Delicious, nutritious and versatile, nuts are an important ingredient in any diet, but particularly for vegetarians and vegans. They contain high levels of protein and ‘good’ fats, as well as an assortment of vitamins and minerals.
We use the word ‘nut’ loosely. A nut is defined as a simple dry fruit with one seed (very occasionally two) in which the seedcase wall becomes very hard at maturity. True nuts include pecans, sweet chestnuts and hazels.
Peanuts are actually a type of pea that grows underground, so they’re technically legumes. Originally from South America they’re now widely grown in the USA, particularly Georgia. India and China together account for over half the world’s production of peanuts.
Brazil nuts are not nuts either; they’re seeds contained in a pod which splits, and true nuts don’t split. One good sized brazil nut will give you a full day’s recommended allowance of selenium. More brazil nuts actually come from Bolivia than from Brazil.
Coconuts, almonds and walnuts are drupes – fruits with a fleshy outer coating, enclosing a hard shell, containing a seed.
Cashews are seeds of the cashew drupe (pictured below). The seed lining contains anacardic acid, a powerful irritant, so cashews are never sold in their skins. Unlike many brazil nuts, cashews come from Brazil.
Tiger nuts are actually tubers, so are a very useful substitute for those with nut allergies.
“People who eat nuts regularly have better health outcomes. This includes reduced rates of coronary heart disease (CHD), cancer, stroke, heart attacks, and lower chances of death.”
Like all seeds, nuts contain the nutrients and energy needed for a new plant to grow. They’re thus packed with vitamins, minerals, amino acids and ‘good’ fats – both monounsaturated and polyunsaturated.
The vegan’s friend, nuts are especially useful as a protein source on a plant-based diet.
Due to the high fat and protein content they’re slow to digest, so they help you feel fuller for longer. With their high calorific value, excessive quantities can obviously lead to weight gain though… so don’t go nuts 🙂
Tiger nuts are high in fibre and minerals, but comparatively low in protein and fat. Chestnuts are also low in fat and protein, and relatively high in starch.
|Almond||B2 and E|
|Brazil||B1, magnesium, phosphorus and selenium|
|Cashew||K, iron, zinc|
|Coconut (desiccated)||manganese, copper|
|Hazelnut||B vitamins, E, K, manganese|
|Peanut||B3, B9, E, potassium|
|Pine nut||B3, K, iron, zinc|
|Pistachio||A, B6, potassium|
|Walnut||magnesium, phosphorus, potassium|
Does roasting nuts turn good fat to bad? Not necessarily. The nuts you buy in the supermarket are often roasted – or actually deep-fried – in oil that could have trans fat in it. Dry roasted nuts – i.e. roasted without additional oil – should have all their good fats still intact, as long as they’re not over-done. To be on the safe side, you can roast them yourself in the oven. Roasting peanuts – for around 15-20 minutes at 180°C – brings them to a lovely golden crunchy state. The flavour of roasted nuts is far richer than raw – great for making things like nut butters. Roasting also helps to reduce antinutrients (see soaking below).
Nuts can be used as a protein-rich ingredient in many main courses, like nut roast (our very own recipe pictured above).
Nut butter can be made out of just about any sort of nut.
Nut milk is an invaluable substitute for dairy. We use a very economic coconut milk for smoothies made from desiccated coconut. (Thanks to wholenewmom.com for saving us a small fortune.)
Blended almonds and cashews can be made into ‘cheesy’ creamy sauces, and cashews can be used in a creamy dressing for salads such as coleslaw. Cashews and walnuts are also useful for making vegan ‘parmesan’.
Nuts can be made into flour – so good for gluten-free and paleo-inspired diets. Almond flour is particularly useful for cookies, crackers and pastry.
The equipment we use
Although nuts are packed with lots of good stuff, they also contain not-so-good stuff, like phytates, lectins and trypsin inhibitors. These are present to prevent the nut from germinating until conditions are right. They’re classed as antinutrients, as they actually block the absorption of many of the good minerals contained in the nuts.
Soaking breaks the antinutrients down, so the good stuff in the nuts is available to us. We’ve trawled through countless articles on soaking times, and while opinions differ widely, we’ve not yet found hard scientific evidence on how long each type of nut takes.
In the end we decided to start with the advice of Sally Fallon, in Nourishing Traditions. Basically she advises soaking all nuts in water with a little salt overnight – or 7-12 hours – at room temperature. Her exception is cashews, which should be limited to 2-6 hours, otherwise the good stuff starts leeching away as well.
We soak all our nuts at 42°C (108°F) in a yoghurt maker. Hard nuts like almonds, hazelnuts and peanuts we leave for 12 hours. In addition to cashews, we give pine nuts, pecans and walnuts just 4 hours – they’re soft to start with and we’ve found they go mushy if left longer.
Hygiene is especially important when soaking, especially at this temperature, as microbes love it. Ideally soak in a glass jar with a good seal, and make sure it’s carefully washed before use – either in a dishwasher or in very hot water (not boiling, or it’ll probably crack).
What about aflatoxin? This is a carcinogenic mould that can be found on nuts, grains and legumes – often when they’ve been stored improperly or for a long time. The processes that help deal with antinutrients will help remove aflatoxin to a large extent. Using organic produce that’s as fresh as possible is a good start. Careful storage and stock control at home will also help reduce the risk.
- In 2014 world production of almonds was 2.7 million tonnes. The USA provided 57% of this total. One million acres of land in California is being used to produce one billion kg of shelled almonds.
- In Brazil it’s illegal to cut down a brazil nut tree. In 2014 Brazil produced 40% of the world total, but Bolivia produced 47%.
- NASA has used pulverised walnut shells as thermal insulation in rocket nose cones. Apparently walnuts date back to 10,000BC.
- Industrial quantities of pistachio products have been known to spontaneously combust when not stored carefully, because of their high fat and low water content.
- Evidence of Mesolithic hazelnut processing was found on the island of Colonsay in Scotland, carbon dated at 9,000 years old. It’s thought the island’s inhabitants had a largely vegetarian diet, as there wasn’t much meat available. [Source]
- Coconut water is isotonic, and has a similar make-up to human blood plasma. Apparently you can survive on a diet of coconuts (ref. Papillon by Henri Charriere) but the high sugar content could cause tooth decay (ref. Tom Hanks in Castaway).
Got any tips or questions of your own about nuts? Leave us a comment below, we’d love to hear from you.