Nuts About Nuts . . . and Seeds
So you like to grab a handful of nuts and seeds between meals or at a party? What were once considered fatty and fattening foods, particularly nuts, have claimed a leading role in promoting good health—that is, if eaten in moderation. That’s good news, especially for the cook: nuts and seeds are extremely versatile, and lend both texture and flavor to stews, sandwiches, desserts, soups, and stews, plus many other recipes.
If you’ve enjoyed those many handfuls of nuts, you may think you know what they are. According to Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (tenth edition), a nut is a “hard-shelled dried fruit or seed with a separable rind or shell and interior kernel.” If that’s a bit confusing, just remember that all nuts are actually seeds, but all seeds—for example, the tiny seeds encased in a blueberry—are not necessarily nuts.
Nutty About Health
Researchers chime in on this: nuts are good for you! In 2006 the USDA published a report of research that shows that because nuts—from Brazil nuts, cashews, and hazelnuts, to pecans—are rich in phytochemicals, they actually protect against heart disease, diabetes, and certain cancers. Besides, nuts are rich in both vitamins and minerals.
According to studies conducted by the Harvard Medical School and the Harvard School of Public Health looking at how eating nuts affects heart health, men who regularly incorporate nuts into their diet can reduce the risk of heart disease. The researchers concluded that nuts contain the heart-healthy mono- and polyunsaturated fats, omega-3 fats, and arginine, all of which play a key role in benefiting the heart and keeping it healthy. But because nuts are calorie rich, people should cut way back on other fatty foods, keeping their nut intake to about one ounce a day, according to the FDA; see Harvard's website. Nuts on the A list include almonds, cashews, peanuts, pistachios, and walnuts.
The Harvard University Nurses’ Health Study indicates that women also benefit by including nuts in their diet. Of the 84,000 nurses studied for several decades, those who ate at least one ounce of nuts five times a week had a 27 percent lower chance of developing type 2 diabetes than those who rarely if ever ate nuts. Those whose nut intake came only from peanut butter still were less likely to develop the disease. The study took into account age, family history, and body mass index. Harvard researchers also state that regularly consuming nuts helps cut the risk of heart attacks or cardiovascular disease.
For more about nuts and your health, visit the Mayo Clinic's website.
In bygone eras, folklore relates, healers used walnuts for muscle aches and upset stomachs, and as a calming brain food that also boosted the IQ. But today’s scientists are evaluating the walnut for its possibilities of promoting heart health.
In 2006, the USDA published a report stating that walnuts not only reduce the bad cholesterol, they also may help reduce plaque buildup in the arteries. For the study, researchers used the English walnut ground to a meal and fed to hamsters, all of which had notably lower levels of a compound that causes plaque buildup. Presumably, walnuts will have the same positive benefits for human heart health. Whatever their health benefits may be, walnuts are full of fiber and health-promoting fatty acids.
According to the California Walnut Commission, humankind has been enjoying walnuts since 7000 b.c. Walnuts have played other roles in history: according to the Commission, Michelangelo used walnut oil when he painted the Sistine Chapel.
Toasting Nuts and Seeds
As with most foods, heating draws out and intensifies the inherent flavors in nuts and seeds. But both must be watched carefully because they heat up fast and can scorch. To toast whole nuts or seeds in a preheated 350°F oven, place them in a single layer on an ungreased sheet or pan for about 5 minutes, stirring several times. Remove them from the oven, and cool on a second sheet or pan.
To toast them on the stovetop, the same principle applies: moderate heat, single layer in a skillet, no oil or fat, and frequent stirring. Cool them in a separate pan. However you toast them, smaller seeds cook faster, so watch them carefully. Store unused nuts and seeds in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to two weeks.