All through human history, societies have benefited from the rich nutritional profile of nuts. Nomadic people first gathered nuts growing in the wild, and around 10,000 BCE settled populations began to cultivate nut trees.
Nuts served as an alternative to meat and fish, and were especially vital during periods of famine when hunting and fishing were hindered by weather conditions or when prey was scarce. In some parts of the world where meat is forbidden, nuts are still a staple food, just as they were in ancient times.
Highly varied in shape, size, texture, and flavor, nuts grow all over the world and are marketed in a variety of forms. Most nuts can be eaten as is from the tree. Others are dried to preserve them, a process that helps to improve flavor.
While we tend to regard nuts as a snack food, they are actually much more nourishing than most snacks. Nuts are an important source of a wide range of nutrients. Nuts are also versatile cooking ingredients. For centuries they have been processed into butter-like pastes, ground into nutritious flours, pressed for fragrant cooking oils, and pulverized with water to produce beverages that resemble milk.
Types of Nuts
Here are some of the many varieties of nuts and nut products (oils, butters, and flours) you might find in stores and farmers' markets.
Nuts were once considered high-fat villains, but they are now emerging as nutritional heroes. Nuts are a concentrated source of plant protein, heart-healthy monounsaturated fatty acids, and an array of vitamins and minerals. Since nuts are intended to feed the new plants they are meant to propagate, they are full of nutrients required for the early growth of the new nut tree.
Though the amino acid content of nuts isn’t “complete,” it nevertheless provides a high-quality plant protein. And while their fat content is rather high, very little of it is saturated. Instead, nuts are high in monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. The fat content varies from nut to nut, with chestnuts having the least fat and macadamias containing the most (though 70 percent of it is monounsaturated).
Each nut has its own nutritional virtues, which is just another reason to eat a variety of these valuable foods. For example, walnuts stand out for their alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) content. Brazil nuts provide an exceptional amount of the mineral selenium, and almonds offer excellent protein and vitamin E with less fat than most other nuts.
Numerous studies have linked nuts to health and longevity, including better heart health and lower blood cholesterol. There's even some evidence that, despite their relatively high fat content, nuts may aid in weight control. There are plenty of substances in nuts that may explain their heart-healthy effects, including monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids, vitamin E, folate, magnesium, copper, potassium, and fiber, as well as plant sterols.
For a full listing of nutrients, see the National Nutrient Database:
How to Choose the Best Nuts
Shelled or in the shell, packaged or loose, here's what to look for when selecting nuts at the store.
How to store nuts
The high fat content of nuts makes them prone to rancidity. Heat, light, and humidity will speed spoilage. Raw unshelled nuts, however, keep very well, as long as six months to a year if stored in a cool, dry place.
Shelled nuts will keep for three to four months at room temperature in a cool, dry place. Keep them in their original package or, once the package is opened, transfer them to plastic bags or freezer containers. For longer storage, keep them in the refrigerator or freezer.
If nuts are properly wrapped, freezing will not significantly affect the texture or flavor, and they need not be thawed for cooking. Nuts for eating should be thawed at room temperature and then toasted or freshened in the oven before serving.
Published December 08, 2015