Peanuts: they’re part of some people’s fondest childhood memories, while being the bane of others’ existence. Some parents happily pack a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, knowing the smile it’ll bring to their child’s face, while those who have children with severe peanut allergies have learned to scrutinize every birthday party cupcake, every piece of Halloween candy, and the ingredient label of every food before it makes it into the cart at the grocery store. Peanut allergies have increased sharply in the past several years, and the possibility of potentially fatal anaphylactic reactions have led some entire schools to become “peanut free zones.” Certainly, peanut allergies are not to be taken lightly, but for people with no known sensitivity, who can safely consume peanuts, these legumes are more than just a lunchbox favorite or snack at the ballgame.
Peanuts enjoy an important nutritional status in some parts of the world, where they are a key source of inexpensive protein, as well as a major source of cooking oil. There may be slight differences among different varieties of peanuts (Valencia, Virginia, etc.), but overall, peanuts are packed with micronutrients. They’re high in vitamin E, thiamin, niacin, folate, pantothenic acid, and they don’t disappoint in mineral content, either. Peanuts provide substantial amounts of iron, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, zinc, copper, and manganese. They’re higher in fat compared to other legumes, but this fat is predominantly monounsaturated oleic acid (the same one in olive oil, avocados, and macadamias). They also contain a significant amount of the omega-6 fat, linoleic acid, with an almost negligible amount of omega-3. So the n-6:n-3 ratio is skewed highly toward n-6, with the overall polyunsaturated fat content of peanuts being around 31%. (There are now “high oleic” peanut cultivars, in which monounsaturated fat makes up closer to 80% of the total fat content.)
The omega-6 content isn’t much of a problem provided one can exercise portion control, but for reasons that aren’t entirely clear, people seem to have a much harder time keeping things reasonable with peanut butter than they do with almond or cashew butter. It’s all too easy to sit on the couch with the jar and a spoon, and before you know it, the 2-tablespoon serving size is a distant memory! Perhaps there’s something that makes peanut butter inherently more delicious than the others, or perhaps it’s just the cost: peanut butter is much more budget-friendly than almond and cashew butters.
According to the Food Allergy Research & Education organization, “Peanut allergies tend to be lifelong, although studies indicate that approximately 20 percent of children with peanut allergy do eventually outgrow their allergy.” Studies also suggest that pregnant women who consume peanuts and tree nuts have offspring with a lower incidence of allergies to these foods. An article in a nursing journal noted, “Maternal nut consumption does not appear to increase the risk of nut allergy in offspring and may even be protective.” This kind of exposure in utero may increase tolerance to peanut allergens, as might peanut consumption in the first few years of life.
People who can enjoy peanuts with no adverse effects are in luck. Aside from their impressive micronutrient content, peanuts are rich in resveratrol, phenolic acids, CoQ10, flavonoids and phytosterols, the latter of which may help favorably affect an individual’s lipid profile. Peanuts are low in the essential amino acids methionine, tryptophan, and histidine, but other than that, the amino acid score is fairly impressive. Tree nuts and peanuts have garnered increased attention in the last few years for being associated with general benefits for overall health, including reduced risk for cholecystectomy in women (perhaps due to the healthy fat content), improved biomarkers of cardiovascular health, improvement of metabolic syndrome, and more. Data from the large-scale Nurses’ Health Study indicated that peanuts and peanut butter, specifically, may help reduce risk for type 2 diabetes. However, the researchers noted that peanut butter is very calorically dense, and it should be used to replace calories from refined grains and processed meats, rather than be consumed in addition to the habitual diet.
Of course, peanuts and peanut butter are best taken in their unsweetened forms, so the benefits of peanuts don’t necessarily translate unscathed to chocolate peanut butter cups, peanut butter flavored breakfast cereals, or peanut butter swirl ice cream. If only! But that doesn’t mean sweet peanut butter treats are out of the question. While individuals following a strict Paleo diet would avoid peanuts, those who are low carb but choose to enjoy legumes have a world of chocolate peanut butter recipes at their fingertips, and even a no-bake peanut butter cheesecake!
As always, when it comes to patients’ diets, context is key. Some may have to avoid peanuts at all costs, while others may use them as an economical source of protein, healthy fat…and deliciousness.