Autumn and early winter are the peak harvest times for nuts. Nature’s little powerhouses, nuts possess all the energy, to create a strong, towering tree, making them one of the most nutrient rich forms of foods available to humans. One short blog isn’t enough space to tackle all 300+ edible types of nuts, but it is more than adequate to get a brief overview of the nutritional benefits and energetics of nuts along with handling, storage and some ideas of how to incorporate nuts into your diet.
Western nutritional highlights
Although nuts will vary in their content of protein, oils, vitamins and minerals we can look at them overall and get the general idea of what they have to offer.
- Protein– All nuts are high in protein. A 1/3 cup serving of cashews contains 21 grams. However that same serving gives you 260 calories–something to consider if you are calorie counting. The amino acids in nuts are pretty well balanced but lack the methionine and tryptophan found in animal proteins. However, mixed with grains, as many traditional cultures do, you can easily balance the meal.
- Fats–Don’t let the word scare you. We need healthy fats to maintain healthy hormones, immunity, and nervous system, cerebral functions and more. And it’s the fats that give nuts their delicious flavor and the sensation that satiates our appetite. Luckily, most nuts are high in unsaturated fats (happy fats), and many of them have been shown to successfully help lower blood lipid levels (high cholesterol) and aid in the treatment of heart disease. In fact, nearly all nuts have appeared in studies and are shown to be beneficial in lowering cholesterol and protecting the heart. Nut’s fat content varies from about 50% (found in peanuts and almonds) to the nearly 70% (found in macadamias and pecans). Remember, a little goes a long way. Keep your servings to about a handful a day.
- Fiber–1/4 cup of almond provides about 4 grams of fiber. Fiber is essential for maintaining healthy bowel movements, weight balance, blood sugar balance, hormones and colon health.
- Vitamins and Minerals–Here again, nuts vary but most contain iron, magnesium, calcium, potassium, vitamin E and zinc–to name just a few.
The Chinese energetics of nuts
Overall nuts build and strengthen the body. They add on weight and fight deficiencies. They nourish Yin(fluids and fats) and warm the body. Nuts are good for those who are weak, thin, and frail and should be used sparingly with those who have excess dampness, weight, phlegm or yeast. Too many nuts can also scatter the energy making a person feel ungrounded or unfocused.
The energetics and nutritional value of a favorites
Almonds have a fairly high fat content (60%). They are high in vitamin E, potassium, magnesium, calcium, iron and zinc. From a Chinese medicine perspective almonds are sweet and have a slightly warming nature. They benefit the Lungs and Colon, and relieve cough and dissolve phlegm making them useful in chronic asthma and constipation conditions. Raw almonds are very beneficial in fighting heart disease and lowering blood lipids and the treatment of colon cancer.
Kidney shaped cashews benefit the–you guessed it–the Kidneys. They also enter the Heart. Lower in carbohydrates than other nuts they offer vital minerals including copper, magnesium, potassium, iron and zinc. Most of the fat in cashews is in the form of oleic acid know for protecting against cancers and heart disease.
Chestnuts are one of the oldest nut varieties. They have been a staple for many cultures in Europe, Asia and America. There are several hundred varieties grown throughout the world. Chestnuts hold the honor of being the only low-fat nut. They contain a mere 1 gram of fat for 1/3 cup serving and about 70 calories. Chestnuts contain vitamins B1, B2, B6, and folic acid. They are the only nut that contains vitamin C–providing nearly 1/2 the RDA dosage in a single 3 oz serving. They offer up fair amounts of manganese, copper and magnesium. They have a sweet, warming and grounding nature. Chestnut soup anyone?
Hazelnuts or Filberts
Hazelnuts have been eaten by the Chinese for at least 5000 years and they have a long history throughout Europe. Commonly appearing in candies and sweets filberts are the nut used to make Frangelica, a sweet liqueur. A 1/3 cup serving provides nearly 500 calories and 12 grams of protein, and 48 grams of fat–but nearly all of that fat is monousaturated fat. They are high in many of the B vitamins, vitamin E, copper and zinc. Hazelnuts have been shown to help reduce high cholesterol levels.
Not truly a nut, but a legume. Peanuts are one of the most allergenic foods, and one of our cultures most consumed foods in the form of peanut butter. They are also susceptible to a carcinogenic fungus that is more potent than DDT. Does this mean they are bad for you? No–peanuts are shown to protect the heart and help balance LDL and HDL levels. They are high in B1 & B3 and trace minerals. Just remember to buy organic, high quality and use a variety of nuts, not just one type, and avoid rancid nuts.
Pecans were a staple in the Native American diet and praised by Spanish and French explorers. Pecans are very high in fat–nearly 71% of their content, most of which is heart healthy oleic acid. Pecans have high levels of B1, B3, B5, B6, copper, magnesium, manganese and vitamin E. Pecan’s heart health benefits have been shown in multiple studies done by the American Heart Association.
Dozens of pine trees throughout the world produce edible seeds. Pinenuts are high in protein, low in fat and high in potassium and magnesium–another bonus for the heart. They are high in iron–great for blood building. Famously used in Mediterranean cuisine, pinenuts are one of the most expensive nuts and one of the most unstable nuts. They become rancid quickly, so be sure to buy from a good source and store in the freezer.
Green nuts are great and good for the Liver. Another ancient nut, pistachios are stars when it comes to vitamins and minerals including; B1, B3, B6, copper, manganese, magnesium, zinc, selenium, calcium and potassium. They too have been proven to lower blood cholesterol, and they have the unique ability to reduce inflammatory dermatitis. In Chinese Medicine terms, they enter the Liver and Gallbladder and treat jaundice.
Walnuts look like little brains…and that is exactly where they benefit–the brain and the Kidneys. Dating back to 7000 BCE, walnuts are likely the oldest tree food eaten by man. Their are two main species Black and English. Black walnuts are smaller and more bitter than the English walnut which has a larger, sweeter, white meat. Like other nuts, walnuts have a significant ability to lower cholesterol. Unlike other nuts, however, walnuts are high in arginine, which allows the blood vessels to relax. They also possess ellagic acid, a cancer fighting antioxidant. In Chinese medicine terms, walnuts benefit the Heart, the Kidneys, the spine and the brain. They warm the yang and nourish Jing (essence).
reprinted with permission from www.aprilcrowell.com
Preparing and storing nuts
Nuts are high in fats and once these fats are exposed to air, the oil becomes unstable and starts to oxidize, becoming rancid. Rancid nuts can lead to a number of health problems including allergies, asthma, joint and nerve problems, itching and burning in the mouth or lips. Whenever possible buy nuts still in their shell, which will keep for a year in a cool, dry place. Once shelled nuts can be stored for up to a year in the freezer or a 4 months in the fridge.
How to prepare nuts
Soaking nuts–I recommend soaking shelled nuts for 2 hours to overnight before using. Soaking starts the sprouting process, making the nutrients of the nuts more digestible. In bitter nuts, like walnuts, the tannins float away in the rinse water thus softening their flavor. All nuts become softer, sweeter and have a more butter like texture when they have been soaked.
Oven drying nuts–Once nuts are soaked, drain them and spread them out on a cooking sheet. Bake at 350 for about 20-40 minutes stirring occasionally. The nuts should be fragrant, which is actually how I tell when they are done. The kitchen fills with a lovely aroma. Scrape nuts from hot pan onto a cooling surface or pan.
Use immediately or cool them thoroughly before storing in the fridge or freezer.
Ways to use nuts
Toasting nuts–In a heavy ungreased skillet, toast nuts over medium heat until fragrant, about 10 minutes. Pour nuts onto into a cooling pan or surface to stop the cooking.
Homemade granola– Make up a large batch of granola and freeze it. Because granola has nuts, seeds and grains, all of which have oils in them, it can become rancid quickly. Store prepped granola in the freezer and pull it out to toss on yogurt, serve with warm almond milk, pack in hiking bags or stuff into baked apples.
Make nut milk-–Easy to make and use. Nut milks have unique flavors that can add delight to your drinks and meals. Make a thicker cream to pour over hot baked apples or make thinner to add to smoothies. They make wonderful hot chocolate too!
Toss them onto a salad
Add them to rice or whole grain pilafs
Candy them–Drizzle a little honey or maple syrup over nuts and roast with cinnamon, nutmeg and ginger. Toast until fragrant. Or, if you prefer savory, roast them with sage, rosemary and thyme. Great for gifts.
Just leave them out on the counter–If there is a bowl of nuts (shelled or unshelled) hanging out, somebody starts munching on them. I never leave out large bowls of unshelled because of the unstable oil–but usually the bowl is emptied before they can go rancid.
Toss them onto hot cereals–Livens up oatmeal, teff, quinoa or whatever your morning porridge is.
Make a crust–Use the left over nut pulp to make a crust for meats or fish.