FBC member and certified nutritionist, Sondi Bruner, helps us navigate the ins and outs of eating a healthy but delicious diet, whether it’s adapting to an allergen-friendly diet or figuring out natural sweeteners (and everything in between). This month she provides a guide to nuts and seeds, including their health benefits, how to use them in recipes, and more.
This post is sponsored by Royal Nuts. Royal Nuts is a Canadian company that has been producing raw, roasted and organic nuts, seeds and dried fruit in a gluten and peanut-free facility for over 30 years! Don't forget to enter our contest to win a Royal Nuts gift basket full of nuts, seeds, dried fruits and other goodies (valued at $99 CAD) perfect for holiday entertaining and baking!
It's hard to imagine anyone eschewing nuts and seeds, unless there's an allergy. We may have our favourites, of course, but with the sheer number of choices of nuts and seeds available we can always find something tasty to munch on.
The flip side of this is that with all of the options, how do you know which ones to eat and the best way to eat them? In this FBC Guide to Nuts and Seeds, we get into the nitty gritty — or should I say nutty-gritty? — of how to choose, use, store, buy and enjoy them!
Raw, Roasted and Organic Nuts: What's the Difference?
You'll see a few different types of nuts and seeds available. One of the biggest questions is, what's the difference between raw and roasted nuts?
What Are Raw Nuts?
Truly raw nuts can be hard to come by, as some producers will apply heat to de-shell nuts and seeds. Also, depending on the type of nut and where it's sourced from, there may be rules about heating. An example of this is almonds, which are mainly grown in California and are pasteurized.
I use the term "raw nuts" often, but really, in some cases the term "unroasted nuts" is more accurate, as the nuts may have had a small degree of heat applied to meet pasteurization rules but were not fully roasted.
Why Eat Raw Nuts?
I like to buy raw nuts so I can control the temperature I roast them at and how long I roast them for. Plus, with raw nuts I can alter the spices, salt and oils I add to them! Royal Nuts has three varieties of raw nuts available: walnuts, mixed nuts and almonds!
What Are Roasted Nuts?
Roasted nuts and seeds have been heated, and can either be dry roasted (no oil) or oil roasted (with oil). You can roast nuts in the oven or on the stovetop in a skillet.
Why Eat Roasted Nuts?
The roasting process enhances the flavour and the aroma. Everyone loves roasted nuts because they are, to use a very sophisticated and technical term, yummy.
Keep in mind that nuts contain delicate polyunsaturated fats that oxidize during the roasting process, making the nuts or seeds more susceptible to rancidity. Oxidized oils can also be pro-inflammatory in the body. You can learn more about fats and oils in this guide to understanding fats. Roasting may also shorten the nut or seed's shelf life.
That's why I prefer to dry roast my own nuts, using a lower temperature of 250 or 300 degrees F.
What Are Organic Nuts?
Certified organic nuts in Canada must comply with Canada's Organic Standards. This means they're grown without synthetic pesticides and herbicides, and support the health of the land on which they're grown and all of the animals that live off that land. (You can read more about organic foods and if they're worth the hype here.)
Some companies may purchase from farmers or growers that use organic practices, but aren't officially certified organic. The organic certification is quite expensive, and may be out of reach for some farmers.
Why Eat Organic Nuts?
The high oil content of nuts and seeds helps them easily soak up chemicals and pesticides from the soil or those that are sprayed on them. I choose organic nuts over conventional whenever possible for this reason and Royal Nuts has a huge selection of organic nuts and seeds including some raw varieties!
Choosing Nuts and Seeds
My first criteria for purchasing nuts and seeds is whether they're raw and organic.
Aside from that, I like to buy from stores that are busy and re-stock frequently, to ensure I'm not eating pumpkin seeds that have been sitting around for five months. I opt for whole nuts rather than chopped or ground, as that can further increase oxidation and reduce shelf life. It's super easy to grind and chop nuts at home!
I also choose unsalted and unspiced nuts so I can add my own pizzazz.
If you're concerned about cross-contamination due to allergies or food intolerances, it's best to purchase from certified gluten-free or peanut-free companies like Royal Nuts. If you're going to buy from the bulk bins, purchase from shops that have the vertical bins that eliminate the need for scoops, which can be easily contaminated if someone uses a scoop for wheat flour and then dips it into the cashews.
How To Store Nuts and Seeds
Due the delicate nature of the fats in nuts and seeds, I store them in the fridge or freezer. I keep larger bags of nuts or seeds in the freezer and keep smaller mason jars in the side of the fridge, which I refill as needed.
If you like to keep nuts and seeds on the counter for easy snacking, keep them in smaller containers away from hot spots (like near the oven). Consider storing them in a dark glass jar to protect them from heat, light and air.
How Can You Use Nuts and Seeds in Recipes?
The ways you can use nuts and seeds in recipes are only limited by your imagination! Here are some general ideas for enjoyment, and then I've outlined some best uses for specific nuts and seeds below.
- On their own as a snack
- Blend into nut milk or nut butter
- As a salad topping
- Assemble a trail mix with dried fruit and chocolate
- Put on roasted vegetables
- In baked goods like muffins, cookies, cakes, etc.
- Grind into a flour and use for grain-free or Paleo baking, or as a breading for meat and fish
- Add to cereal, like oatmeal or granola
- Fold into granola bars
- Make raw brownies or energy balls
- Create chocolate nut/seed butter cups
- Add to smoothies or smoothie bowls
- Sprinkle on top of dairy-free ice cream
- Toss in spices or sugar for seasoned/candied nuts
- Make nut/seed cream
- Blend nut/seed cream or nut butter into soups, stews, sauces or salad dressings to thicken
Best Used For: The cashew's neutral flavour makes it a great option for dairy-free alternatives like cashew cream, nut cheese, sour cream, vegan cheesecake, cream cheese … basically anything you need to make cheese-like and vegan. It's also great for nut milk, and for savoury things like dips and spreads.
Best Used For: The almond also has a neutral flavour for dairy-free milk, and when soaked (see below) it can turn into a fabulous nut-cheese or almond ricotta. Grind up your almonds to make nut flour, or buy almond flour, which you can use in pie crusts, muffins, cookies, and other baked goods. If you make your own almond milk, don't forget to save the pulp as it can be used as an ingredient in crackers, dips, smoothies and more.
Best Used For: The sweet flavour of pecans pairs well with desserts. They're especially delicious in pie, or as a streusel topping for fruit crumbles or muffins. They also work beautifully in homemade granola.
Best Used For: Brazil nuts have a mild, sweet flavour. While you can certainly use them for nut milk, dairy-free cream, smoothies and energy balls, this is one nut that I prefer to eat on its own. A serving of 1 to 2 Brazil nuts helps you meet your daily quota for selenium, an important antioxidant mineral that is vital for the immune system and thyroid health.
Best Used For: Chia seeds have a mucilaginous quality, which is great for the digestive tract. They swell up in water (or any liquid, like nut/seed milk), making them a good option for puddings (either for breakfast or dessert) and to thicken smoothies. They also make a great vegan egg replacer. Discover more about chia here.
Best Used For: Hemp seeds are a complete plant-based protein and are very easy to blend into nut milk because you don't need to strain them. They 're also soft and simple to chew, which makes them great for sprinkling over all kinds of things like salads, smoothies, yogurt, oatmeal, dips or cooked veggies (after the cooking part). Learn more here.
Best Used For: Tahini, hands down!
Best Used For: Sunflower seeds can be a good option for those allergic to nuts. You can grind them into a flour, or roast them into sunflower seed butter (sunbutter). I find roasted sunbutter to be the most similar to peanut butter in flavour, so you can sub it in recipes that call for peanut butter.
Best Used For: Walnuts and pecans are often confused but they're quite different. Walnuts are bigger while pecans are sweeter. And while pecans are high in Vitamin E, walnuts are high in Omega-3 fatty acids. Pecans work better in sweet desserts but walnuts when roasted can make for a delicious topping for salads or savoury dishes. (you don't want to make a pie with walnuts!)
Improving Nut Digestibility: Soaking
Some people find nuts and seeds difficult to digest for a few reasons.
- One, they're high in fibre and this can aggravate the digestive tract, especially if there 's an existing digestive or inflammatory condition such as irritable bowel syndrome or inflammatory bowel disease.
- And two, nuts and seeds contain anti-nutrients that can interfere with our digestion and absorption of minerals, such as enzyme inhibitors and phytic acid. (Grains, beans and legumes have them too.) These natural plant compounds are intended to protect nuts and seeds in nature until they're ready to germinate. In our bodies, they bind to nutrients and prevent them from being digested and absorbed.
An easy way to improve the digestibility of nuts and seeds is to soak them first, then dry them out. Here's what to do:
- Soak your nuts or seeds in enough water to cover them. Some experts suggest adding sea salt or an acid like lemon juice or apple cider vinegar to enhance the deactivation of the phytic acid and enzyme inhibitors, but I personally don't bother with this.
- Leave the nuts to soak. Tougher, thicker and fibrous nuts like almonds are best left for at least 8 hours, while softer nuts like walnuts, pecans and cashews will likely only need 4. Seeds like sesame, sunflower and pumpkin seeds are usually well-soaked in 2 to 3 hours.
- Rinse the nuts. Strain the nuts or seeds in a fine mesh strainer or colander, then rinse well to remove any remaining anti-nutrients.
- Dry the nuts. Spread the nuts on a baking sheet and pop them in your oven at its lowest temperature until they're completely dry. Times will vary depending on the nut/seed you use. You can also use a food dehydrator if you have one to keep them completely raw.
- Store your nuts. When dry, put the nuts/seeds in a container and store in the fridge or freezer.
If you're using a recipe that calls for soaked nuts or seeds, like homemade almond milk or cashew cream, you don't need to dry them first.
Exceptions to Soaking Nuts and Seeds
There are a few exceptions for soaking: cashews, chia seeds and flax seeds. Cashews are very soft and high in fat, and I've found they don't really dry out well. I soak my cashews only when I need soaked cashews for a recipe. Chia and flax are very gooey and mucilaginous, so once you soak them it's very difficult to rinse or dry them.
Soaking nuts and seeds is extra work, I know, and you may not need to do it if you don't notice a difference in digestion. I find it's helpful to do this all at once when you buy your nuts and seeds rather than on an as-needed basis.
Aside from soaking to improve digestion, remember to chew your nuts and seeds well! If whole nuts and seeds are a persistent issue, try enjoying them in a softer form like nut butter, nut/seed cream, or nut or seed milk.
Saving Money on Nuts and Seeds
Nuts are expensive, especially if you're buying them organic or raw. Some nuts can only be grown in specific places in the world, or require certain growing conditions. Other nuts, like almonds, have been affected by droughts in California, which grows much of the world's almonds. Quality nuts and seeds are expensive, and I think they actually should be.
Still, there are some great ways to save money when you're working with a budget..
- Eat more seeds. Most seeds are simply less expensive than nuts. Explore ways to incorporate sunflower, sesame, pumpkin, chia, hemp and flax seeds into your diet. Some of these seeds have a stronger taste than neutral-flavoured nuts like almonds, cashews or macadamia nuts, but they're amazing once you begin to develop your palate for them. (I used to find tahini incredibly bitter; now I'll eat it by the spoonful.)
- Mix nuts and seeds together. Almond butter is steep when you need three cups of almonds to make one cup of almond butter. If you find it hard to go without the creamy taste of cashews in your trail mix or granola, try reducing the amount by 1/4 cup to start and replacing it with 1/4 cup of seeds.
Handling Nut Allergies
Nut allergies are very common in adults and children. Some children will outgrow food allergies, while older adults can develop them later in life. You can read my take on why nut and seed allergies are on the rise. There are a few types of nut and seed allergies:
- Tree nuts: Almonds,Brazil nuts, cashews, hazelnuts, macadamia, pecans, pine nuts, pistachios, walnuts
- Seeds: Sesame seeds are one of the top allergens here in Canada. Sunflower, pumpkin, poppy, hemp, flax and chia allergies happen, but they're not as common.
Many nuts and seeds are banned from certain facilities like schools, making it difficult to pack them in school lunches. If sunflower seeds, hemp seeds, flax and chia are allowed, learn to love them, and ensure you reduce or eliminate cross-contamination as much as possible. This includes:
- Labeling items in your pantry so you don't confuse almond flour with another type of flour
- Washing containers well if they had nuts in them at home, but you're sending them with seeds to school
- Cleaning utensils after use (for example, no dipping the knife from hazelnut butter into the sunflower seed butter)
- Having your guests communicate any allergies if they're coming over for dinner
- Labeling items well at a dinner party so guests know what's in them
You can find more tips about cross-contamination in How to Cook for Gluten-Free Eaters, which includes a lot of information that will apply to those with allergies and intolerances.
What About Peanuts?
Peanuts aren't actually a nut, they're a legume. Still, they're also a top allergen here in Canada and it's possible that someone is allergic to peanuts but not tree nuts, or the other way around. Or, you may be allergic to both.
If you're allergic to peanuts but nuts and seeds don't cause a reaction, ensure your nut or seed products are produced in a peanut-free facility like Royal Nuts.
Some nuts and seeds are produced in facilities where they may have come in contact with gluten, or certain products are dusted with glutenous flours so they don't stick to other ingredients, like in trail mix. Check labels for any sources of gluten (this could also be found in spices or seasonings used in nuts or nut mixes, like soy sauce). Or to be extra safe, buy your nuts and seeds from a certified gluten-free company like Royal Nuts.
Health Benefits of Nuts and Seeds
Nuts and seeds are nutrient-dense and filling, and can be a wonderful part of a healthy diet. In a nutshell — sorry, that's my last pun — nuts and seeds are rich in fibre, plant-based protein, healthy fats (including anti-inflammatory omega-3s), antioxidants, vitamins and minerals (such as calcium, magnesium and iron). Studies on nuts and seeds indicate they are helpful in a wide variety of ways.
The good news about nuts and seeds is you don't need to eat a boatload of them to reap the benefits. A small handful will do.
Large-scale studies have associated nut consumption with a reduced risk of cardiovascular diseases. For example, a study of 169,310 women and 41,526 men found that eating tree nuts at least two times a week and walnuts a minimum of once a week had a 13 to 19 percent lower risk of total cardiovascular disease, and 15 to 23 percent lower risk of coronary heart disease. Further evidence shows that tree nut consumption lowers total cholesterol, LDL cholesterol and triglycerides, as well as reduces blood pressure and abdominal obesity, all of which are risk factors for cardiovascular disease.
Seed lovers aren't left out in the cold, either. Sesamin, an anti-inflammatory and antioxidant component of sesame seeds, can help improve HDL cholesterol levels, as well as lower blood pressure and LDL cholesterol. Flax seed can also help lower total and LDL cholesterol.
Diabetes/Blood Sugar Imbalances
Nuts and seeds are high in protein, fat and fibre, three important components to helping balance blood sugar levels. They've been shown to both reduce the risk of Type 2 diabetes and also help address symptoms or risk factors of those who currently have the disease. Walnuts in particular can lower the risk of Type 2 diabetes and reduce insulin levels, while almonds can improve glycemic control and lipid profiles in patients who already have the disease. What's more, eating nuts can encourage us to eat more healthful foods in our overall diets!
Obesity and Weight Gain
For many decades, we've been afraid of fats, but nuts and seeds are packed with nutritious fats and are energy-dense, meaning we don't need to eat a lot of them to feel satiated. Adding nuts to our diets helps us prevent weight gain, promote weight loss and maintain a healthy weight over time. Eating them is also linked to a reduction of the risk factors that lead to obesity, metabolic syndrome and diabetes, such as waist circumference and body mass index. Whole flaxseeds can also help with weight maintenance.
Researchers hypothesize that the antioxidants, immune-boosting and anti-inflammatory phytonutrients, and fibre found in nuts and seeds play a protective role in cancer development. Studies have shown a link between eating nuts and a lower risk of developing any cancer overall, while specific research has associated them with a reduced risk of pancreatic cancer, breast cancer and colon cancer.
On the seed side of the equation, the lignans in flaxseeds are linked to a decreased chance of breast cancer.
Seeds such as hemp, flax and chia, as well as walnuts, are high in omega-3 fatty acids — the fats that help us reduce inflammation.
The anti-inflammatory compounds and antioxidants found in nuts and seeds can help reduce oxidative damage in the brain, improve memory and cognition, boost our mood and delay brain aging, while animal models indicate the compounds in nuts may hamper the development of Alzheimer's disease and memory loss. The Mediterranean diet, which promotes vegetables, fruits, fish, olive oil, and nuts and seeds, has been well studied for its neuroprotective effects.
Gut Microbiota and Digestion
We've begun paying a lot of attention to our microbiome, the community of bacteria found inside of us. Emerging research shows that nuts can have a positive effect on the gut microbiome, boosting the beneficial bacteria.
Also, we've long understood that nuts are a great source of fibre, and fibre helps improve bowel movements, blood sugar levels, weight, and cholesterol levels.
The good news about nuts and seeds is you don't need to eat a boatload of them to reap the benefits. A small handful will do. And really, since they're very filling, you probably couldn't handle eating much more than that!
Nuts and seeds are a delicious way to add flavour and nutrition to a wide variety of recipes. If you're stuck in a "nut rut," try purchasing nuts or seeds you don't normally buy and have fun with them!
- The FBC Guide to Gluten-Free Grains
- A Guide to Understanding Fats: Myths and Reality
- An Allergen Friendly Guide to Dried Fruit
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Sondi Bruner is a holistic nutritionist, freelance writer, food blogger and author of Simple Superfood Smoothies, The Anti-Inflammatory Diet in 21, The Candida Free Cookbook and Action Plan, co-author of The Anti-Inflammatory Diet and Action Plans. She educates people who follow allergen-friendly diets about how to eat simply, deliciously and safely, allowing them to rediscover the pleasure of food. She is also the head program coach for the Academy of Culinary Nutrition. When she’s wearing her writer’s hat, she works with natural health brands to create content that will help their customers live fulfilling, healthful lives. Find out more at www.sondibruner.com.