Despite the abundance of nutrient-dense healthy food choices that surround us, many among us don’t eat them. Dietary fiber and some micronutrient shortfalls are so common that they’re classified as “nutrients of public health concern” (1). While your safety net might consist of over the counter or prescription supplements, getting your nutrients from whole food sources is arguably the best route for most of us (2). But with all the conflicting advice about what’s healthy and what’s superhealthy, it can be confusing, inaccessible and unnecessarily expensive to eat for wellbeing. In times like these, we can all benefit from some back-to-real-food basics. Happily science is helping us shake out that tree.
Data shows that people who consume the most tree-nuts in any form – raw, toasted or as part of a dish – have overall better “diet quality” (3), due in part, I suspect, to a phenomenon one of my students once dubbed “add the good”. It’s what happens when good quality foods are part of your regular diet – there’s just less room on your plate for the “unhealthy” stuff.
It has been noted that people who eat nutrient-dense tree nuts (4) like almonds, Brazil nuts, cashews, coconuts and walnuts on a regular basis, have better nutrient intakes at or above the average requirements for vitamins A, C, E, calcium, magnesium, potassium and other trace minerals (5). And along with fiber, tree nuts provide some of the best sources of good quality fats, including in some cases Omega 3, the anti-inflammatory powerhouse.
With taste, texture and versatility on their side, what could be easier than adding a handful of hazelnuts, pignoli or pistachios to your meals? Just a quick scan across the globe shows them in every culinary tradition, from Syrian muhammara and Italian pesto to Galician gazpacho and Middle-Eastern dukkah. You could, without a doubt, make a tree-nut-based recipe every day of the year!
But if you’re just starting to think about redefining your healthy meals or looking to fill in those nutrient shortfalls, here are some tips to get you going:
- sprinkle toasted tree nuts onto salads, cooked grains or vegetable side dishes
- soak a quarter-cup of tree nuts overnight and blend into your morning smoothie
- press half-inch fish filets into finely chopped tree nuts, then pan sear each side until golden and cooked through
Raw, shelled, blanched or toasted? Because tree nuts are concentrated sources of “healthy” fats they’re also prone to rancidity. Not quite as fragile as pure oils, but light, heat and oxygen are still their biggest enemies. What form you buy them in and from where will make a big difference in a kind of quality that you can actually taste. Ideally, you want to purchase tree nuts raw so you can capitalize on their versatility, cooking and eating them any way you like. In lieu of raw, try to purchase them blanched or toasted from a store with good temperature control and a high turnover (meaning they rotate and replace their stock regularly).
When selecting tree nuts in their shell, you can be fairly certain they haven’t been heat-treated. Shelled nuts on the other hand don’t always hold up to their label claim. Among some of the popular choices, here are the industry standards:
Almonds – pasteurization is required by law in the U.S, Mexico and Canada, so unless you are purchasing these directly from a farmer, you are most likely buying almonds that have been roasted, blanched or steamed (1).
Brazil Nuts – there is no mandate on pasteurization or any regulation on what constitutes raw in this category so knowing the source is the only way to tell whether these have been cooked in some way. Still, their large size and high fat content means they can easily go bad, tasting of rot and rancid oil. However you find them, keep them stored in the fridge until you’ve eaten every last one.
Cashews – truly raw cashews can be fatal owing to a chemical in the shell that’s a kin to poison ivy so they are always steamed to remove this toxic outer layer. Producers may market these as “raw” because the cashews themselves have not apparently been roasted or cooked.
Hazelnuts – after washing, hazelnuts are typically dried at temperatures at or around 100 degrees, but this varies among producers. When you can’t shell them yourself or taste them at the store, try one when you get them home so you can be sure you’ll know the difference between what’s fresh and what’s not rot.
Walnuts – purchasing ones in their shell is a better guarantee that they will be truly raw as walnuts are often steamed in an effort to remove them from their rocky covers and later dried to prevent moisture-loving bacteria from settling in.
Raw or cooked, tree nuts will likely keep for 2-3 months in your freezer, refrigerator or in a cool, dark, dry place. They may still be edible, but not necessarily fresh tasting. Unless you’re taking advantage of bulk pricing, eat what you buy, don’t just squirrel them away.
Lately, I’ve been making a monthly batch of Trinkles (tree nut sprinkles!) to toss onto everything I’m eating from savory oatmeal to sweet fruit salads, roasted vegetables, dinner grains and everything in between. A jar or bowl’s worth on your countertop or at your desk can be a gentle reminder to enjoy them every day.
2 cup assorted tree nuts, roughly chopped
4 Tablespoons chia seeds or sesame seeds
¼ teaspoon sea salt
Mix nuts and seeds together and toast in a 325F degree oven for 12-15 minutes until golden. Remove from oven, toss with sea salt and cool completely before eating or storing in airtight container.
(1, 3, 5) O’Neil, C.E., et al. (2015). Tree Nut Consumption Is Associated with Better Nutrient Adequacy and Diet Quality in Adults: National Health Nutrition Examination Survey 2005-2010. Nutrients. 7:595-607. Doi: 10.3390/nu7010595
(2) Mayo Clinic Staff. (2014). Supplements: Nutrition in a pill? Healthy Lifestyle: Nutrition and healthy eating. Retrieved from Mayo Clinic website http://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-living/nutrition-and-healthy-eating/in-depth/supplements/art-20044894
(4) S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2015, January). Section 201(qq) of the Act defines the term “major food allergen” to include “tree nuts.” In addition to the three examples provided in section 201(qq) (almonds, pecans, and walnuts), what nuts are considered “tree nuts?” Retrieved from FDA website http://www.fda.gov/ForIndustry/FDABasicsforIndustry/ucm238807.htm
(6) Kiecolt-Glazer, J.K. et al. (2012). Omega-3 supplementation lowers inflammation in healthy middle-aged and older adults: a randomized controlled trial. Brain, Behavior and Immunity. 2012 Aug; 26(6): 988-98. doi: 10.1016/j.bbi.2012.05.011.