A Misnamed Legume
Despite their name, peanuts aren’t technically nuts—they’re legumes. According to the United States Department of Agriculture, the botanical definition of a nut is a dry, single-seeded fruit with a high oil content, a hard shell and a protective husk.
Peanuts don’t fit this definition, but they’re in good company.
Common “nuts” such as almonds, cashews, pistachios, walnuts and Brazil nuts don’t fit the botanical definition of nuts, either. They’re technically seeds. Pecans and hazelnuts are two of the few well-known “nuts” that do fit the botanical definition.
Regardless, many of the foods we commonly refer to as “nuts” share similar nutritional profiles. For the sake of convenience, when I say “nuts” in this article, I’m referring to foods commonly referred to as nuts, including almonds, cashews, peanuts, pistachios, walnuts, etc.
Peanuts vs. Almonds: What’s Healthier?
Over the past decade, no food has seen its star rise quite like the almond.
In that time, products like almond butter and almond milk entered the zeitgeist, Barack Obama revered them as a “good snack,” and almonds became the No. 1 nut in both America and Europe.
In the minds of many, almonds are unquestionably healthier than peanuts. But that’s not quite true.
“Even though most people consider almonds ‘healthier,’ when you look at the scientific studies, I could find no difference,” Dr. John Day, a cardiologist at Intermountain Medical Center Heart Institute (Salt Lake City, Utah), wrote in a blog on the topic. “Both almonds and peanuts help to prevent most chronic medical problems…I am calling this one a tie.”
Peanuts contain about 2.4 grams of fiber per ounce, which is only slightly less than almonds.
Most Americans could benefit from more fiber. According to the Mayo Clinic, a diet high in fiber can help normalize bowel movements, lower cholesterol levels, control blood sugar and aid in achieving a healthy weight.
A study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine found that consuming more dietary fiber was linked to a lower risk of death from any cause over a nine-year period. Participants who consumed the most fiber (roughly 25-30 grams per day) were 22% less likely to die than those who consumed the least fiber (10-13 grams per day).
Peanuts are packed with an abundance of vitamins and minerals. A 1/4 cup serving of raw peanuts contains at least 15% the daily recommended intake of the following nutrients:
- Vitamin B3
- Vitamin E
- Vitamin B1
They’re also a potent source of antioxidants, even more so when eaten with the skin. In fact, the antioxidant content of roasted peanuts rivals that of strawberries and blackberries.
At 161 calories per ounce, peanuts are fairly high in calories. Nearly 80 percent of those calories come from fat, as peanuts pack 14 grams of fat per serving.
Almonds contain an almost identical amount of calories and fat per ounce as peanuts. Nuts are a case where a food being high in fat is actually a good thing.
About half of the fat found in peanuts is monounsaturated fat while roughly 30% is polyunsaturated fat. While it is possible to overindulge on these fats, they’re commonly known as “healthy fats” for the benefits they offer.
In moderation, monounsaturated fats help to reduce blood pressure and protect against heart disease. They can also help the body better absorb vitamins and more efficiently use protein. Polyunsaturated fats can reduce blood cholesterol levels and lower the risk of heart disease and strokes. So while the calorie count for a serving of peanuts might look high, the presence of healthy fats is a big reason why.
It’s certainly possible to eat too many peanuts and thus consume too many calories, which is true of any nut, but peanuts possess several qualities that help us control our appetite.
Peanuts: A Proven Health-Booster
Regular consumption of peanuts has repeatedly been linked to positive health benefits.
A 2015 study published in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine examined how consumptions of nuts, including peanuts and peanut butter, affected risk of death in 72,000 American adults living in the southern United States. Among this group, those who regularly ate peanuts were “21% less likely to have died of any cause over a period of about five years,” even after researchers accounted for unhealthy influences like obesity, smoking, diabetes and high blood pressure.
Peanuts are naturally high in fiber, magnesium, arginine and healthy fat, which may make them a potent fighter against cardiovascular disease, the leading cause of death worldwide.
“Eating peanuts appears to be just as potent for preventing heart disease as eating other nuts. Since peanuts generally cost less than premium tree nuts, people on lower incomes can reap the health benefits of nuts on a budget,” reads a Harvard Health Blog on the topic. “The health benefits of peanuts appear to hold up across racial and income differences, which often have a strong influence on health.”
Several studies have found that peanut consumption does not appear to contribute to weight gain. Rather, they can be a useful tool for achieving and/or maintaining a healthy weight. Naturally high in niacin, peanuts may also help combat age-related cognitive decline. Peanuts can also help reduce your cholesterol and decrease your risk of developing gallstones.
The Cost of Peanuts
Per Consumer Reports, here are the different nut prices one can expect to encounter at Costco:
- Peanuts, 20 cents per ounce
- Almonds, 31 cents per ounce
- Walnuts, 37 cents per ounce
- Pistachios, 39 cents per ounce
- Cashews, 57 cents per ounce
As you can see, peanuts are dirt cheap compared to most other popular nuts. This discrepancy is even more pronounced when it comes to nut butter, as the prices for almond or cashew butter are often exorbitantly high.
The difference in price has little to do with one nuts healthier than another. More often, it’s a result of the economics of nut growing. Almonds are a perfect example.
According to UNESCO, producing one ounce of shelled almonds requires a “water footprint” of 80.4 gallons. Producing an equivalent amount of shelled peanuts requires a water footprint of just 4.7 gallons. Growing peanuts also requires significantly less water than walnuts or pistachios.
Peanuts are less expensive to grow than many other popular nuts, which makes them more affordable. By requiring far less water than many other popular nuts, peanuts are also more eco-friendly.
What’s the Healthiest Way to Eat Peanuts?
The thin, brownish skin around peanuts is a good source of polyphenols. Eating peanuts straight out of the shell is one way you can be sure to consume the skin. Spanish Peanuts come shelled with the skin intact, but they can be tough to find.
Shelled peanuts of the raw or dry-roasted variety are still plenty healthy, however. Plain, unsalted varieties tend to be best, but a little salt isn’t the worst thing in the world. However, certain food manufacturers have grown fond of drowning peanuts in added sugar or excessive seasoning, so don’t assume that every peanut-type snack is automatically good for you.
For example, Planters Sweet ‘N Crunchy Peanuts pack 13 grams of sugar per ounce. That much added sugar is more than enough to negate any health benefits (for context, raw peanuts have about one gram of sugar per ounce).
Boiled peanuts have been found to be significantly higher in isoflavones, an antioxidant that can reduce the risk of several chronic diseases, than raw or dry-roasted peanuts, so feel free to enjoy this southern delicacy.
Some oddballs like to eat peanut shells, as well, but this can potentially lead to digestive issues. And if you suffer from a peanut allergy, you should take great care to avoid peanuts and peanut residue all together.
How often should you eat peanuts, and how many should you eat? That ultimately depends on a wide variety of factors, but aiming for an ounce (which is about one handful) of nuts a day is a good rule of thumb. Similar to fruits and vegetables, it’s likely best to eat a range of different nuts over time. However, a handful of peanuts will always beat no nuts!
Peanuts are a Cheap, Convenient Superfood
Peanuts remind me of another extremely nutritious, often-underutilized legume: beans.
Like beans, peanuts are affordable, tasty and versatile. Overlook them and you risk ignoring a fantastic snack and ingredient that may help you live a longer, healthier life.
Peanuts are a simple, accessible way to reap the health benefits that come from eating nuts. As long as they haven’t been candy-fied with a hefty dose of added sugar, peanuts are healthy in just about any form you consume them, including most peanut butters.