Nuts: characteristics, nutrients, benefits and types

Find out about the properties of the main types of nuts, such as almonds, pistachios and cashews
Almonds are type of nuts | Pixabay

Nuts are a really necessary food if you plan to have a healthy, balanced diet. The great variety of nuts we can find in nature makes it easy to eat any type of them, with any texture or flavour.

In this article, we are going to list the main characteristics of nuts, their uses, their nutritional value and the benefits they bring to our body when eaten regularly. We will also discuss the properties of pistachios, walnuts, almonds, cashews and other popular types of nuts.

Characteristics of nuts

We call “nut” the type of fruit with a water content lower than 50% of its capacity. In botany, we talk about nuts when the external shell of a fruit becomes increasingly harder during the maturation process, leaving the seed inside, unattached to the external shell.

There is a great variety of nuts in nature and it’s important to introduce them to our usual diet given the amount of nutrients they provide your body with, as we will see below.

Nuts can have different characteristics. We can see some are fleshier, whereas others drier; their vegetable fat content may also vary. The characteristic that is common to all types of nuts is the shell that covers them in their natural state, which can either be more or less hard and tough.

Nuts have been known to humankind for millennia -certainly before the birth of Christ. In Pre-Columbian America, we can find reports on the benefits of peanuts, and we have historical evidence that ancient Romans would eat walnuts, pistachios, as well as other types of nuts.

Uses of nuts

Nuts have been traditionally used -above all- for gastronomic purposes; nevertheless, some cultures have also promoted the medicinal benefits of this foodstuff.

Nuts have been given a great range of gastronomic uses in many countries. For example, in the Western Mediterranean region nuts are usually served as a midday snack or after dinner to improve digestion.

It is common worldwide to find healthy salads loaded with many types of nuts such as sunflower seeds, peanuts, pistachios, almonds, walnuts or pine nuts.

Nut oil, one of the many medicinal uses of nuts, is used for massaging, following the benefits it brings to both our muscles and skin.

These natural oils include almond oil, pistachio oil, walnut oil or peanut oil;  they can also be used for gastronomic purposes.

Nutritional facts

Nuts are some of the most nutritious foods we can find. Their high nutritional content added to their inexistent amount of fat, makes this food group a perfect option to add to our daily diet and get all the necessary nutrients for our body. It is recommended to eat a handful of nuts a day.

Most nuts are rich in nutrients like proteins, minerals, carbohydrates, saturated fats and monounsaturated fats, essential amino acids and high-density cholesterol (HDL, or “good” cholesterol). Besides, each type of nut has its individual characteristics and its own nutrient content.

For example, walnuts –especially Brazil nuts- are rich in selenium and zinc; pistachios have a higher amount of natural fats; almonds carry proteins and carbohydrates, and hazelnuts contain a lot of vitamins and minerals.

It is best to eat nuts raw, rather than roasted or cooked in any way so that they can keep all their nutritional properties intact. They can easily decrease their nutritional value once they have been processed.

Health benefits

It is scientifically proven that eating nuts regularly provides great benefits to our health. They generally reduce the risk of heart-related diseases, respiratory problems, arthritis, anemia, digestive problems, diabetes and some types of cancer.

Apart from that, their calcium content contributes to healthy bones and muscles; the vegetable fats in nuts help improve blood circulation and their mineral content increases fertility.

Types of nuts

In the following lines, we will review the main properties of the most well-known nuts, as well as their culinary uses and their most distinctive characteristics.

We refer in particular to 7 examples of nuts: walnuts, almonds, hazelnuts, pistachios, cashews, sunflower seeds and peanuts. The latter are considered and used as nuts even though they are not if we follow a strict definition of the term.

Walnuts

The walnut is the fruit of the common walnut tree (Juglans regia). Walnuts are one of the most popular types of nuts worldwide. As a culinary ingredient, they are consumed mostly fresh - for example in salads or as a snack- although it is also common to cook them, for example, to prepare sauces.

Almonds

Morphologically, the almond is characterized by a large, hard shell that cannot be eaten, and by a comparatively small seed. The scientific name for the almond tree is Prunus dulcis.

Almonds are used as a snack and as an ingredient in pastries, for example, in ice cream or cakes. One of the properties of almonds is their allergenic potential - that is, their ability to cause allergic reactions in susceptible people.

Hazelnuts

Hazelnuts can be eaten raw or cooked, and an oil of intense flavor is extracted from them. They have been attributed with benefits relating to different aspects of health, such as regulation of the circulatory system or prevention of bodywear associated with aging.

As with almonds, these nuts are popular as a confectionery ingredient; for example, some chocolate creams contain hazelnuts.

Pistachios

Pistachios are nuts characterized by their shell and greenish seed, which is the edible part of the pistachio. They are used as an ingredient in sauces, fillings, ice cream, cakes and other recipes.

Cashews

The cashew is probably one of the most nutritious types of nuts, as well as the most valued for its flavor.

Cashews are not only used as cooking ingredients but also to make cosmetics, paint, insecticide, medicines and other products.

Sunflower seeds

Sunflower seeds are a very popular type of nut as a snack and even as a "leisure food". Besides being a foodstuff, sunflower seeds have been used throughout history to prepare dyes, as well as hair and skin oils.

Peanuts

Although technically peanuts are legumes and not nuts, morphologically and from a food and culinary point of view we can consider them as such because they are very similar to foods of this type -for example, they are consumed as snacks very often.

References:

  • Alasalvar, C.; Shahidi, F. Tree Nuts: Composition, Phytochemicals, and Health Effects (Nutraceutical Science and Technology). CRC. p. 143.

  • Aune, D.; Keum, N.; Giovannucci, E.; Fadnes, L.T.; Boffetta, P.; Greenwood, D.C.; Tonstad, S.; Vatten, L.J.; Riboli, E.; Norat, T. (2016). Nut consumption and risk of cardiovascular disease, total cancer, all-cause and cause-specific mortality: a systematic review and dose-response meta-analysis of prospective studies. BMC Medicine. 14(1): 207.

  • Black, M. H.; Halmer, P. (2006). The encyclopedia of seeds: science, technology and uses. Wallingford, UK: CABI. p. 228.

  • Kris-Etherton P.M.; Yu-Poth S.; Sabaté J.; Ratcliffe H.E.; Zhao G.; Etherton T.D. (1999). Nuts and their bioactive constituents: effects on serum lipids and other factors that affect disease risk. Am J Clin Nutr. 70 (3 Suppl): 504S–511S.

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