History of Nuts

Nuts have been prized for thousands of years for their flavor, versatility, and health benefits
Nuts have been prized for thousands of years for their flavor, versatility, and health benefits
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From prehistoric man to ancient royalty to medieval peasants to supermarket shoppers of today, nuts have been a reliable food source throughout history. Unfortunately, because nuts contain so much fat, they have fallen out of favor with the American public in the past few decades. However, newer research is restoring faith in nuts.

A recent archeological excavation in Israel found remnants of seven types of nuts and a variety of primitive nutcrackers that scientists believe date back 780,000 years. A dig in Iraq uncovered evidence of nut consumption that dates back to 50,000 b.c. And in Texas, pecan shells were unearthed near human artifacts that may date back to 6,000 b.c.

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It's easy to see why nuts have been so popular through the ages. You don't have to track and kill a nut. In fact, nuts were one of the first convenience foods; not only could they be carried, but their ability to be stored for months at a time made them great for long, harsh winters. Nuts are also rich in fat and protein, which make them filling and nourishing. And their versatility means you can eat them right out of the shell, press them for oil, or mash them to make nut butter.

Nuts have been a popular food for thousands of years. Keep reading to learn about nuts in ancient times.

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Nuts in Ancient Times

There are many references to nuts in ancient times. One of the first recorded references to nuts is in the Bible. On their second journey to Egypt, Joseph's brothers brought almonds and pistachios to trade for grain. And in Numbers 17, Aaron's rod miraculously buds and bears almonds, proving he is God's chosen priest.

Almonds were a dietary mainstay of the ancient people of the Middle East; they ate sweet almonds (there are two types of almond plants, sweet and bitter; bitter almonds are used for oil and extracts) blanched, roasted, sliced, or ground. The Romans were the first to make candied almonds, and they often gave these treats as wedding presents as a symbol of fertility (a tradition still carried on today).

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In the Middle Ages, almonds were ground into flour, and many recipes called for almond "milk," a drink made from ground almonds, water, and typically some sort of sweetener. Almond oil was used as medicine in many European and Middle Eastern cultures before the time of Christ. Fans of natural medicine still use it today for treating indigestion, as a laxative, and for easing coughs and laryngitis.

Pistachios also have an intriguing history. In the Bible, Jacob's sons favored pistachios, and some say they were one of the Queen of Sheba's favorite foods. According to one pistachio legend, lovers who meet under a pistachio tree on a moonlit night will find good luck if they hear the nuts crack.

Pistachios probably originated in an area that stretches from West Asia through Turkey. Romans introduced pistachios to Europe from Asia sometime around the 1st century a.d. The nuts didn't arrive in the United States until the late 19th century, and it wasn't until the 1930s that pistachios became a popular American snack food.

The history of walnuts (in this case the English walnut) is as old as the stories of almonds and pistachios. In fact, ancient inscriptions suggest walnut trees were grown in the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. Walnuts were also a valued staple in the diet of ancient Greeks and Romans.

The walnut even has a place in Greek mythology, as the god Dionysus turned his love, Carya, into a walnut tree after she died. Romans also considered walnuts food for the gods, while mere mortal citizens of Rome used walnut oil and walnut flour. Walnut oil was used extensively in the Middle Ages, and peasants ground up walnut shells to make bread. Walnuts made their way to the New World sooner than pistachios, arriving with Spanish priests in California during the 18th century.

The tough-shelled black walnut hit the world stage much later than its thin-shelled relative. This variety is also known as the American walnut and is believed to be native to North America. Historical records indicate black walnut wood was shipped to England from Virginia in about 1610.

During the mid-19th century, black walnut wood became quite fashionable, but the tree was already becoming rare. The wood experienced a revival in popularity in the 1970s, but on account of changing tastes and higher cost, the demand for black walnut wood dropped. As far as the nut itself goes, the black walnut is sweet, but not as popular as the English variety. Today the black walnut is used more widely in flavorings, such as black walnut ice cream.

Chestnuts, first mentioned by the ancient Greeks and Romans, were a major part of Middle Eastern and European diets for centuries. People also used chestnuts as medicine because they were believed to fend off rabies and dysentery. But their primary role was as a durable food source for people who lived in areas where winters were harsh and food was scarce. Chestnuts are a bit difficult to find today, except around Thanksgiving, but they are a treat for those who discover them.

Nuts enjoy an important place in modern diets. Learn about nuts in the modern age in the next section.

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Nuts in the Modern Age

Man has incorporated nuts in the modern age in many ways. Although scientists discovered pecan remnants in Texas that date back to 6,000 b.c., written historical references to the pecan go back only to about the 16th century.

The first settlers on America's shores most likely learned about pecans from Native Americans. Spanish colonists in northern Mexico were cultivating pecans in the early 18th century, and the first pecan tree planting in what would become the United States took place on Long Island, New York, in 1772.

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As America developed into a nation, pecan cultivation spread south to the Gulf of Mexico region, and the nut became an important commodity. In fact, founding fathers George Washington and Thomas Jefferson grew pecan trees. Pecans were so valuable in the early 19th century that they were more profitable to grow than cotton in some areas.

As with pecans, evidence exists that peanuts have been around for millennia, but the first recorded mentions of the peanut date back only to the 16th century, when explorers began poking around the New World. Peanuts probably originated in South America, but the nuts came to North America via Africa. Spanish explorers took peanuts from South America back to Spain, and from Spain the nuts went to Asia and Africa. Peanuts became a common crop in Africa, so when Africans were brought as slaves to North America, they brought the peanut with them.

People originally grew peanuts as food for pigs, but they started eating peanuts themselves by the late 19th century. In addition, peanuts were used for oil and even as a cocoa substitute. But because they were difficult to grow and were stereotyped as poor peoples' food, peanuts weren't widely grown for human consumption until the early 20th century. Better equipment made growing and harvesting the crops easier, and different uses of the peanut, including peanut butter and peanut candy, helped increase its popularity.

Although nuts contain many wonderful health benefits, they should be enjoyed in moderation. Keep reading to learn about eating nuts in moderation.

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Eating Nuts in Moderation

A balanced diet -- one that includes eating nuts in moderation -- is considered a wise choice.

Low-fat diets were all the rage in the 1990s. Books that touted the benefits of lowering your overall fat intake filled bookstores. Shoppers saw new low-fat versions of their favorite products, including cookies and potato chips, on just about every shelf in the supermarket.

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But the low-fat craze left nuts on the food fringe. Because nuts are naturally high in fat, it's virtually impossible to create low-fat versions. Besides, who would want to eat a handful of nuts when, for the same number of calories and half the fat, you could eat eight low-fat chocolate cookies?

The government even turned a deaf ear to the health benefits of nuts. The first five editions of Dietary Guidelines for Americans (published in 1980, 1985, 1990, 1995, and 2000), issued jointly by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the United States Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), barely mentioned nuts in an overview of healthful foods.

Experts began taking a new look at fat around the turn of the 21st century. Nutritionists and researchers had long focused on the negatives of fat, but they'd neglected the benefits. New studies prove that it's the types of fat you eat that matters. The right kinds, eaten in moderation, can actually make you healthier. As public policy began catching up with the latest scientific findings, the government changed its recommendations -- finally recognizing nuts as an integral part of a healthful diet.

You can enhance a healthy diet with nuts. Move on to the final section to learn about nuts in a healthy diet.

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Nuts in a Healthy Diet

Because nuts are plant sources of fat, they are full of good-for-you monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fat, are cholesterol-free (unlike animal sources of fat), and are a good source of protein. Unsaturated fats are beneficial because they help keep your arteries healthy and help lower cholesterol levels. Some nuts (particularly walnuts) are also a good source of another type of heart-healthful unsaturated fat: omega-3 fatty acids. Studies are showing that omega-3 fatty acids can help lower cholesterol and blood-pressure levels, as well as reduce the risk of heart attack and stroke.

Nuts are also surprisingly good sources of vitamin E, which is considered an antioxidant nutrient. Antioxidants inhibit oxidation, a natural body process that causes cell damage, and have been linked to a lowered risk for several chronic diseases, including heart disease and some cancers. Nuts are also rich in potassium and magnesium, minerals that help the body function at its best by regulating blood pressure and keeping muscles and nerves working properly.

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Nuts are high in fiber, which can help lower cholesterol levels. While fats from meat and other animal sources are discouraged, the newest version of Dietary Guidelines for Americans specifically recommends including nuts and nut butters (even as an occasional replacement for meat) as part of an overall healthful diet.

Research continues to find amazing benefits to eating nuts. Nuts are good for your heart -- so good that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved a health claim for nuts that states including "a moderate amount of nuts in an overall healthy diet may reduce the risk of heart disease." Nuts are also full of naturally occurring phytochemicals (substances produced by plants that help defend people against disease) that have been associated with protection against cancer, diabetes, and other chronic health problems.

Making Nuts Count

A few nuts go a long way. Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends eating one-and-a-half ounces (about one-third cup) of nuts four to five times a week. Depending on the nut, that can mean 104 to 305 calories and 1 gram to more than 32 grams of fat per serving.

But don't panic, fat phobics. Although that seems like a lot of fat, remember that nuts are full of the types of fat that are actually beneficial to the body. Plus, nuts contain essential nutrients that are vital for good health.

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ADDITIONAL CREDITS: Michele Price Mann

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