Peanuts are not true nuts but pulses that grow underground. They are usually grouped with nuts because they have similar nutrition values – a good source of fats, protein, fibre and minerals. And because they are nutritious, tasty, versatile and affordable, peanuts are popular all over the world.
One ounce, which is 28 grams or a small handful, supplies seven grams of protein. Or, if you prefer peanut butter, two flat tablespoons deliver a similar quantity.
This amount of peanuts or peanut butter packs 2.4 grams of fibre, important for the digestive system, and 14 grams of fat, mostly monounsaturated – not essential but not harmful. There are also small amounts of saturated and omega-6 fats mixed in.
Peanuts are rich in fats, so be mindful of that if you’re watching your fat intake. However, studies show that peanut consumption doesn’t lead to weight gain, probably due to the fact that peanuts are very filling thanks to their protein and fibre content and this may reduce your consumption of other foods.
Peanuts are a relatively good source of many micronutrients – vitamins and minerals. An ounce contains small to moderate amounts of B group vitamins (all except B12) and vitamin E, calcium, iron, magnesium, potassium, selenium and zinc. All are vital to good health and peanuts nicely contribute to your overall nutrient intake.
You may not think of peanuts as a source of antioxidants so surprise, surprise, they contain quite a diverse bunch. One of them is resveratrol, the same antioxidant that’s found in red wine and is linked to a lower risk of heart disease and cancer. Another is p-coumaric acid, which protects tissues from damage and is anti-inflammatory. Roasting peanuts can even increase its levels by a fifth!
Peanuts also contain isoflavones, antioxidants that are found in many plants but are most often associated with soya. There’s a wealth of research showing how beneficial they are, including reducing the risk of heart disease and cancer.
Aflatoxins in peanuts
Peanuts can sometimes be contaminated with mould that produces aflatoxin – a compound toxic to the liver. Aflatoxin poisoning is not very common because you’d have to eat a big dose of the toxin but eating peanuts frequently, you may be subjected to repeated low doses and while they don’t produce immediate symptoms, they are linked to an increased risk of liver cancer. The aflatoxin-producing mould thrives in hot and humid climates so peanuts grown in the US or Australia, for example, are relatively safe, while peanuts from some African and Asian countries tend to have higher levels. Organic peanuts can be just as contaminated as non-organic, sometimes even more so.
While this little gem might have spoiled your appetite for peanuts, it’s not as dramatic as it might seem. Official limits on aflatoxin levels are there to protect consumer safety in the UK, EU, USA and Australia. It follows that all the peanut products we eat are safe – but there’s no absolute guarantee.
If you eat a lot of peanuts and are worried about aflatoxins, check the country of origin or contact your favourite brand to enquire.
Raw or roasted?
Peanuts can be eaten raw, roasted, boiled, blanched or fried. Raw peanuts, especially with their thin papery skins still on, have a higher nutrient content and more antioxidants. However, cooked peanuts are more digestible and while they lose some antioxidants they have a higher content of others.
Roasting degrades some of the fats in peanuts but that’s of no real concern as you normally eat only moderate amounts of peanuts and only a small proportion of their fats is affected by roasting. Roasting does lead to the loss of some vitamin E and the longer they’re roasted and the higher the temperature, the more is lost.
Eating raw or roasted peanuts clearly has benefits – if you choose roasted peanuts, they should be dry roasted – to avoid added oils – and preferably unsalted. The added salt can hike up your salt intake so much that it negates the other health benefits.
Some peanut butters contain only peanuts, while others have added oils and a string of other ingredients. As you’ve probably guessed, the 100 per cent peanut ones are the best for your health.
Peanut butters with palm oil added are best avoided not just because of the destruction associated with palm oil but also because saturated fats from palm oil are bad for your heart health.
The popular peanut butters with sugar, fat and other ingredients added may taste good and be rather addictive but they’re not great for your health. If you can’t resist, have some on a teaspoon as a treat but don’t overdo it!
Peanut growing is very sustainable not only because it doesn’t require many resources but also because peanut plants enrich the soil with nitrogen. Just like all other pulses, peanuts have nitrogen-fixing bacteria living symbiotically on their roots which bind nitrogen from the atmosphere and release it into the soil.
The only environmental downside of peanuts is that they are grown outside of Europe because they require certain climatic conditions, so they are always imported.
How to enjoy peanuts
Of course, snacking on peanuts or sandwiches with peanut butter are some of the best ways to enjoy them but you can also make peanuts a part of your usual meals to increase your protein intake. Thicken your stews and soups with smooth peanut butter, throw a handful of peanuts in a curry or blend them into your soup or smoothie. Peanut butter is also excellent in homemade flapjacks, biscuits or pasta sauces. Find peanut culinary inspiration at our Vegan Recipe Club website.
The humble peanut has a lot to offer so don’t hold back!