Are Peanuts Good for You?
Find out the 3 main reasons you should be eating peanuts and get tips on the healthiest way to eat peanuts.
Are Peanuts Good For You?
I’ve talked before about the many health benefits you get from nuts. Nuts are a great vegetarian source of protein, fiber, and healthy fats. Diets high in nuts and nut products have been linked to reduced risk of heart disease and certain cancers and have been shown to help with weight management. They’re relatively non-perishable and easy to carry around with you.
But the most commonly consumed nut is not really a nut at all. Peanuts, also known as ground nuts, are technically legumes. They are more closely related to chickpeas and soybeans than they are to almonds, walnuts, or other so-called tree nuts.
The 3 Main Health Benefits of Peanuts
Peanuts offer all the health benefits of tree nuts—which is great because peanuts tend to be cheaper and more widely available than a lot of other nuts. In addition, peanuts offer a few bonus benefits that you don’t get from tree nuts.
Peanuts are high in protein and other nutrients. Because they are actually legumes and not true nuts, peanuts are higher in protein than most nuts—and the protein they provide is more complete. Peanuts are also a better source of folate, which not only protects against birth defects but also helps build strong bones and provides protection against heart disease and cancer. In addition, peanuts are a good source of vitamin E, a nutrient that many of us don’t get enough of in our diets.
Peanuts have some “designer” antioxidants. You’ve probably heard of resveratrol. It’s a special antioxidant, found in red wine and grape juice, that’s thought to have heart-protective and cancer-preventive qualities. But you may not have heard that next to grape skins, peanuts are one of the richest sources of resveratrol.
By the way, if you’re wondering—as I was—whether the resveratrol in peanuts is also concentrated in the skins, as it is in grapes, it turns out that this is not the case. The resveratrol is found in the nut itself, not the papery brown coating.
And here’s a tidbit that my listeners in the Southern U.S. will appreciate: Boiled peanuts—which are a regional specialty in peanut-growing states—have ten times as much resveratrol as you’ll find in roasted peanuts or peanut butter. In fact, the amount of resveratrol in boiled peanuts is comparable to red wine. (As I pointed out in my article on raw diets, cooking doesn’t always reduce the nutritional quality of foods!)
Even if you don’t care for boiled peanuts—they are sort of an acquired taste—roasting peanuts also increases their antioxidant capacity, just not quite as much.
Peanuts are high in phytosterols. Eating foods that contain phytosterols helps to promote healthy cholesterol levels and protect against heart disease. There’s also some interesting new research on the cancer-fighting potential of phytosterols. Some studies have specifically linked peanut consumption (as opposed to overall nut consumption) to lower rates of colon cancer.
Why Are Peanut Allergies on the Rise?
The latest research suggests that unless your child has been diagnosed with a peanut allergy, there’s no good reason to avoid them, In fact, there may be some advantages to not avoiding them.
For reasons no one can really explain, peanut allergies have doubled in the last decade. Even if you don't have kids yourself, you've probably noticed that severe peanut allergies have gotten to be a much bigger deal lately. The child care facility at my gym has large signs informing parents that no peanut-containing snacks may be brought in because so many kids have peanut allergies. Last year, I was even on a flight where they couldn't serve peanut snacks because there was a child on board with a peanut allergy so severe that having a packet of peanuts open on the plane would be enough to cause a grave reaction.
Should You Avoid Giving Peanuts to Young Kids?
Because peanut allergies are so common, the conventional wisdom has been to avoid introducing peanuts to children before the age of nine months. Many obstetricians also tell their patients not to eat peanuts during pregnancy or while breast-feeding. But more recent studies have found that avoiding peanuts during pregnancy does not reduce peanut allergies in infants. What’s more, it appears that infants who are given peanut products earlier in life actually seem to have fewer peanut allergies. (See Resources, below, for links to the research.)
Check with your pediatrician or obstetrician for more guidance, especially if peanut allergies run in your family. However, the latest research suggests that unless your child has been diagnosed with a peanut allergy, there’s no good reason to avoid them, In fact, there may be some advantages to not avoiding them.
And for those who do have peanut allergies, there are a few potential breakthroughs on the horizon. One involves breeding peanuts that don’t contain the specific proteins that trigger peanut allergy. Another focuses on a botanical extract or drug that may block the allergic reaction. A third option is a desensitization therapy. All of these remain experimental but the outlook is rather hopeful. (See Resources, below, for links to more information.)
Do You Need to Worry About Aflatoxins in Peanuts?
Peanuts are susceptible to infection from a certain fungus that produces a toxic compound called aflatoxin. Aflatoxin is a naturally occurring compound, not a man-made chemical. Nonetheless, it is a known carcinogen that is many times more toxic than DDT.
The risk of aflatoxin exposure from peanut products produced or sold in the United States is pretty low. Peanut farmers in the U.S. grow disease resistant varieties and use other controls to prevent fungal infection on crops and in storage. Products—both those grown in the U.S. and those imported from elsewhere—are screened for aflatoxin and rejected if levels exceed a fairly low threshold. (See Resources, below, for links to more information.)
As I talked about in my article on the safety of raw milk, there is no way to make our food supply 100% safe. Seeing as eating is pretty much non-negotiable, we’re forced to live with a certain amount of risk. In my opinion, in the grand scheme of things, the risk of aflatoxin exposure from peanuts or peanut butter is really not worth worrying about. You’re far more likely to get E. coli from an undercooked hamburger or spinach salad than you are to get cancer from eating peanut butter.
That said, aflatoxin exposure is particularly hazardous if you have any sort of liver disease, particularly a hepatitis infection. If I personally had liver disease, I think I’d probably avoid peanuts and peanut products just to be on the safe side.
How to Buy and Eat Peanuts
My favorite way to enjoy peanuts is roasted in the shell with no added salt. Remember that roasting actually improves the antioxidant content of peanuts. Dry- or oil-roasted shelled peanuts are also OK, but look for brands that are either unsalted or lightly-salted. Read the ingredient list and avoid any brand that includes MSG, sugar, or other flavorings. A serving of peanuts is one ounce. That’s about 30 shelled peanuts or 15 nuts in the shell.
You can also enjoy your peanuts as peanut butter. A serving is 2 tablespoons. Ideally, peanut butter should contain peanuts, salt (if you like), and not much else. Avoid brands that add sugar, hydrogenated oils, and other additives. Peanut butter is naturally high in fat so it may seem as if a reduced-fat peanut butter would be a good idea. I’m not so sure. They usually have added sugar, salt, and other processed ingredients like defatted peanut flour. Often, reduced fat peanut butter isn’t even that much lower in calories than regular peanut butter. If anything, replacing calories from healthy fats with calories from sugar is a step in the wrong direction. Go for the real stuff.
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Have a great week and remember to eat something good for me!
Resveratrol content of peanuts (USDA Agricultural Research Service)
Early consumption of peanuts in infance reduces peanut allergy (Journal article0
Peanut allergies, children and pregnancy (March of Dimes)
Allergen-free peanuts (News release)
Experimental treatments for peanut allergies (Peanut Institute)
Aflatoxin controls (USDA)
Peanuts image from Shutterstock