.8 pounds in 1965 to 3.6 pounds in 2004, while consumption of peanuts (actually a legume, like dried beans) increased from 1.6 pounds to 2 pounds.

Nuts are often processed into pastes (butters), flours, cooking oils and milk-like beverages. Nuts usually contain 160 to 200 calories and 14 to 19 grams of fat (at least 75% of calories) per ounce. But, the fat is mostly heart-healthy monounsaturated fat (e.g., almonds, peanuts) and polyunsaturated fat (e.g., walnuts). Walnuts are rich in omega-3 fat (alpha-linolenic acid) which may help ease arthritis and protect against heart disease, cancer, strokes, Alzheimer’s disease and other diseases.

Dry-roasted and oil-roasted nuts contain about the same amount of fat and calories. All nuts are naturally cholesterol-free and low in sodium. Macadamia nuts and pecans are highest in fat and calories, but most of the fat is monounsaturated (55% to 70%).  Chestnuts are the only nut low in calories and fat (see chart). Coconut is the only nut rich in saturated fat (70% of calories).

Nuts are a good protein source. To improve protein quality in your menus, serve nuts with legumes, whole grains or some animal protein like lean meats or low-fat dairy foods. One ounce of meat is equal (in protein) to one-third cup (1-1/2 ounces) of nuts or two tablespoons of peanut butter.

All nuts contain some starch and fiber (mostly insoluble). Almonds contain more fiber than most nuts.

Nuts provide calcium (especially almonds), iron, copper, zinc, magnesium, manganese, selenium (especially Brazil nuts), potassium, phosphorus and boron. Many of these minerals reduce the risk of osteoporosis.

Nuts are also rich in vitamins including Vitamin E (especially almonds) and B-vitamins including folate, niacin (especially peanuts), thiamin, riboflavin and B-6. Only chestnuts contain Vitamin C (7 mg. per ounce).

Health benefits: Nuts contain nutrients and phytochemicals that may protect against chronic diseases like heart disease and cancer. Here’s a summary of the latest scientific findings:

  • Obesity—Studies showed small portions of nuts, when substituted for other high-calorie, high-fat foods, did not promote weight gain and, due to fiber content, reduced hunger. Nut eaters were not more likely to be overweight. They may have even been thinner. 
  • Diabetes—Women who ate nuts (at least five ounces per week) had a 20% to 30% lower risk of Type 2 diabetes. Monounsaturated fat and soluble fiber in nuts may help regulate blood sugar and insulin levels.
  • Hypertension—The DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diet recommends consumption of at least four to five servings of nuts (along with legumes and seeds) weekly. Fiber, calcium, potassium, magnesium and phytochemicals in nuts may help reduce high blood pressure.
  • Heart disease—Adults who ate nuts regularly (over five ounces per week) had up to 50% less risk of heart disease or heart attacks than people who rarely or never ate nuts. Eating soluble fiber and substituting unsaturated fats for saturated fats and trans-fats reduce total and “bad” LDL-cholesterol. Folate and vitamin B-6 in nuts reduce high blood homocysteine (risk factor for heart disease and stroke). Vitamin E, arginine (an amino acid) and phytochemicals (e.g., resveratrol in peanuts, ellagic acid, saponins, phytosterols, polyphenols) may also be protective.
  • Cancer—Nuts contain many antioxidants like selenium, Vitamin E and phytochemicals (e.g., lignans, quercetin, campferol, ellagic acid, phytosterols, flavonoids, resveratrol) that may prevent cell damage that can lead to cancer. Calcium, folate and insoluble fiber may reduce risk of colon cancer.

Serving suggestions: Here are some tips for incorporating nuts into your operation’s menus:

1. Add ground or chopped nuts to fruit, vegetable, tuna or chicken salad, soft cheeses, low-fat yogurt, pudding, cereals, pancakes, waffles, breads, muffins, quick breads, pie fillings, frozen desserts, stuffing, rice, couscous and other grains, pasta, soufflés, casseroles and cooked vegetables.

2. Coat fish, poultry or pork with crushed nuts instead of breadcrumbs.

3. Sprinkle nuts on stir-fries, soups or stews.

4. Spread nut butters on breads, fruits and vegetables. Thicken sauces, dips, salad dressings, smoothies, soups and stews with nut butters. (Avoid added sugar and oils in nut butters.)

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