Peanuts, a dietary outcast during the fat-phobic 1990s, have made a comeback, with consumption soaring to its highest level in nearly two decades and more doctors recommending nuts as part of a heart-healthy diet.
When peanut butter and snack peanuts plummeted as Americans switched to lowfat diets, the peanut industry responded with studies showing the health benefits of peanuts. Total consumption of peanuts jumped last year to nearly 1.7 billion pounds, compared to 1.5 billion pounds the year before.
The amount of snack peanuts eaten climbed to 415 million pounds in the 2003-2004 crop year, the highest since the mid-1990s. And peanut butter consumption soared to 900 million pounds, from a low of about 700 million in the '90s.
"Mothers gave us peanuts and peanut butter. Now, we've figured out that Mom was right. But it took a lot of researchers and universities to figure that out," said Don Koehler, executive director of Georgia's Peanut Commission.
The federal government's latest dietary guidelines say peanuts, which contain unsaturated fats, can be eaten in moderation.
"Now we know that the type of fat found in peanuts is actually good for us," said Lona Sandon with the American Dietetic Association. "It doesn't clog our arteries like saturated fat. It helps keep the arteries clean."
But that's only if you don't overdo it, and that's the part that often trips up peanut lovers. There are 14 grams of fat in one serving of peanuts, which is only one ounce. A handful can have up to 200 calories.
"The problem is that the portions need to be low so you don't overconsume the calories — that's where the public has a disconnect," said Madelyn Fernstrom, director of the Weight Management Center at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. "It's a well-spent 200 calories if you can limit it to that. The problem is volume. It's very hard to have a small serving of peanuts, meaning a small handful."
When peanuts were out of favor in the last decade, American consumers seemed to overlook the respectable list of nutrients — vitamin E, niacin, thiamin, riboflavin, vitamin B6, and minerals such as copper, phosphorous, potassium, zinc and magnesium. They also are a good source of fiber and protein.
Peanuts also have a small amount of resveratrol, the antioxidant in red wine that has been linked to the "French Paradox" — a low incidence of heart disease among the French, despite their love of cheese and other high-fat foods.
Research at several universities suggests peanuts may help prevent heart disease, that they can lower bad cholesterol and that they can help with weight loss, possibly by making people feel satisfied so they eat less overall. One Harvard study showed an association between peanut butter consumption and a reduced risk of diabetes.
Even the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has authorized a qualified health claim for peanuts and some tree nuts. Producers can say they may reduce their risk of heart disease by eating 1 1/2 ounces daily.
Anna Resurreccion, a University of Georgia food scientist, has focused her research on the resveratrol found in peanuts. By subjecting the nuts to stress — slicing the kernels, or subjecting them to ultrasound — the resveratrol level greatly surpassed that found in red wine, she said.
This development opens the door for new products, such as enhanced peanut butter that could offer even more health benefits and serve as a way to get resveratrol into children's diets, she said.
"Young children can't very well drink wine," Resurreccion said. "But most of them love peanut butter and peanut snack foods."