What most of us refer to as ‘nuts’ actually aren’t nuts at all.
It’s no secret that the peanut has been nothing more than an imposter, a legume seizing our throats and making us itchy since who knows when.
But almonds, cashews, coconuts, pecans, pistachios, macadamias and walnuts aren’t nuts either — they’re drupe seeds. Who knew?!
Whatever they are, research clearly shows they’re really good for us, with health experts saying we could probably be eating more nuts for our health. In fact, one study found people who ate a handful of nuts a day were likely to live longer than those who didn’t eat nuts.
From raw versus roasted to whether you need to know or care about activated almonds, here’s everything you need to know about eating nuts.
Lesson 1: Go raw and store in a cool, dark place
Buying nuts? A variety is best
It’s users choice when it comes to which nuts to buy and eat, but if health and nutritional benefits are on your mind, you’ll want to mix it up, University of Otago’s Department of Human Nutrition Associate Professor Rachel Brown says.
Nuts offer beneficial vitamins and minerals in varying quantities, and eating a variety ensures we’re reaping the benefits of each.
“We usually suggest that you mix them up if you want the best benefits because then you get all the good fats and micronutrients,” Dr Brown says.
Choosing raw and unsalted varieties is preferable says public health nutritionist, Rosemary Stanton.
Raw nuts will have a shorter shelf life than roasted ones says dietitian Belinda Neville, but if you’re an avid crunch seeker, it might be worth buying raw nut varieties and roasting them at home.
“Some studies show that if you roast nuts at really high temperatures, you’ll lose nutrients but if you’re roasting at lower temperatures at home, the losses are negligible,” Dr Brown says.
Studies conducted by Dr Brown found there was no difference in the cholesterol lowering properties of roasted nuts compared to raw nuts, when roasted for 10 minutes at 140 degrees Celsius.
Generally, nuts will keep at room temperature for a few months when stored in an airtight container in a cool dark spot.
However, not all nuts are created equally. Ones that are high in polyunsaturated fats like walnuts, pine nuts and Brazil nuts are best consumed quickly or stored in the fridge or freezer to ensure they remain fresher for longer, says Dr Brown.
Polyunsaturated fats are susceptible to oxidation — in short, they become rancid which is what can give nuts that “off” taste and weird smell.
Lesson 2: They have some surprising health benefits
Studies have shown that those of us who eat nuts regularly, tend to gain less weight over time than those who don’t.
Yes, most nuts are full of fat but it’s “good fat” (monounsaturated and polyunsaturated), with the exception of coconuts, which are very high in saturated fat (bad fat), says Dr Stanton.
Nuts are also rich in fibre and protein, which means they keep us fuller for longer, reducing the likelihood of overeating or filling up on junk food.
And according to the Australian Dietary Guidelines, consumption of nuts and seeds may help reduce the risk of heart disease.
Lesson 3: Use them for anything and everything!
Nuts are the food world’s equivalent of denim when it comes to versatility.
The Dieticians Association of Australia recommends including more nuts in your diet by eating them in their pulverised form aka nut butter.
Do yourself a favour — buy a jar of almond butter and some dates, put some of the almond butter inside the dates, then email to thank me later.
Nut ‘meals’ or grounded up nuts can be used as an alternative to flour, making them a great gluten-free option.
Nuts have received a bad rap in recent years when it comes to the amount of water required to grow them, particularly almonds and cashews.
Dr Brown says although yes, some nuts require a lot of water to grow, the amount pales in comparison to the water requirements of livestock.
The recent EAT-Lancet Commission on healthy diets from sustainable food systems recommends upping our nut consumption for both health and environmental reasons.
Dr Stanton says this is because nuts contain high amounts of beneficial nutrients when compared to the resources required to grow them.
Lesson 4: There’s no need to activate your almonds
If you’ve ever wondered what the hell an activated almond is — rest assured, we’ve got you covered.
Simply put, activated nuts that have been soaked in water for a period and then consumed in their softened state or after they’ve been dehydrated at low temperature.
Like watering a seed, it stimulates the germination process which breaks down phytic acid found in nuts.
“They’re the ‘trendy’ choice with no real evidence of benefits,” Dr Stanton says.
Which is just as well, because they’re also more expensive to buy than regular nuts — which are already steep!
Advocates for activated nuts are concerned that the phytic acid (also found in wholegrains and legumes) in ‘deactivated’ or regular nuts may interfere with the body’s absorption of some minerals such as iron, zinc and calcium.
Dr Stanton says that while it’s true that phytic acid may bind to some of the minerals in foods that contain it, it’s also an important antioxidant.
“There is also some evidence that phytic acid may have anti-cancer properties,” says Dr Stanton.
She says that if a person had to rely solely on nuts to survive, soaking nuts to reduce phytic acid may have some advantages; however, it would also reduce some of the B vitamins found in nuts.
“In the context of a varied diet, there’s no need to ‘activate’ the nuts,” she says.