Types of Nuts

Dietitians and doctors alike say nuts are a great addition to any diet.
Dietitians and doctors alike say nuts are a great addition to any diet.
©2007 Brand X

Whether you enjoy nuts straight out of their shells, as part of your favorite recipes, or smeared on bread as nut butter, these tasty treats work much harder for you than you might realize. It's time to crack the case and find out what makes nuts so great.

Nuts are packed with muscle-building protein and essential vitamins and minerals. Maybe you've been avoiding these tasty treats because you've heard they are high in fat. That's true, but the fats they harbor are the good-for-you mono- and polyunsaturated kinds. They also contain essential, heart-helping omega-3 fatty acids. Plus, because they are plant foods, nuts do not contain the cholesterol found in animal sources of protein.

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We'll explore all those facts in the article below, but first we need to answer a few simple questions. Although you may think you know exactly what nuts are, you'll probably be surprised by how many different categories they actually fit into. Keep reading to learn about the classifications of nuts.

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Classifications of Nuts

When it comes to the classifications of nuts, nuts have a bit of an identity crisis. Botanically, a nut is a fruit, but botanists will tell you that some of what are labeled "nuts" on your grocer's shelf are misidentified. They aren't true nuts in the scientific sense. Many of the nuts in your local market are considered seeds or kernels, and some nuts don't fall into either category. For example, peanuts are considered legumes, like peas.

However, if you ask chefs or registered dietitians, they would tell you not to be so picky. To them, taste, texture, and nutritional content matter much more than the intricacies of scientific classification.

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Botanical Nuts and Bolts

Because true nuts are scientifically categorized as tree fruits, that puts walnuts in the same category as apples. The two fruits differ in the way their outer casing, or ovary, ripens. With a nut, the ovary hardens as it ripens and becomes a shell. Inside the shell, the fruit's seed, or kernel, develops. With certain types of nuts, that seed becomes an edible treasure. (With other fruits, the ovary develops into a more delicate skin that protects the soft flesh.) Although nuts contain seeds, most seeds are not, from a botanical standpoint, true nuts. Most of the "nuts" you eat (except for peanuts) are actually the seeds of tree nuts.

There are many classifications of tree nuts, but most of them don't have delicacies hidden within their shells. Of the 11 types of nut trees -- wingnut, beech, oak, stone oak, alder, birch, hornbeam, walnut, pecan, chestnut, and hazelnut (filbert) -- only the last four produce edible seeds. The beauty of a tree nut is that the shell acts as a natural preservative and protects the seed from disease and from the elements.

Dining Definition

From a purely culinary standpoint (as well as from the perspective of this book), the definition of a nut is painted in much broader strokes. Food experts classify nuts as any edible kernels encased in shells.

In our next section, we'll discuss one of the most popular nuts -- almonds.

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Almonds

The blooming of beautiful white flowers on almond trees, which in the northern hemisphere usually happens in February and March, marks the beginning of the process that will eventually produce delectable almonds. Although the flowers are enticing, you don't want to get too close: Once the flowers bloom, growers depend on bees to do the pollination work because the trees can't pollinate themselves like other fruit plants.

If pollinated successfully, a grayish-green fruit will begin to appear as the flowers fade. This fruit, also known as a drupe, will begin the growing and drying process during the late summer months. Almonds are ready for harvesting in early fall. Once the fruit has matured and the hull, or dried outer casing of the fruit, begins to open, the almond is ready to be processed. Mechanical tree shakers coax the nuts from their home, and they are gathered and separated for the harvesters' specific needs.

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Almonds grow best in climates that have hot summers and warm winters. They require a bit of frost to encourage flowers to bloom, but temperate climates are best. Italy, Spain, the Middle East, parts of Australia, and South Africa all have great climates for almond cultivation, but California's Central Valley, a 450-mile stretch of land that covers much of the central area of the Golden State, has an ideal climate for almond growing. In fact, according to the California Almond Board, the state is the world's leading almond producer and is responsible for 80 percent of the entire planet's almonds.

The walnut is another well-loved nut. Keep reading to learn all about walnuts.

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Walnuts

Two types of walnuts are grown and eaten around the world: the English walnut (which is also known as the Persian walnut) and the black walnut. Most of the walnuts you find at your local grocery store are the English ones, which have a thinner shell and a larger nut. Black walnuts have tough shells and don't taste as good as English walnuts.

Black walnuts grow throughout the eastern United States, but English walnuts favor a more mild environment. Early settlers in America tried to grow English walnuts in Pennsylvania and Massachusetts, but the walnuts floundered. However, when the nuts were planted in the more temperate areas of California, they flourished. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, the United States produces 20 percent of the world's walnuts (primarily English walnuts). China grows the most, followed by the United States, Iran, Turkey, Ukraine, and Romania.

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Walnuts are harvested in the fall. When the nuts are ripe, the outer hull, or husk, splits open and the walnut falls to the ground. To get the more reluctant walnuts, growers use mechanical shakers to wiggle the nuts loose. The walnuts are then allowed to dry before they are shelled and processed.

When people think of nuts, they very often think of peanuts first. Learn about this nut in the next section.

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Peanuts

The peanut is a unique member of the nut family. To start with, peanuts aren't tree fruits, seeds, or kernels. Peanuts are legumes that trace their roots to the pea family (thus the descriptive name) and grow underground on a vine instead of on a tree.

Peanuts grow best in warm climates with mild winters, which makes the American South an ideal location. According to the American Peanut Council, seven Southern states (ranked in order of production, greatest to least: Georgia, Texas, Alabama, North Carolina, Florida, Virginia, and Oklahoma) account for 99 percent of all American-grown peanuts. The United States is the third-largest producer of peanuts in the world, right behind China and India.

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Peanuts are usually planted in the late spring, and after most of the pods have matured, a mechanical "digger" loosens the soil around the pods, and a "shaker" sifts away the soil. The pods are allowed to dry in the sun for a few days and then a peanut combine separates the vines from the pods. The pods are cured to remove moisture in order to increase storage time, and then the cured pods are inspected, cleaned, and sorted according to size. About half of the peanuts produced in the United States get used for peanut butter. The others are used for snack foods or as candy ingredients.

No matter how you enjoy your peanuts or any other nut, you can do so without guilt, as long as you eat them in moderation.

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ADDITIONAL CREDITS:

 Michele Price Mann

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