18 Reasons to Start Using More Nuts

Acceptance of nuts by many consumers still is hindered by the fact that they are calorically dense, in spite of their having earned a reputation as a healthy food among nutritionists and health professionals.

By Mark Anthony, Ph.D., Technical Editor

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Americans consume almonds on an average of a mere 1 pound per year, and that's the highest level of consumption of any of the nuts in the U.S. Yet as a nation, we are not on a low-fat diet. As a way to get consumers more interested in nuts, processors would do well to focus less on apologetic marketing of nuts and more on the concept of replacing high-fat, nutrient-poor modern snacks with better quality fats from these nutrient-rich little sources.

Epidemiological evidence reveals a different picture from the one still adhered to by many consumers and processors of better-for-you foods.

Nuts are seeds that store energy as fat, and fat yields 9 kcals/g. Calories, however do not tell the complete story of nuts as a beneficial food. That's where we come in. We've uncovered 18 fun and interesting facts about nuts and how processors can use them in their next new products.

  • Nuts are among the healthiest ingredients around. In moderate amounts (we all know how easy it is to eat an entire 1,280-calorie tin of roasted salted cashews in a single sitting) nuts are a boon to health from multiple perspectives and deserve their place on the plate of those looking to maintain health and a healthy body weight.

Ongoing studies continue to add notches to the nut knowledge belt. According to a recent review published just a few months ago in the scientific journal Nutrition, the benefits of nuts span four interrelated areas:

  • Nuts contain powerful antioxidants that can lower the impact of dangerous free radicals, molecules that can be damaging to membranes, proteins, and even DNA.
  • Nuts tend to reduce plasma cholesterol levels among persons who enjoy them as routine dietary components.
  • Nuts tend to lower the risk of cardiovascular disease independent of lipid profiles.
  • Nuts aid in weight control, specifically through a satiety factor that outweighs the caloric load.
  • Nuts are a good source of minerals — especially potassium, calcium, selenium and iron — plus bioavailable protein.

The American Heart Association has recommended use of nuts for their cardioprotective benefits since 2000 due the consistent link between nut consumption and a lower risk of cardiovascular disease. This brings us to...

  • Frequent nut consumption has been associated with lower BMI, lower blood pressure and protection against fatal and non-fatal coronary heart disease.

The FDA recently recognized nuts as "heart-healthy," and for good reason.

  • By weight, nuts are 45-75 percent fat; however, the fat content in perennial favorites such as almonds, hazelnuts, pecans, cashews, peanuts, macadamia nuts and pistachios is made up of primarily unsaturated fatty acids from the omega-6 and omega-9 families.

Omega-9 fatty acids (aka monounsaturated fatty acids) are chemically oleic acids, and also the dominant fat in olive oil and avocados. While not considered essential fatty acids, in that the body can make its own omega-9 fatty acids, they are known to decrease LDL cholesterol without lowering the beneficial HDL cholesterol. Walnuts tend to be a little richer in omega-6 fatty acids and contain about 7 percent omega-3 fatty acids, both of which are considered essential fats.

  • Nuts, along with their leguminous cousins, beans, are good sources of protein and occupy the section with meat in the latest version of the USDA Food Guidelines, and can compare nearly ounce-for-ounce with those animal sources.
  • Nuts are also rich in fiber. Almonds in particular have such a readily accessible source of fiber in the easily removable skin that it can be treated like bran from whole grains. This almond "bran," low in fat and rich in many of the nutritional components of the seed, can be used in most bran applications and as an additive to many baked goods, lowering the calorie impact and enhancing the nutrient density.
  • Nuts are good sources of many vitamins, in particular vitamins E, B6, folate and niacin. Historically, that means regular nut consumption would have prevented the epidemics beri-beri and pellagra, lessened the potential for anemia and reduced the risk of neural tube defects.
  • As a dependable source of minerals, Nuts provide not just the aforementioned potassium, calcium, selenium and iron, but other crucial trace minerals such as magnesium, zinc and copper. They also are sources of phytosterols, plant counterparts to cholesterol that inhibit the absorption of dietary cholesterol from animal foods.
  • The antioxidant potential of nuts is impressive. Most are important sources of catechins, antioxidant components found in green tea, and resveratrol, the compound that makes blue and red berries potent as protective foods. An important protective effect of this antioxidant arsenal is to reduce the potential for oxidized LDL cholesterol, a more dangerous form of LDL that increase the risk of heart disease.
  • Trouble sleeping? Walnuts contain substantial amounts of melatonin, an antioxidant found in tart cherries. Melatonin is known to help regulate sleep cycles and fight insomnia. It also tends to reduce inflammation.
  • Brazil nuts are one of the most concentrated food sources of selenium. The mineral needed for the production of glutathione peroxidase, an endogenous antioxidant, is one the body makes from essential nutrients.
  • The antioxidant status of animals or humans can be estimated by the presence of various chemical markers. A number of studies have demonstrated that nuts rich in monounsaturated fatty acids, in particular hazelnuts, pistachios, cashews, and almonds, have resulted in improved antioxidant status of subjects. 
  • Walnuts have been shown to increase the ratio of HDL cholesterol to total cholesterol, decrease inflammation and improve arterial function in patients with type 2 diabetes. Walnuts are rich in antioxidants and associated with many health benefits.

Despite both the demonstrated health effects of nuts under controlled studies and the supportive epidemiological studies, the general public remains concerned about the calories and fat in nuts. Yet epidemiological evidence and clinical trials also indicate nuts are not associated with obesity. In fact, the opposite is the case.

  • Studies consistently show that frequent nut consumption is associated with effective weight control. Pistachios, for example, recently rocketing in popularity, have been shown to reduce blood-fat components in animal studies. People eating pistachios tend to consume fewer calories overall throughout the day, a factor similar with most nuts. Almonds are consistently associated with lower BMI in both observational and clinical studies.
  • This article originally appeared in the January 2013 issue of Food Processing Magazine.
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