By Assunta Ng
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
I learned to love cashew nuts through my mother when I was a kid.
“Cashew nuts are yummy, but like peanuts, they are fattening,” mom would say. It’s strange how children believe everything their parents tell them. A recent PBS nutrition program showed how wrong she was. Those facts blew my mind away. I decided to research more on the topic, and more interesting tidbits surfaced.
First, cashew nuts and peanuts are not nuts. Cashew nuts are seeds, while peanuts are legumes. What is actually a nut?
A nut is a dry fruit that consists of a hard shell covering a single seed. Examples of nuts are chestnuts, hazelnuts, and acorns. Peanuts belong to the family of lentils, peas, and chickpeas.
So what do you call those nuts we have been consuming a lot, like the famous Chinese cuisine “walnut with prawns” and “almond chicken”? Walnuts and almonds are not true nuts either. Both are drupes (stone fruits)—types of fruits with an outside fleshy part surrounding a shell with a seed inside. What about pistachios? It’s not a nut either. It is in the cashew family so it is a seed.
According to Tandy Hogate in her blog, “Three Bakers,” seeds are easily depicted in their names, such as flaxseed and pumpkin seeds. “A nut can be a seed, but a seed cannot be a nut,” wrote Hogate.
Why do we confuse seeds as nuts and legumes as drupes? It’s because supermarkets tend to categorize them together in the same section.
Nuts/seeds/drupes/legumes are food therapy
One of my vegetarian friends often consumes a large quantity of nuts (which actually include seeds, drupes, and legumes) to make up for the loss of vitamins and minerals found in meats. She is kind of chubby.
I never knew on what basis my late mother said that cashew nuts were fattening. But she was right. Nutritionists have suggested that if you want to gain weight, eat more cashew nuts, pistachios, pine nuts, walnuts, pecans, and macadamia nuts.
Cashew nuts are rich in protein, healthy fats, and antioxidants. You gain weight only when overconsuming them. So don’t just eat cashew nuts alone. Mix them with salads and cook them with other foods.
Cashew nuts also possess tryptophan, one of the most essential amino acids that produce serotonin. It’s a mood booster. That’s why I toss a handful (no more than 15) of cashews in my salad.
Sometimes, I alternate my salad with almonds or pistachios nuts. Almonds contain antioxidants. It smooths your skin. If you often suffer from insomnia, pistachios would be your ally. Whenever I blend 12 pistachios in my lunch salad, I would get a good nap that afternoon.
Walnut is a must for breakfast
Chinese people call walnuts a brain food. Chinese culture is not based on scientific experiments. Rather, it is based on experience and knowledge passed down from generation to generation over thousands of years. It is more like statistics for people sharing common experiences.
When I Google the benefits of eating walnuts, I am delighted with the findings. Who doesn’t love the fact that it lowers cholesterol and inflammation? One headline said it’s the world’s healthiest food. It is rich in vitamin E, which would offer protection from heart problems.
My breakfast would not be complete without 10 walnuts mixed with oatmeal, flaxseed powder, and black sesame seed powder. Because it consists of anti-inflammatory nutrients, it decreases cancer risks. For those who experience regular constipation, walnuts are wonderful.
Some people avoid peanuts due to allergies. Although I don’t have allergy problems, I don’t eat peanuts since I have other nuts, seeds, and legumes in my diet. Occasionally, I have a craving for peanut butter. I would scoop up one or two spoonfuls once every few weeks.
A staff member often cooks soup for me. Raw peanuts are her favorite ingredients. She would place a few spoonfuls in the soup with chicken bones and other goodies. She isn’t able to explain the rationale for having peanuts in the soup. It’s more of a family tradition.
Again, I Googled peanuts’ health benefits. It is interesting to note that peanuts contain biotin, folate, and niacin, which are important vitamins for growing hair and for pregnancy. Phosphorus and magnesium are also vital minerals of peanuts.
The expensive nuts
Like cashew nuts, macadamia nuts are not nuts, they are seeds. Both of these seeds are expensive as they are time-consuming to harvest. Cashew nuts are attached to an apple fruit. When the apple is ripe to eat, the cashew inside the shell isn’t. So you have to choose between the fruit or cashew. Most farmers would rather wait for the cashew because they can make more money. Cashew nuts are difficult to harvest as the shells contain some toxins. Farmers have to roast them carefully to get rid of the toxin and preserve the seed.
While cashews don’t grow in the continental U.S., macadamia nuts are grown in Brazil, Costa Rica, Hawaii, and New Zealand. The best feature about macadamias is it doesn’t have cholesterol. However, I avoid them because it is one tough seed. It may crack my teeth, which happened to me years ago.
When shopping for these foods, I look for their original taste, preferably unsalted, unsugared, but roasted. Roasted nuts and seeds are easy to bite and digest.
I pass on those that are coated with chili or other sauces. I am against coated nuts, seeds, and drupes because the coating can mask staleness of the food. Whenever it is coated with other stuff, it ruins the natural taste of the food. Secondly, added seasonings can stimulate your taste buds and increase your cravings. Excessive eating is terrible.
Also, look for where they are made. Although pistachios were originally grown in the Middle East and Central Asia, the U.S. is now one of the largest growers globally. California is a leading producer of pistachios. Buying U.S. pistachios is a way to support our economy. Our health standard is also the reason why I prefer to buy Made in America.
Even though nuts, seeds, and drupes offer health benefits, I wouldn’t consume them in large quantities, especially if you include them in your daily diet. For instance, I only devour no more than 10 walnuts a day. Everything you eat, it’s best to do so in moderation.
So have fun with nuts, but stay away from people who drive you nuts.