Nuts and seeds meet many of today’s food industry trends, such as natural, clean label, plant-based, wholesome, healthy, inherently nutritional, and taste-pleasing. They are also sources of healthy fats, dietary fiber, protein, antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals. Not only are nuts and seeds popular as stand-alone snacks, they also add nutritional value to meals, snack foods, desserts, and more. In addition, research has shown that nuts and seeds can be beneficial for heart health, weight management, blood sugar, and healthy aging. Here is a look at some of these small yet powerfully nutritious nuts and seeds.
“Nuts are rich in important nutrients and dietary fiber,” says Sandra Arevalo Valencia, director of community & patient education at Montefiore Nyack Hospital and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “They are main sources of mono- and polyunsaturated fats, have zero cholesterol, and are a good source of vegan protein. Their high potassium content makes them heart healthy. Their high iron and vitamin B6 content makes them essential to prevent anemia as they help in hemoglobin production. The high dietary fiber content of nuts makes them a staple of a weight loss diet, essential in the prevention of constipation, and a great aid to potentially help lower the risk of colon cancer.”
In 2003, the FDA approved a Qualified Health Claim regarding most nuts and heart disease: “Scientific evidence suggests but does not prove that eating 1.5 ounces per day of most nuts [such as name of specific nut] as part of a diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol may reduce the risk of heart disease. [See nutrition information for fat content.]” The types of nuts eligible for this claim are restricted to almonds, hazelnuts, peanuts, pecans, some pine nuts, pistachio nuts, and walnuts. In 2017, macadamia nuts were approved for a similar Qualified Health Claim: “Supportive but not conclusive research shows that eating 1.5 ounces per day of macadamia nuts, as part of a diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol and not resulting in increased intake of saturated fat or calories may reduce the risk of coronary heart disease. See nutrition information for fat [and calorie] content.”
In addition to heart health and weight management (Liu et al. 2019), other areas of research are linking nuts to cognition and the gut microbiome. Coates et al. (2018), for example, concluded that there is emerging evidence that consuming tree nuts reduces the incidence of nonalcoholic fatty liver disease and promotes diversity of gut microbiota, which in turn may help improve cardiovascular disease outcomes. Regarding cognition, Rabassa et al. (2020) indicated that a high intake of nuts may protect older adults from cognitive decline. The study evaluated an older Italian population over a 3-year time period and found an association between nut consumption and less cognitive decline.
• Almonds. Almonds are one of the most popular nuts, both as a stand-alone snack and as an ingredient in foods and beverages. According to Innova Market Insights’ 2018 Global New Products Report, almonds are the most popular nut in Europe, Asia-Pacific, and North America.
“When compared ounce for ounce, almonds are the tree nut highest in six essential nutrients, including protein (6 g), fiber (4 g), calcium (75 mg), vitamin E (7.4 mg), riboflavin (0.3 mg), and niacin (1 mg),” says Laura Gerhard, director of strategy and marketing for Blue Diamond Almonds Global Ingredients Division. “Almonds are a versatile superfood delivering well-rounded nutrition, including satiety-boosting nutrients like protein and fiber. Additionally, almonds have a favorable fat profile, with 13 grams of ‘good’ unsaturated fat and only 1 gram of saturated fat in every ounce, supporting good heart health.”
While best known for their heart health benefits and use in weight management programs, new research hints at other possible health benefits of almonds. Foolad et al. (2019) demonstrated that daily almond consumption may reduce wrinkle severity in postmenopausal females to potentially have natural antiaging benefits. Female subjects consumed 20% of their daily energy consumption in either almonds or a calorie-matched snack for 16 weeks. Photographic analysis revealed that those who consumed the almonds had significantly decreased wrinkle severity and width compared with the control group at 16 weeks.
Various forms of almond ingredients, such as sliced, diced, slivered, flour, and almond protein powder, still harness the nutrition of almonds and offer versatility in formulations.
Blue Diamond Almonds Global Ingredients Division offers an Almond Protein Powder for nutrition bars, breakfast cereals, and energy-boosting smoothies. The powder is nutrient dense, providing an excellent source of fiber, magnesium, phosphorous, manganese, and copper, and a good source of potassium and calcium. “More recently, the popularity of plant-based diets has driven renewed interest in almonds as a natural source of plant protein,” says Gerhard. “Almond Protein Powder delivers approximately 45% protein.” The company also offers Almond Flour, which offers all of the nutritional benefits of whole almonds, is low on the glycemic index, and is naturally gluten-free. Every quarter-cup serving contains 6 g of protein, 3.5 g of fiber, and 75 mg of calcium. It is also a great source of vitamin E and monounsaturated fats.
• Walnuts. Walnuts are an excellent source of alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) (2.5 g)—the most ALA of any other tree nut, according to the California Walnut Board. This is one of the factors that contributes to the heart health benefits of walnuts. Walnuts also contain 4 g of protein, 2 g of fiber, and are a good source of magnesium (45 mg).
Kaviani et al. (2019) showed that a diet rich in polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) improved triglyceride levels in response to high saturated fatty acid meals with reductions in angiopoietin-like proteins. In this study, walnuts provided a significant portion of the omega-3 PUFAs for the PUFA-rich diet along with salmon, tuna, flaxseed oil, canola oil, and fish oil. The improved triglyceride levels were observed in females, but not males.
Increasing research is looking at walnuts and the gut microbiome. Holscher et al. (2018) demonstrated that walnut consumption affected the composition and function of the human gastrointestinal microbiota, increasing the relative abundance of Firmicutes species and reducing microbially derived, proinflammatory secondary bile acids and low-density lipoprotein cholesterol. The results suggested that the gastrointestinal microbiota may contribute to the underlying mechanisms of the beneficial health effects of walnut consumption. Bamberger et al. (2018) showed that daily intake of 43 g of walnuts for eight weeks significantly affected the gut microbiome by enhancing probiotic- and butyric acid-producing species in healthy individuals.
• Pistachios. Pistachios are a complete and good source of protein that contain 6 g of protein (10% Daily Value) and all the essential amino acids, according to American Pistachio Growers. They contain 13 g of fat per serving, with the majority (11.5 g) coming from monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. Something else to note about pistachios is that one serving of pistachios also contains 3 g of dietary fiber.
Recent research has studied pistachios and weight management. Fantino et al. (2020) concluded that a daily intake of 44 g of pistachios improved nutrient intake without affecting body weight or composition in healthy women. The additional calories provided by the pistachios helped induce satiety. Carughi et al. (2019) showed that consuming 56 g of pistachios or 56 g of isoenergetic/equiprotein savory biscuits (the control) as an afternoon snack resulted in similar post-snack food intake and subjective feelings of satiety. While a daily pistachio snack for a month did not affect body weight or composition, it did improve micronutrient intake; thiamin, vitamin B6, copper, and potassium intakes were significantly higher in those who consumed the pistachios.
• Hazelnuts. Hazelnuts are high in fiber, thiamin, vitamin B6, vitamin E, and minerals such as potassium, iron, magnesium, phosphorus, copper, and manganese. Like other nuts, hazelnuts are high in monounsaturated fat.
Hazelnuts are considered an excellent anti-inflammatory and hypolipidemic food, as they are the second-richest source of monounsaturated fatty acids among nuts and rich in vitamins, minerals, and phenolic compounds (Di Renzo et al. 2019). The researchers conducted a prospective pilot clinical trial on 24 healthy subjects who consumed a snack of 40 g of hazelnuts daily for six weeks. The results showed that no significant changes were detected on body composition analysis after hazelnut consumption. The researchers concluded that hazelnut consumption did not lead to weight gain and report that this was probably due to the improvement of the body’s antioxidant capacity by the upregulation of genes involved in oxidant reactions and inflammation.
Some of the popular seeds include sunflower, flax, hemp, chia, and pumpkin. They are typically eaten as stand-alone snacks, toppings on salads, or ingredients in healthy snacks such as granola or bars. “Seeds such as sunflower and flax seeds are mostly rich in magnesium, vitamin B6, protein, fiber, mono- and polyunsaturated fats, and have a similar caloric content,” says Montefiore Nyack Hospital’s Arevalo Valencia. “Hemp seeds are very rich in phosphorus and thus important for healthy bones and teeth. Phosphorus is also important for cell maintenance and repair. Chia seeds have less calories, more calcium, and high fiber, making them a good choice when you want to protect your bones without surpassing your caloric intake. Pepita, or pumpkin seeds, are the lowest in calories and share a similar nutritional content with other seeds.”
• Flaxseed. Flaxseeds are known for their omega-3 fatty acid profile and lignan benefits. According to Flax Council of Canada, about 42% of flaxseed is oil and more than 70% of that oil is comprised of healthy polyunsaturated fatty acids. Flaxseed contains 55%–57% of the essential omega-3 fatty acid ALA.
Flaxseed is one of the richest plant sources of lignans, which are phytoestrogens. These are thought to potentially help protect against certain kinds of cancer, particularly cancers of the breast and colon, because of their antioxidant activity and ability to help block tumor formation.
• Chia seed. Chia seeds are known for their omega-3 fatty acid content and dietary fiber. In addition, chia seeds are rich in vitamins such as riboflavin, niacin, and thiamin and have high concentrations of calcium, phosphorus, potassium, magnesium, iron, and zinc.
Grancieri et al. (2019) examined the composition and the beneficial effects of chia seeds, including their proteins and peptides, and their potential impact on human health. They found that a total of 20 proteins were cataloged in chia seed, with 12 of those involved in the regular metabolic processes of the plant cells. Eight proteins were specifically related to the production and storage of plant lipids, which explained the high concentration of lipids in chia seeds (around 30%), especially omega-3 fatty acids (around 20%). The analyses of amino acid sequences showed peptides with bioactive potential.
Benexia supplies chia seeds in various forms. For example, ALA Powder is a microencapsulated chia oil and is an excellent source of ALA (more than 25%), while Xia Powder 125 LM is a high-protein chia fiber extract that concentrates chia protein in a micro-milled format for beverages. Another ingredient Benexia offers is Xia Powder-435 LM, a multifunctional fiber concentrate extracted from the chia seed that has a total dietary fiber content of up to 53% and an omega-3 content of 4%. It is ideal for bakery mixes, extruded processes, and smoothies.
• Hemp seed. Hemp seeds are rich in linoleic acid and ALAs and are a great source of protein, vitamin E, and minerals such as phosphorus, potassium, sodium, magnesium, sulfur, calcium, iron, and zinc.
“Hemp seeds are a nutritional powerhouse. Unique to hemp seeds is the fatty acid profile combined with high-quality, digestible protein,” explains Ben Raymond, director of research and development for Victory Hemp Foods. “Hemp seeds and oils are approximately three parts omega-6 to one part omega-3, an optimal ratio for the nutritional health in humans. Hemp seeds contain about 35% protein, mainly edestin and albumin proteins. Hemp protein contains all nine essential amino acids.”
Raymond adds that hemp hearts (raw, hulled hemp seeds) are an excellent source of vegan omega-3s in the form of ALA, contain abundant protein, and are rich in essential amino acids and branched-chain amino acids.
Recently, Victory Hemp Foods entered into a strategic partnership with Applied Food Sciences, an integrated supply partner, to elevate sales and marketing for their ingredients, including their two proprietary ingredients, V-70 Hemp Heart Protein and V-ONE Hemp Heart Oil. Applied Food Sciences will provide marketing and sales support; technical assistance, including formulation expertise; and customer service.
“Companies are trying to get protein in everything. Crackers, cookies, gummies, juices, cold brew coffees, and bars top a long list of products with protein-related claims,” says Brian Zapp, creative director at Applied Food Sciences. “Plant proteins are an attractive alternative as they are void of many common allergens and tend to meet the requirements of popular diets such as vegan, paleo, and keto. Thanks to a compelling sensory profile, V-70 Hemp Heart Protein has great potential above many other plant-based ingredients. With a smooth texture, complementary nutritional value, and built-in consumer familiarity with hemp, this ingredient can make products even more enticing.” Raymond adds that at 70% protein, only 28.6 g of V-70 Hemp Heart Protein per serving yields 20 g of protein per serving in the finished product, making it easy to hit protein targets for nutritional labels. The ingredient can be formulated in nutritional bars, meat analogues, protein beverage blends, bakery products, and sports nutrition supplements.
V-ONE Hemp Heart Oil is a minimally processed oil. It retains the same omega-6: omega-3 ratio found in hemp seeds, and contains micronutrients like vitamin E and oil-soluble bioactives like beta-sitosterol, explains Raymond. It is best suited to lower-temperature cooking due to the delicate nature and large content of omega-3 fatty acids.
• Sunflower seed. Sunflower seeds are packed with beneficial nutrients like healthy fats, protein, fiber, minerals, vitamin E, and phytochemicals. Sunflower seeds are the best whole food source of vitamin E, an antioxidant important to health, according to the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture’s Nutrient Database. One ounce of oil-roasted sunflower seeds provides 76% of the Recommended Dietary Allowance for vitamin E, according to the National Sunflower Association.
Next month’s Nutraceuticals section will feature ingredient developments from a range of companies.
Bamberger, C., A. Rossmeier, K. Lechner, et al. 2018. “A Walnut-Enriched Diet Affects Gut Microbiome in Healthy Caucasian Subjects: A Randomized, Controlled Trial.” Nutrients 10(2): 244.
Carughi, A., F. Bellisle, A. Dougkas, et al. 2019. “A Randomized Controlled Pilot Study to Assess Effects of a Daily Pistachio (Pistacia Vera) Afternoon Snack on Next Meal Energy Intake, Satiety, and Anthropometry in French Women.” Nutrients 11(4): 767.
Coates, A. M., A. M. Hill, and S. Y. Tan. 2018. “Nuts and Cardiovascular Disease Prevention.” Curr. Atheroscler. Rep. 20(10): 48.
Di Renzo, L., G. Cioccoloni, S. Bernardini, et al. 2019. “A Hazelnut-enriched Diet Modulates Oxidative Stress and Inflammation Gene Expression without Weight Gain.” Oxid. Med. Cell Longev. doi: 10.1155/2019/4683723.
Fantino, M., C. Bichard, F. Mistretta, et al. 2020. “Daily Consumption of Pistachios over 12 Weeks Improves Dietary Profile without Increasing Body Weight in Healthy Women: A Randomized Controlled Intervention.” Appetite 144: 104483.
Foolad, N., A. R. Vaughn, I. Rybak, et al. 2019. “Prospective Randomized Controlled Pilot Study on the Effects of Almond Consumption on Skin Lipids and Wrinkles.” Phytother. Res. 33(12): 3212–3217.
Grancieri, M., H. S. D. Martino, and E. Gonzalez de Mejia. 2019. “Chia Seed (Salvia hispanica L.) as a Source of Proteins and Bioactive Peptides with Health Benefits: A Review.” Comprehensive Reviews in Food Science and Food Safety. 18(2): 480–499.
Holscher, H. D., H. M. Guetterman, K. S. Swanson, et al. 2018. “Walnut Consumption Alters the Gastrointestinal Microbiota, Microbially Derived Secondary Bile Acids, and Health Markers in Healthy Adults: A Randomized Controlled Trial.” J. Nutr. 148(6): 861–867.
Kaviani, S., Taylor, C. M., Stevenson, J. L. et al. 2019. “A 7-day High-PUFA Diet Reduces Angiopoietin-like Protein 3 and 8 Responses and Postprandial Triglyceride Levels in Healthy Females but Not Males: A Randomized Control Trial.” BMC Nutr. 5: Article 1. doi: 10.1186/s40795-018-0262-7.
Liu, X., Y. Li, M. Guasch-Ferré, et al. 2019. “Changes in Nut Consumption Influence Long-term Weight Change in US Men and Women.” BMJ Nutrition, Prevention & Health. doi: 10.1136/bmjnph-2019-000034.Rabassa, M., R. Zamora-Ros, M. Palau-Rodriguez, et al. 2020. “Habitual Nut Exposure, Assessed by Dietary and Multiple Urinary Metabolomic Markers, and Cognitive Decline in Older Adults: The inCHIANTI Study.” Mol. Nutr. Food Res. 64(2): e1900532. doi: 10.1002/mnfr.201900532.