Though one of the most popular and recognizable “nuts” in the United States, peanuts are actually not true nuts. Rather, they are the shell-enclosed seeds of a plant that’s related to peas and beans. The peanut pods grow below the ground, and both the shell and kernel are soft until the peanuts are dried. While their physical structure and nutritional benefits resemble that of other legumes, their culinary use is much more similar to that of nuts and so that is how we’ve classified them.
Peanuts are thought to have originated in South America. Archeological evidence shows that ancient Incan graves contained jars filled with peanuts, probably left with the dead to provide nourishment during their long journey to the afterlife. In the 1500s peanuts migrated to Africa with Spanish and Portuguese explorers.
They were introduced to Colonial America by African slaves in the 18th century. Known as groundnuts, goobers, or ground peas in those days, peanuts were generally regarded as food for livestock and the poor. With the outbreak of the Civil War, however, consumption of peanuts increased as soldiers on both sides turned to this food for nourishment. By the late 19th century, peanuts were being sold freshly roasted by street vendors and at baseball games, fairs, and circuses. Peanut butter had also been developed by this time.
The peanut didn’t come into its own horticulturally, however, until botanist George Washington Carver began researching peanuts, sweet potatoes, and soybeans as rotation crops for cotton in 1903. His work at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama led him to eventually develop hundreds of different uses for peanuts, including shoe polish and shaving cream. Carver came to be known as the father of the peanut industry.
Peanut production rose rapidly during and after the World Wars. Today some 3.4 billion pounds of peanuts are produced in the United States each year, about 50 percent of which goes into peanut butter. On average, Americans eat approximately 7 pounds of peanuts and peanut products per person per year.
Types of Peanuts and Peanut Butter
Four major types of peanuts are grown in the United States: runners, Spanish peanuts, Valencia, and Virginia peanuts.
Packed with nutritional benefits, peanuts supply an impressive amount of plant protein as well as vitamin E, folate, niacin, and magnesium. They provide a good amount of fiber, and contain cholesterol-lowering plant sterols. Peanuts are also low in saturated fat and rich in beneficial fats.
While peanut butter is rich in fat, it is highly monounsaturated, a type of fat that doesn’t boost blood cholesterol. Peanut oil, too, contains monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. Still, it is important to keep in mind that although peanuts and peanut butter have a favorable fats profile, they are still high in calories and should be eaten in moderation.
Peanuts also contain a small amount of a protective flavonoid called resveratrol, which may reduce LDL cholesterol and help prevent blood clots. Resveratrol, also found in red wine, has gotten a lot of attention in the media for its potential benefits, but so far no clinical trials have proven that it prevents disease and extends longevity in people.
For a full listing of nutrients, see Peanuts in the National Nutrient Database.
How to Choose and Cook with Peanuts
They’re a nutritious snack, but peanuts can also be a source of aflatoxin, a toxin produced by certain strains of mold. Here's what to watch for when buying peanuts, plus tips for storing and using them.
Published December 04, 2015