Peanuts - a mixed bag

Peanuts may not be the first thing that comes to mind if one was asked to list some healthy foods. They do, however, always top any list of highly allergenic foods, because peanut allergy is the most common food allergy in the UK: 1 in 50 people suffer from it. For those who are allergic, peanut consumption – even in minute quantities – can cause anaphylactic shock and even death. Strict avoidance is absolutely crucial. It is due to this prevalence of peanuts allergy that airlines have stopped handing out peanuts as a snack on planes. But even aside from allergies, peanuts are not getting much credit, because they’re fattening and unhealthy. But is this true? Just to clarify – and I’m sure you already know this – peanuts are not as much nuts as they are peas: They are classed as pulses, just like peas, not that it matters all that much to the consumer, really. Originally at home in the South American Andes, they were discovered by the Spanish conquerors who took them to Africa. They grew so popular there that they soon formed a staple in many African cuisines and were later taken back to America with the slave trade. Today, Americans consume approx. 5.5 kg of peanuts per person per year, whereas in the UK we eat only about 1 kg.

Half of a peanut consists of fat, a quarter is protein and the remaining quarter are carbohydrates. This and the fat phobia of the last 60 years or so play a big part in the peanut’s poor reputation. Now that we know that fat is not what makes us fat – hooray – we can eat peanuts again! Or shouldn't we?

Group of lumbermen trying to open a peanut
Group of lumbermen trying to open a peanut

What's good about them?

Half of the fat is monounsaturated, and peanuts also contain magnesium, folic acid, fibre, copper, vitamin E and arginine, all of which help prevent heart disease, and indeed research has been able to confirm that daily consumption of peanut butter or peanuts helps reduce the risk for cardio-vascular disease as well as diabetes II. Those who ate peanuts had double the benefits of those on a low-fat diet. Yet again, high-fat wins! Monounsaturated fats are plentiful in the Mediterranean Diet, which is very well researched and known to reduce the risk of heart disease. The nuts contain an antioxidant called p-coumarin, which (in rats) helped prevent the oxidation of LDL cholesterol (and that, by the way, is the cholesterol that contributes to heart disease: oxidised cholesterol). Peanuts are not the antioxidant powerhouses that blueberries and kale are, but they can compete with strawberries and blackberries, which isn’t bad. Peanuts are also rich in B vitamins, which help maintain good energy levels and nourish the skin, digestive system and nerves.

Any downsides?

Yes, unfortunately there are some, apart from their allergenic potential. One problem that affects all nuts to an extent, but peanuts in particular, are aflatoxins, a type of toxins produced by a fungus called aspergillus. Aflatoxins are invisible and you can’t taste them. They have been found to cause liver cancer in rats and correlation has been found between high peanut consumption and liver cancer in humans. As peanuts are not nuts, their shells are not so much shells but pods, which are much softer and more porous than nutshells and easier for aspergillus to penetrate.

Peanuts also contain a type of proteins called lectins, which might be harmful, and they are rich in omega-6 fats, the second most abundant type of fat in peanuts after mono-unsaturated fat. Most of us consume way too much omega-6 in comparison to omega-3 already, and peanuts contain none of the latter.

So, should you eat peanut butter or not? Yes, but … make sure to get a good one and don’t eat it every day.

It should contain nothing but peanut butter. 100%. It can be called ‘peanut butter’ if it contains at least 90% peanut butter (don’t even think about ‘peanut spreads’). But why should you accept less than 100% peanuts? There is no requirement for any other oils – which are likely to be ‘hydrogenated’ (trans-fats), sugar or salt.

It should be organic. The porous pod soaks up pesticides and fungicides liberally sprayed on conventional peanut crops to protect them from the dreaded aspergillus and pests.

Buy it in a glass jar if you can. It is always worth avoiding single-use plastic, but also to keep fatty foods (in particular) away from BPAs and phthalates.

I use Meridian Peanut Butter, which consists of 100% peanuts, is organic and tested for aflatoxin.

Are you an ‘abstainer’ or a ‘moderator’?

Peanut butter is moreish, and some of us find it difficult to put the jar down. So, if you find that you struggle to ignore it when it’s in the house and to stop once you have started. Some people find it easier to not even buy such foods ('abstainers'). Others, however, are much happier if they can have a little bit of something than none (‘moderators’). You’ll know yourself best, but peanut butter is best eaten occasionally.