Nuts and seeds have been one of mankind's staple foods for centuries. Because they are highly nutritious, easily cultivated and stored, nuts and seeds are just about as perfect a food as one would wish.
Today we usually think of nuts and seeds as "snack" foods or the garnish on more serious feeds such as bread, but in earlier times the gathering and storing of nuts and seeds was a vital part of mankind's harvest activity.
Not all "nuts" are truly nuts, it seems. Some "nuts" are actually fruits by reason of the way they are produced on the plant or tree; for example almonds, cashews and coconuts are fruits. Pinenuts and Brazils are actually seeds and peanuts are not nuts at all but legumes (like peas and beans). But because all of these foods is oil-rich and all are high in protein it is convenient to refer to than all as "nuts".
NUTRITIONAL POWER HOUSES
All nuts are high-energy (calorie dense) foods due to the oils they contain. Compared to other vegetables or plant foods, nuts rate very well in the protein department too. An example: Almonds are 18% protein compared to lean beef at 22% protein.
While we're talking about the oil content of nuts, remember that this oil is vegetable and therefore unsaturated fat and a good source of linoleic acids which help control cholesterol. However, we are talking about uncooked or unroasted nut oils when we're talking about their being unsaturated fats. Deep fried nuts are very high in saturated fats and not a healthy food.
All nuts are good B-Complex Vitamin sources and contain significant amounts of the minerals calcium, magnesium and iron. Vitamin E is also found in nuts - we would expect to find this because of the high oil content. Nature protects natural oils from rancidity with Vitamin E.
The best way to store nuts is in their own shells. If purchased this way, sound clean nuts will keep 12 months. If unshelled, 3-4 months is maximum and then best if cool or refrigerated. I store shelled nuts in the freezer if I need to keep them longer.
NUTTY FACTS FROM A TO Z
The natural history of nuts is fascinating. Almonds have had a place in recorded history since biblical times. The Old Testament tells us Aaron's rod was made to miraculously bloom and bear almonds. Almonds are the oldest and most widely cultivate nut and they do well in most temperate fruit-growing climates.
Two types of Almonds are grown: sweet and bitter. We eat the sweet variety and the bitter is grown for processing into almond extracts and cosmetics. Almonds contain helpful chemical compounds called cyanogenic glucosides which have been of interest to cancer research as a preventative substance.
Brazil nuts are actually seeds which grow inside a hard coconut-like outer shell in packed segments (much like an orange in appearance). Brazil nut trees grow to 60 meters with trunks up to 2.4 meters in diameter and no branches below 16 meters above the ground. Harvesting is literally wind-driven and the heavily nut-laden branches are only gathered after high winds knock them to the earth.
Cashew nuts grow as small appendages to the cashew "apple" which is an orange-colored pear-shaped fruit that is eaten separately fresh or preserved. Cashews are another native to Brazil but most commercial production is in India. The tree is an tropical evergreen and a relative to poison ivy.
This is one "nut" never sold in its outer shell because of the toxic irritating oil which occurs between the inner and the outer shell of the cashew and which must be carefully burned way before the nut can be touched. Cashews are 20% protein, 43% fat and contain high amounts of magnesium, phosphorous and potassium.
Chestnuts, unlike all the other "nuts" is a very low fat food but high in carbohydrates (natural sugars), In Christian symbolism, the Chestnut represents chastity and as a food Chestnuts are widely used in Europe and Asia, Chestnut flour can be made from dried nuts and is an easily digestible addition to soups, stuffings and biscuits.
Hazels are are members of the Birch family (Corylus) and have a legendary association with Ancient religions. The Celts considered the Hazel the "Tree of Knowledge" while the French and Germans have a folk tradition that promises a young woman a good husband if she dances beneath a Hazel Nut tree.
Hazels grow wild in the USA and Europe, but commercial production is usually in Spain and Turkey. Hazelnut oil is very delicate in taste and makes a superb salad dressing. This oil is luxurious to use on the skin in massage as well.
Macadamias are the true "Aussie Nut" native to Queensland but also cultivated in Hawaii and California in the USA. Macadamias have the highest oil content of all the nuts (70%) and this beautiful oil is highly sought after for cosmetic ingredients. The shell of the Macadamia is rock-hard and commercial shelling takes place after the outer shells have been heated to make them brittle.
PEANUTS: THE "GROUND NUT" THAT'S NOT A NUT
Peanuts are legumes, develop their seeds in shells below the ground and are native to South America. They were introduced to Africa in the 17th Century by the Spanish and Portuguese then to Europe and back to North America as a cheap easily transportable food for the burgeoning slave trade between Africa and the USA.
Peanuts were first used as a boiled vegetable and were known as "Goober Peas" in the American South. Despite recent bad press, properly stored peanuts are a rich source of protein, fats and calcium. They also have a "low glycaemic index" which means the natural sugars they contain digest very slowly and are released into the bloodstream gradually - good news for the diabetic who likes peanuts!
Farming peanuts enriches the soil with nitrogen and every part of the peanut plant has been shown to be modifiable into a commercially viable product (thanks to the intensive research of one George Washington Carver, former black American slave).
Moving on to Pecans, Pine Nuts and Pistachio Nuts, the first is a native North American nut second highest in oil of all the nuts, Pecans should be stored in the cool and consumed within 4 months if shelled. Pine "nuts" are seeds of the Mediterranean Stone Pine, as it is known in the American Southwest.
Stone Pine "nuts" are the highest in protein of all nuts (over 30%). Pistachios are also seeds and grow on an evergreen tree that is related to the cashew. Pistachios are also seeds and grow on an evergreen tree that is related to the cashew. Pistachios originally grew in Asia Minor (Turkey, the Lebanon, Israel) and have been a food for mankind for centuries.
Iron and Potassium are highest in the pistachio compared to other nuts. Pistachios are best if only sundried; however most commercial crops are roasted and/or salted and sometimes are cosmetically dyed red or green (especially if in confectionery). Avoid the dyed version for health's sake.
Walnuts are "stones" inside the fruits of the Juglans regia tree native to the Middle East. The Greeks referred to the walnut tree as "The Persian Tree" and thought the deep convoluted surfaces of the nut resembled those seen on the human brain.
European Walnuts are one variety commonty available (sometimes called English Walnuts) as they grow all over the Northern Hemisphere. Black Walnuts are native to North America have very hard shells and were a favourite stored food of the American Indians.
Black walnuts are higher in protein than English (20% as compared to 14%) contain double the iron content, but much less calcium and fibre. In summary, nuts are a valuable food and no less so because we need only a small amount of them to enrich our diets.