Late summer to early winter is the peak harvest time for nuts. Nature’s little powerhouses, nuts possess all the energy, nutrients and materials to create a towering, strong tree, making them one of the richest foods available for humans to eat. One short blog isn’t enough space to tackle all 300 edible types of tree nuts, but it is more than adequate to get a brief overview of the nutritional benefits and energetics of nuts along with safe 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 of protein. However that same serving gives you 260 calories – something to consider if you are calorie counting. These amino acids are pretty well balanced but lack the methionine and tryptophan found in animal proteins. However, mixed with whole grains (those that still have the hull intact), as many traditional cultures do, you can easily create a complete protein.
Fats – Don’t let the word scare you. We need healthy fats to maintain healthy hormones, immunity and nervous systems. It’s fats that give nuts their delicious flavor that satiate us. 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 showing their benefits in lowering cholesterol and protecting the heart. Nut’s fat content varies from about 50% (found in peanuts –not truly a nut– 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 almonds provides about 4 grams of fiber. Fiber is essential for maintaining healthy bowel movements, weight balance, hormones and colon health. Need more info on Fiber?
Vitamins and Minerals – Here again, nuts vary but many contain iron, magnesium, calcium, potassium, vitamin E and zinc, to name a few.
The Asian energetics of nuts
Overall nuts build and strengthen the body. They fight deficiencies and can add weight. Yin building (fluids and fats) and warming, nuts are good for thin, weak and frail types but should be avoided if there is excess dampness, phlegm or yeast. Too many nuts can scatter the energy, making a person feel ungrounded or unfocused. You know…kind of scattered and squirrelly.
Acorns – Also called oak nuts acorns are arguable the most abundant nut you will find – if you can beat the squirrels to them. I can’t walk around my block without crunching over acorns, but they are time consuming little buggers.They were once a staple for the Native Americans, Europeans and Asians. They have a high fat and starch content which was much sought after by the Native Americans, to the point of tribal feuding over trees. Their leather shell is the least hard of all the nuts making them very perishable and they have a very strong bitter tannin on them that must be soaked off first to enjoy the nut. Personally, I soak my nuts overnight anyway and then dry them before use…so not a problem for me. Now, only a few cultures like the Koreans use them regularly as flour for noodles and in soup dishes. However, foragers and gleaners are starting to revive the use of acorns – yay!
Almonds – Almonds have a fairly high fat content (60%). They are high in vitamin E, potassium, magnesium, calcium, iron and zinc. From a Asian medicine perspective almonds are sweet and have a slightly warming nature. They benefit the Lungs and Colon by relieving cough and moving out 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.
Cashews – Kidney shaped cashews benefit the Kidneys – this is a case of ‘like treats like’ those cute little kidney shaped cashews treat the kidneys. They also benefit 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 – Chestnuts are one of the oldest nut varieties. They have been a staple for many cultures in Europe, Asia and America and there are hundreds of 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. The 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 that is 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 high cholesterol levels.
Peanuts – Not truly a nut, but a legume like peas. Peanuts grow underground, but they have somehow been tossed into the nut category in the food industry. Peanuts hold the honor of being one of the most allergenic foods. They are also susceptible to a carcinogenic fungus that is more potent than DDT. Does this mean they are bad for you – no, unless you are allergic to them. 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 and process them appropriately. See below.
Pecans – 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 have been the star in multiple studies for protecting the heart–including several by the American Heart Association.
Pinenuts – 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 heart health. 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.
Pistachios – Another ancient, heart healthy nut pistachios are stars when it comes to vitamins and minerals including; B1, B3, B6, copper, manganese, magnesium, zinc, selenium, calcium and potassium. Another nut shown to help lower blood cholesterol, pistachios also have the ability to reduce inflammatory dermatitis. In Asian Medicine terms, they enter the Heart, Liver and Gallbladder and treat jaundice.
Walnuts – Walnuts look like little brains – and that is exactly where they benefit – the brain. Dating back to 7000 BCE, walnuts are likely one of the oldest tree foods eaten by man. Their are two main species. Black walnuts, are smaller and little more bitter than the English walnut which has a larger, sweeter, white meat. Again, 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 Asian medicine terms, walnuts benefit the Heart, the Kidneys, the spine and the brain.
Preparing and storing nuts
Nuts are high in fats. Once these fats are exposed to air, the oil becomes unstable and starts to oxidize, becoming rancid, which can cause problems with 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 making their flavor more vibrant and less…bitter. All nuts become softer, sweeter and have a more butter like texture.
Oven drying nuts – Once nuts are soaked, drain them and spread them out on a cooking sheet. Bake at 250 for about 40 minutes stirring occasionally. Nuts should be fragrant. Scrape nuts from hot pan onto a cooling surface or pan. Use immediately or cool them thoroughly before storing in the fridge or freezer.
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.
A few ways to include nuts in your diet
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. Make a thicker cream to pour over hot baked apples or pears 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 dishes.
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.
Try miso and nutbutter dip
Make a crust – Use the left over nut pulp to make a crust for meats or fish.
Toss them into stir fry