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Vegetarian Journal Nov/Dec 2001

Vegetarian Journal's
Guide to Nuts and Nut Butters

By Reed Mangels, PhD, RD

More and more research is pointing to the health benefits of nuts and seeds. A study of Seventh-day Adventists found that those who ate nuts at least 5 times a week had half the risk of dying from heart disease compared to those who rarely ate nuts. Another study of women found that those who ate nuts were only 40% as likely to die from heart disease as those who never ate nuts. Walnuts, almonds, peanuts, hazelnuts, pecans, and macadamia nuts have been shown to lower blood cholesterol levels. Nuts, nut butters, seeds, and seed butters contain generous amounts of phytochemicals that may be protective against colon, prostate, and breast cancer.

Many people avoid nuts, seeds, and their butters because of concerns that they are too high in fat and calories. Americans, on average, eat less than half an ounce of nuts and nut butters daily. An ounce of nuts or seeds has between 150 and 200 calories. (Soy nuts, which are not really nuts, but which we'll consider in this article, have 130 calories per ounce.) A tablespoon of nut or seed butter has about 80-100 calories. Nuts and seeds have 12 to 22 grams of fat in an ounce (but most of this is unsaturated fat), and they contain no cholesterol. Nut and seed butters have 7 to 10 grams of fat in a tablespoon, also mostly unsaturated fat. Nuts, seeds, and their butters are also good sources of many nutrients, including protein, zinc, fiber, vitamin E, folic acid, copper, and potassium. Walnuts are high in alpha-linolenic acid, a polyunsaturated fat that may be in short supply in vegetarian diets. It is certainly possible to include nuts and seeds in a healthful diet.

Are some nuts, seeds, or butters better for you than others? Not really, unless you're looking for a specific nutrient. If you're using these foods as a major protein source, check out soy nuts (roasted soybeans) and soy nut butter. They have 11 grams of protein per ounce, and 4 grams per tablespoon, respectively. Pumpkin seeds, black walnuts, pine nuts, and peanuts have slightly more protein than do other seeds and nuts. Peanut butter is slightly higher in protein than other nut butters. Nuts contain some zinc, although it may not be well absorbed. Pumpkin seeds, cashews, and cashew butter are slightly higher in zinc than other products. Almonds, almond butter, and tahini contain slightly more calcium. See the table on the following page for more information about the nutrient contents of nut and seed butters.

Peanut butter is a product where it certainly pays to buy organic if you are trying to avoid pesticides or insecticide residues. A survey of foods commonly eaten in Canada found that peanut butter was the food in which pesticide residues were most frequently found. Half of the peanut butter sampled in the US contained detectable levels of an insecticide, although the amounts found were below legal limits. Companies that produce organic nut butters include Arrowhead Mills (peanut butter and tahini), Kettle Foods (peanut butter), Marantha (almond butter, peanut butter, and tahini), Once Again Nut Butter (peanut butter, tahini, almond butter, and cashew butter), IM Healthy (soy nut butter), and HempNut (hempseed and organic peanut butter - 49% organic).

If you're watching your sodium intake, opt for unsalted nuts and nut butters instead of salted products. An ounce of unsalted peanuts has 2 milligrams of sodium, whereas an ounce of salted peanuts can have 100 times as much - around 230 milligrams. A tablespoon of peanut butter with no salt added has 3 milligrams of sodium, while a tablespoon of peanut butter with salt added has around 75 milligrams.

What about dry-roasted versus oil-roasted nuts? I've noticed that some brands of dry-roasted nuts contain gelatin, something vegetarians will want to check for on the label. As far as fat content, there is almost no difference between dry-roasted nuts and oil-roasted nuts. Peanut butter is available in a lower-fat form where a sweetener is used to replace some of the fat. While this can help reduce the fat in your diet if you eat lots of peanut butter, I'm not convinced that, for the occasional user, the added sugar is any better for you than the fat that was in the peanut butter originally.

Many brands of peanut butter have hydrogenated fat added to make the peanut butter easier to spread, and sweetener added to "enhance" the taste. If you usually buy this kind of product, try using unrefined peanut butter instead. The oil will separate and can be stirred back in so the peanut butter is easier to spread. The peanut butter will taste more like peanuts and less like sugar. Buying a salted version will ease the transition for many people.

What can you do with nuts, seeds, nut butters, and seed butters? You can certainly start with PB&J sandwiches and bowls of nuts. Try spreading nut or seed butters on fruit, celery, or carrots, or adding fruit or grated carrots to a nut or seed butter sandwich. A big hit at my house is an apple, sliced into rounds, and spread with peanut butter (raisins stick easily to the peanut butter, and you can make smiley faces to entice your kids to eat this healthy treat). Use nuts as a garnish for salads or stir-fries. Make pesto with walnuts, pine nuts, or pecans. Make a sauce or salad dressing with nut or seed butter. Purée cooked dried beans with nut or seed butters (tahini and chickpeas are a classic but there are many other delicious combinations). Nuts, seeds, and nut and seed butters can be added to baked goods like cookies, breads, and crisps. They're a great way to get in a few extra calories and nutrients for growing children. However, even smooth nut and seed butters spread on bread or crackers should not be used until after the first birthday due to choking risk; in families with a strong history of allergies, peanuts and other nuts should not be introduced until three years of age.

Nuts, seeds, nut butters, and seed butters can be a tasty and healthful part of a vegetarian diet.

Product Calories Protein Fat Calcium Zinc
(1 Tbsp) (g) (g) (mg) (mg)
Almond butter 101 2.4 9.5 43 0.5
Cashew butter 93 2.8 8 7 0.8
Hazelnut butter 94 2 9.5 N/A N/A
Peanut butter - natural 94 3.8 8 7 0.4
Peanut butter - reduced fat 95 4 6 N/A 0.4
Sunflower butter 80 3 7 N/A N/A
Soy butter (sweetened) 85 4 5.5 50 N/A
Soy butter (unsweetened) 80 4 6.5 30 N/A
Soy-peanut butter (added sweetener) 50 2 1.2 40 N/A
Tahini 89 2.6 8 64 0.7

Excerpts from the Nov/Dec 2001 Issue

The Vegetarian Journal published here is not the complete issue, but these are excerpts from the published magazine. Anyone who wishes to see everything should subscribe to the magazine.

Thanks to volunteer Stephanie Schueler for converting this article to HTML.

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