Nuts come from around the world in a variety of shapes and sizes. Most nuts come from the seeds or dried fruits of trees and have an outer shell that both protects the nut and keeps the healthy fats inside the nut from spoiling.
After being picked, most nuts are dried—not only to improve flavor and add more crunch to the texture, but to preserve them. These are what we know as raw nuts.
From there, the marketing of nuts begins: shelled or unshelled, salted or unsalted, roasted, sprouted, candied, spiced, packaged, or bulk. But let’s talk about how nuts get processed—and what happens to their nutritional content in the process.
Raw (or unroasted) nuts. Contrary to popular belief, raw nuts are not simply plucked from trees and sold on a grocery store shelf. As mentioned previously, most nuts are dried to preserve them and improve their flavors and textures. These are raw nuts. While raw nuts are fairly nutritious and have no added fat, they’re often bland and tasteless.
Raw nuts also contain enzyme inhibitors which help to protect the seed and keep it from germinating too early and dying off. This also helps to keep the species going.
But these enzyme inhibitors, when introduced into the body, actually neutralize the enzymes your body uses to control inflammation and aid in digestion. In fact, eating nuts with these enzyme inhibitors can cause the pancreas to swell.
There are only two ways to destroy these enzyme inhibitors: 1) roasting, which also destroys the enzymes, and 2) sprouting, which keeps the beneficial enzymes intact.
Roasted nuts. While roasted nuts have a lot more flavor than raw nuts, there are some definite disadvantages to them: 1) added oils, 2) added ingredients, 3) more difficult to digest, and 4) less nutritional value.
Nuts can be either dry roasted or roasted in oil. As you probably already know, dry-roasted nuts contain less fat than nuts roasted in oil. In fact, roasting nuts in oil is a lot like deep frying—nuts are dumped into highly saturated palm kernel or coconut oils, adding about a gram of fat and 10 calories per ounce to nuts with an already high fat and calorie content.2
Then roasted nuts are often heavily salted and almost always have other ingredients added to them such as sugar, corn syrup, MSG, preservatives, and other additives.
In addition, many people have trouble digesting nuts because of the high fat content. Adding more fats during roasting makes them even more difficult to digest.3
Finally, roasting destroys much of the nutritional content of nuts. Vitamin B, particularly vitamin B1 (thiamine), which helps produce energy and keep the heart healthy, is most often killed off in roasting.
And, as mentioned previously, roasting not only destroys the enzyme inhibitors, it destroys the enzymes needed by the body to help with digestion.
So roasted nuts may have more flavor than raw nuts—but at a price: your health.
Sprouted nuts. Sprouted nuts neatly solve the nutrition problem of roasted nuts and the tastelessness of raw nuts. But the process is not new. It dates back thousands of years and is still practiced today in non-meat-eating cultures where nuts are a staple food.
This traditional process, called sprouting, does not begin with drying as in the case of raw or roasted nuts. Instead, freshly picked nuts are soaked for 24 hours in water and a pinch of sea salt, causing the nuts to begin germinating.
The nuts are then removed from the solution and slowly dried at a very low temperature with low humidity. This slow drying process destroys the enzyme inhibitors, releasing the full nutritional content of the nut and allowing the body’s natural enzymes to more easily digest the nuts.
While much more time-consuming, sprouting makes nuts more digestible, gives them much greater nutritional value, makes them crunchier, and best of all, releases an unmistakably fresher flavor.
The Meat of the Matter
Almonds. Unlike most nuts, almonds come from the fruit of the almond tree. A relative of the peach tree, the almond tree bears a fruit similar to a peach, and the pit of that fruit is actually the almond nut.
Almond trees are thought to have originated in western Asia and North Africa. Today, almonds are grown in countries around the Mediterranean Sea and in California. They are available year-round and have a buttery flavor that complements many foods.
Nutritionally rich almonds contain more calcium than any other nut, and have the highest dietary fiber of any nut or seed (more than 3 grams per ounce). In addition, almonds contain 40% of the Recommended Daily Value (RDA) of Vitamin E.4 Almonds are low in fat, high in protein, and are known as the most nutritionally well-rounded nut.
Almonds have plenty of health benefits, too. More than 65% of monounsaturated fat—the same fats found in olive oil—can be found in almonds. These healthy fats have been found to help lower LDL “bad” cholesterol.2
In addition, there’s evidence that almonds may help reduce your risk for heart disease, lose weight, eat healthier, have more energy, promote colon health, prevent gallstones, and more.4
It’s easy to add almonds to your diet. Add to salads, vegetables, yogurt, rice, and fruit. Or make sprouted organic almonds a healthy and flavorful snack.
Brazil Nuts. Brazil nuts come from the fruit of Brazil nut trees—which can grow to 100 feet high—and there are about 10-20 nuts inside each fruit. While the nuts are rich in minerals, especially selenium, they’re also about two-thirds fat. Because of their high fat content, Brazil nuts can easily turn rancid if not properly stored.
Cashews. First identified in Brazil, cashews come from a unique tree that bears an oblong yellow or red “apple-like” fruit. From the bottom of this fruit hangs the kidney-shaped cashew nut. While we do not eat the cashew fruit here in the U.S., it is considered a delicacy in the Caribbean and Brazil.
Today, cashews—which are in the same family as mangoes and pistachios—are grown in India, Brazil, Mozambique, Tanzania, and Nigeria.
The inside of the cashew shell contains cashew balm—a toxic resin used to manufacture varnishes and insecticides—which must be carefully removed before eating. That’s why cashews are always shelled when you buy them.
Of all of the nuts, cashews contain the greatest amount of copper—an essential component for many enzyme activities. Copper helps the body:
- Use iron.
- Eliminate free radicals.
- Develop bone and tissue.
- Produce melanin.
- Produce energy.
- Keep blood vessels, bones, and joints flexible.
Cashews also contain magnesium, the mineral that works with calcium to create strong and healthy bones. Magnesium deficiencies contribute to high blood pressure, muscle spasms, migraines, muscle cramps, tension, and fatigue. Just ¼ cup of cashews contains 22% of the RDA for magnesium.
Eat cashews as is or add to dried fruits, sautéed vegetables, Thai dishes, hot cereals, and more. Sprouted organic cashews tend to be more flavorful and, without extra oils or additives, healthier.
Hazelnuts. Hazelnuts, also known as filberts, come from a small shrub and is believed to have originated thousands of years ago in Asia where it was deemed a sacred food. In Greek and Roman culture, the hazelnut was extensively used for its medicinal properties.
Often used in sweet foods such as ice cream, sauces, pastries, coffee, and more, hazelnuts have a sweet, slightly oily texture. Because they contain a healthy amount of fat, hazelnuts should be stored in a refrigerator to keep them from going rancid.
Hazelnuts are a rich source of vitamin E, an antioxidant that may reduce the risk for coronary heart disease and certain cancers.
Peanuts. The most common nut, the peanut, isn’t really a nut at all. Unlike most other nuts, which grow on trees, peanuts grow on small bushes and are considered part of the legume family. The southern U.S. used to be one of the largest producers of peanuts, but they’re now largely grown in China and India.
Because they’re really considered to be a vegetable, the nutrient-rich peanut contains more protein and B-vitamins—except B-12—than most nuts. Peanuts also have a good balance of amino acids and most minerals.
Since they’re high in fat, peanuts need to be stored in a cool, dry place in an airtight container—or refrigerated—to prevent rancidity.
Peanuts come shelled or unshelled, and are most often roasted and salted. Use them for snacking, in Asian dishes, on salads, or in peanut butter.
Pecans. As the only nut native to the U.S., pecans come from the same family as the hickory. While Mexico, Australia, and Israel are big pecan growers, the majority still come from the U.S. In fact, Georgia harvests approximately 88 millions pounds of pecans each year.5
Because they grow into very tall and productive trees, approximately one acre of pecan trees will yield as many as 1,000 pounds of pecans. And there are about 500 varieties of pecans—the newest Cape Fear pecan looks to be very productive.5
Pecans contain the lowest protein and, along with macadamias, the highest fat content of any of the nuts. They’re an excellent source of minerals, though, especially zinc, iron, potassium, selenium, and magnesium.
And pecans have heart-healthy benefits, too. In a study conducted at Loma Linda University, doctors found that adding nuts to low-fat diets (such as the American Heart Association’s step I diet) helped to reduce LDL “bad” cholesterol by as much as 16.5%—more than twice as much as the American Heart Association’s step I diet.6
According to the National Cholesterol Education Program, every 1% drop in LDL cholesterol can result in a 1.5% reduction in the incidence of coronary heart disease.)6
In addition, the pecan diet helped raise HDL “good” cholesterol by 5.6% compared to the AHA’s step I diet which actually lowered “good” cholesterol—not a desirable result.6
Snacking on sprouted organic pecans offers powerful health benefits. The proof is in the pecan!
Pistachios. Pistachios date back 10,000 years to the Holy Lands where they grew wild on the high deserts. Legend has it that Middle Eastern lovers met beneath pistachio trees to hear the shells crack open on moonlit nights as a sign of fortunes to come.7
Today, California is the second largest producer of pistachios in the world, growing more than 300 million pounds each year.7
Pistachios grow on small trees in clusters similar to grapes. When they are ready to harvest, their shells crack open. The trees are then shaken to remove the nuts, and the nuts are hulled and dried—a process that must be done within 12-24 hours to prevent the shells from staining.
Pistachios are not only good, they’re good for you. Just 1 ounce contains more than 10% of the Daily Value for dietary fiber (more than ½ cup of broccoli or spinach), vitamin B-6 (comparable to that found in a 3-oz. serving of roasted pork loin), thiamin, phosphorous, potassium (as much as that found in ½ banana), and copper.
Because pistachio shells crack open when they are ready to be harvested, they are the only nut which can be roasted and salted with their shells intact. When shopping for pistachios, look for clean, tan shells. Red shells were originally tinted to cover up imperfections in the shell.
Better yet, look for the sweet green meats of the sprouted organic pistachios. With no added oils or other additives and a mildly salty flavor, they’re good and naturally healthy.
Pumpkin Seeds. Pumpkins come from the gourd family and share a heritage with cantaloupe, cucumber, and squash. Their seeds have a sweet and nutty flavor
Pumpkin seeds were valued in Native American diets, both for their nutritional and medicinal properties. They’re also known as pepitas (“little seeds” in Spanish), and are often found in many traditional Mexican dishes.
Pumpkin seeds are rich sources of many minerals including manganese, magnesium, phosphorus, zinc, and more. These minerals may help protect men’s bones from osteoporotic fracture. And there’s increasing evidence that pumpkin seeds also promote prostate health.2
In addition, preliminary studies have shown that pumpkin seeds compare favorably to the anti-inflammatory drug indomethacin in reducing inflammatory symptoms—without the side effects of the drug.2
Pumpkin seeds can easily be added to sautéed vegetables, salads, dressings, cereals, burgers, and more. Pumpkin seeds can also be roasted right from the pumpkin for snacking. Better yet, eat sprouted organic pumpkin seeds for a tasty and healthy snack.
Walnuts. Walnuts are known as a true “brain food”—not only because they look like little brains, but because they contain more valuable nutrients than any other nut.
One-quarter cup of walnuts contains 90.8% of the daily value of omega-3 fatty acids. These essential fats offer many health benefits—from cardiovascular protection to better cognitive functioning to anti-inflammatory benefits.2
Walnuts also contain powerful antioxidants that may help support the immune system and block the metabolic pathways that can lead to cancer.2
Walnuts grow on ornamental trees and come primarily from the U.S., Turkey, Pakistan, China, Iran, Romania, and France. There are three varieties: English (or Persian), Black, and White (or Butternut).
Snack on heart-healthy sprouted organic walnuts. Or add them to yogurt, sautéed vegetables, baked goods, salads, dips, granola, and more.
Nuts about Nutrition
Not only do nuts contain healthy sources of fat, but they are rich in other nutrients as well. They have even been described by some as a complete “wellness package” because of their beneficial nutritional properties. Get a nut-by-nut rundown on nutritional content.
Vitamin B. Nuts are a source of B vitamins (in particular, thiamine, riboflavin, and niacin) which help boost energy and promote healthy cell reproduction. However, the process of roasting nuts will inherently destroy most nutrients, especially thiamine, while raw and sprouted nuts retain thiamine.2
Vitamin K. This important vitamin has one very important job: it helps clot the blood and prevent excessive bleeding following an injury. While friendly bacteria in the intestines produce much of the vitamin K needed by the body, about 20% of it needs to come from food such as nuts.
Vitamin E. The jury is still out on the exact health benefits of vitamin E. Studies have shown that vitamin E may reduce heart disease, protect against some cancers, slow the progression of Alzheimer’s disease, and help with macular degeneration. Other studies have contradicted those findings.2 Even the effectiveness of vitamin E supplements has been called into question.
Perhaps the best explanation is this: vitamin E helps ensure that the body is not deficient in important nutrients like vitamins A, K, and the mineral selenium.2
Nuts, especially almonds, offer valuable sources of vitamin E—and, in addition to helping the body effectively use some nutrients, they may help protect against the damaging effects of free radicals.2
Copper. Although copper is the third most abundant trace mineral in the body, most Americans don’t get enough of it—simply because some particularly rich sources, such as liver and oysters, are not commonly eaten. But nuts are an excellent source of copper and may help replenish low levels.
Copper may help to:
- Prevent heart disease.
- Maintain healthy skin and hair color.
- Alleviate rheumatoid arthritis-related inflammation.
- Encourage bone health and prevent osteoporosis.
Iron. The World Health Organization considers iron deficiency to be the number one nutritional disorder in the world, and a study in the Journal of Nutrition estimates that as many as 80% of the world's population may be iron deficient.8
Iron helps transport oxygen to cells throughout the body and regulates cell growth and differentiation. Heme iron comes from meat, fish, and poultry and is better absorbed than nonheme iron which comes from comes from beans and nuts. However, most dietary iron is nonheme iron.
Incorporating nuts, and especially cashews, into a healthy diet provides a good source of dietary iron.
Magnesium. As the fourth most abundant mineral in the body, magnesium aids in more than 300 biochemical reactions in the body. It may help:
- Maintain normal muscle and nerve function.
- Keep heart rhythm steady.
- Support a healthy immune system.
- Keep bones strong.
- Regulate blood sugar levels.
- Promote normal blood pressure.
- Metabolize energy and synthesize protein.
Some evidence, though not conclusive, suggests that magnesium may help regulate blood pressure, reduce the risk of heart disease, metabolize carbohydrates and influence the release of insulin, and protect against osteoporosis.8
Nuts and seeds, particularly cashews, offer a rich source of magnesium. Eating nuts—along with a variety of legumes, whole grains, and vegetables—helps to meet daily dietary needs for magnesium. However, some with chronic conditions may be deficient in this critical mineral.
Phosphorus. Phosphorous—the second most abundant mineral—is involved in nearly every biological or cellular function in the body.
Phosphorous plays an important role in transforming carbohydrates, proteins, and fats into fuel. It strengthens cells walls, and helps transport nutrients and various hormones throughout the body. Phosphorous also helps maintain the body’s pH level.
Phosphorous deficiencies, though rare, are found in those who take large amounts of antacids containing aluminum. And some research shows that many people suffer a significant loss of phosphorous following a severe burn injury.2
Most people get sufficient amounts of phosphorous from their diets. Nuts are good sources as well as meat, fish, dairy products, and poultry.
Potassium. As the third most abundant mineral in the body, potassium helps regulate blood pressure and muscle contraction, and to keep nerves, kidneys, and a host of other body processes working properly. Potassium also helps convert glucose into energy that can be stored and released as needed.
Some studies show that a potassium-rich diet may also help to protect against heart disease and stroke, regulate heartbeat, reduce heart-rhythm abnormalities, and prevent kidney stones.2
Potassium deficiencies are rare because it’s widely available in commonly eaten foods such as bananas, orange juice, potatoes, and nuts—pistachios are an especially good source.
Selenium. A trace mineral essential to good health, selenium combines with protein to create important antioxidants. These antioxidants not only help to prevent cell damage from free radicals—which may contribute to some chronic conditions—but they help regulate thyroid function and play a role in the immune system.8
Selenium content in food depends on the selenium content of the soil where plants are grown or animals are raised. Selenium also can be found in some meats and seafood. Animals that eat grains or plants that were grown in selenium-rich soil have higher levels of selenium in their muscle. In the U.S., meats, breads, and most nuts—especially Brazil nuts—are common sources of selenium.
Zinc. Found in almost every cell in the body, zinc stimulates about 100 enzymes which promote biochemical reactions to help:
- Support a healthy immune system.
- Heal wounds.
- Facilitate tasting and smelling.
- Synthesize DNA.
- Support normal growth and development during pregnancy, childhood, and adolescence.
Even moderate zinc deficiencies can affect immune function because normal levels of zinc are required to activate the white blood cells that help fight infection. Some studies suggest that taking more than the normal level of zinc does not provide any added infection-fighting benefit.8
Evidence for the “zinc link” in treating symptoms of the common cold has been mixed.8 However, it’s clear that zinc is essential to the body. And even though oysters contain the most zinc, other foods—including nuts—are excellent sources.
As the building blocks of protein, amino acids help make neurotransmitters, produce hormones, activate bodily functions, produce some body fluids, and repair organs, glands, muscles, tendons, ligaments, skin, hair, and nails.
Only 20 of the approximately 80 amino acids are necessary for proper growth and function. The essential amino acids—histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, cystine, phenylalanine, tyrosine, threonine, tryptophan, and valine—must come from foods or supplements. The body can manufacture non-essential amino acids on its own.
Low-protein vegan and vegetarian diets most often cause an amino acid deficiency. However, some amino acid deficiencies can occur from trauma, infection, side effects of medication, stress, aging, and chemical imbalances.
Incorporating nuts into the average U.S. diet provides a good source of amino acids. But for those on vegan and vegetarian diets who are at a greater risk for an amino acid deficiency, eating nuts—or taking a blended amino acid supplement—is critical.
The Big Fat Controversy
Eating nuts hit the skids in the mid-1980s, but most of us were too busy counting fat grams to notice.9
Since then, we’ve learned a lot more about good fats and bad fats. It turns out that “no fat,” “low fat,” and “fat-free” foods are often high in sugar—making them high in calories and, often, bad fats.10 Read more about good fats and bad fats.
Lowering cholesterol and reducing the risk of heart disease. Researchers have found that nuts contain up to 85% unsaturated fats similar to those found in olive oil.11 These good fats—monounsaturated and polyunsaturated—have been found to not only help lower cholesterol levels, but they may also help reduce the risk of heart disease.
In a University of Toronto study, researchers concluded that eating almonds and olive oil was as effective at lowering cholesterol as prescription statin drugs—but without the negative side effects. In just four weeks, participants’ LDL cholesterol—the so-called “bad” cholesterol—dropped by up to 35%.11
Another study at Pennsylvania State University found that eating one ounce of walnuts each day not only helped lower cholesterol, but also improved vascular function.12
And in perhaps the most massive study to date with 86,000 women, Harvard researchers discovered that those who ate at least five ounces of walnuts each week cut their risk of heart disease by one third.2 Other studies show similar results for men.
All of the evidence for nuts prompted the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to take the unprecedented step of allowing a qualified health claim in 2003. The claim reads: “Scientific evidence suggests but does not prove that 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.”13
Playing a role in weight management. According to the International Journal of Obesity, study participants who ate 3 ounces of almonds a day lost more weight than participants who ate the same number of calories from a diet high in complex carbohydrates.11
Researchers theorize that snacking on natural and nutritionally dense nuts may leave a feeling of fullness for a longer period of time. This “fullness” may help to decrease food intake throughout the day.
High in heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids. Nuts, and particularly walnuts, contain powerful omega-3 fatty acids which are thought to be effective in fighting heart disease, arthritis, and other inflammatory diseases.11
While many organizations debate the value of saturated fats, there’s a lot less disagreement about—and evidence for—the value of eating a handful of nuts (approximately 1.5 ounces) a day. Even the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, when faced with overwhelming evidence, finally issued a qualified claim for the health benefits of nuts.