World scientific and consumer interest in peanuts as part of healthy eating patterns continues to grow. Yet not too many years ago, peanuts were on “don’t eat” lists for many people in the developed world. That’s because conventional nutrition advice judged foods one-dimensionally and this influenced the public to focus mainly on their fat and calorie content.
How times change. Over the past two decades, nutrition research has made big strides in understanding the health characteristics of different types of fat, leading to a clearer understanding of the beneficial role of unsaturated fats (the type overwhelming found in peanut products) particularly for heart health.
For the American peanut industry and its worldwide customers, nutritional investigations and support for health and food services professionals and consumers wanting to learn more about peanuts have been spearheaded by The Peanut Institute and supported by many industry groups.
Claims and Guidelines
The United States approved a qualified health claim as early as 2003 for peanuts based around heart-healthy fats. In 2011, the European Union took this further by approving a health claim for foods such as peanuts, peanut butter made from 100% peanuts and peanut oil reflecting the heart healthy characteristics of the unsaturated fatty acids (predominantly monounsaturated oleic acid as found in olive oil) in these products. APC led the work which resulted in the European health claim for healthy fats found in such foods as peanuts, peanut butter and peanut oil and is able to advise users of US peanuts about communications and labelling implications of health and nutrition claims applying to peanut products.
Nutrient density – a new consensus
A new consensus is forming around the nutrient density of foods. That means seeing the nutritional attractiveness of a food in terms of the types and ratios of fat it contains plus macro and micro-nutrients per serving - rather than just calories. From that perspective, peanuts have clearly moved center stage and into the health spotlight.
The Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2010 recommend foods like peanuts because they are high protein packages that include healthy fats and nutrients like dietary fiber, potassium, folate, vitamin E, thiamin, and magnesium. Nutrient dense foods help maintain good nutrition and calorie balance. Research shows that frequent peanut eaters do not gain weight when following a healthy diet and replacing less healthy fats and snacks with peanuts.
Peanut-related health evidence mounts up worldwide
It was only about twenty years ago that the landmark study appeared which described the relationship between eating nuts frequently and lower coronary disease risks – The Adventist Health Study. At that time, scientists advocating more nut consumption were the distinct minority. It wasn’t until 1998 with the publication by Harvard researchers of results from the first Nurses’ Health Study that nutrition professionals and the media began to take notice. This large, ongoing epidemiological study of thousands of American professional women found frequent nut consumption (about five ounces per week) was associated with the lowest heart disease risks. Since then, the build up of evidence relating peanuts to health benefits has accelerated and the focus has moved beyond just healthy fats.
Following from the groundbreaking work of the 1990s, the main findings emerging from nutrition research focusing on peanuts in recent years have changed our understanding of key factors related to healthy eating and disease risk reduction. These themes include:
satiety or “hunger management”;
healthy weight control and;
cholesterol levels and heart health.
Rediscovering the role healthy-fat, high protein foods like peanuts can play in Mediterranean and many types of traditional eating patterns increases their attractiveness and versatility to consumers and health professionals alike.
Since 2001, APC has tracked major outputs of peanut related nutrition research going on around the world and produced the following summaries for health professionals.
A Global Review of Peanut Health Studies - July 2009
Peanut Research Update 2005-2008 - December 2008
Research Update July 2005
Peanuts - Surprising Healthy July 2003
Nutrition & Food Science - Volume 32, Number 6, 2002
Nutrition & Food Science - Volume 33, Number 2, 2003
The potential role of peanuts in the prevention of obesity
Future directions for peanut and health research
The spectrum of new and emerging research related to peanuts and health is broadening quickly. It already reaches beyond the well-established interest in healthy fats by investigating bioactive and anti-inflammatory constituents of peanuts for their health protecting qualities.
The application of this research to produce a better understanding of disease risk reduction practical dietary interventions associated with type two diabetes and some cancers, for example, is likely to be the next big chapter in the peanuts and health story.
The American Peanut Council, on behalf of the entire US peanut industry, is an enthusiastic advocate of these future research directions.