Walnut: The Superhero of the Nut Family
Nuts are both delicious and nutritious, and you will always find them mentioned among superfoods. They are a great source of fiber, protein and unsaturated healthy fats. Plus they are amazing snacks, being tasty and fulfilling. I must say however, out of all the crunchy, energy-packed little nuggets out there; walnuts actually come first on my list. In fact, many nutritionists will tell you that walnuts are one of the best nuts thanks to their high antioxidant content, making it the ‘superhero’ of the nut family! Pretty impressive, huh? Well, let’s explore this ‘super nut’ a little further….
As you may already know walnuts belong to the tree nut family, along with hazelnuts, macadamia nuts, pine nuts, pecans, Brazil nuts, cashew and pistachios. No surprise there. But did you know that China is currently the biggest producer and consumer of walnuts, accounting for nearly 50% of the total walnut production in the world. The US comes in second, accounting for nearly one-third of the global production of walnuts. Following closely behind are: The European Union, Ukraine, Chile, Turkey, Iran and Moldova.
Walnuts in China: A Storied Past
In fact, the culture surrounding walnuts has a long history in China. The Chinese have been using walnuts since the Han Dynasty, dating back around two thousand years. At that time, the practice of rolling a pair of walnuts between the palm and fingers was believed to improve circulation. The wild walnuts were preferred for this practice as they are harder and more effective. The ancient belief is that over time the flesh and blood of the user gets rubbed into the shell. As a result, rubbed walnuts have different characteristics depending on the individual who used them. Pretty cool, right? Over time the chemical reaction the users’ hands have with the walnuts leaves the surface of the nuts perfectly polished. Perfectly symmetrical walnuts are highly sought after too, and along with used wild walnuts, they have become collectors’ items in China.
Photo credit: https://www.chinahao.com/Product/45489305342/rosewood_carved_walnut
Walnuts are also seen as an investment and status symbol and some of these ‘designer’ walnuts can fetch up to tens of thousands of dollars! Over time the Chinese began to also manufacture hand balls that resemble walnuts made from different materials, ranging from rock crystal, stone, glass and metals. Today, in China you will often spot a variety of walnuts and similarly shaped hand exercisers sold in antique markets and neighbourhood flea markets.
Nuts with Health Benefits
Okay, now let’s get back to discussing walnuts for consumption. Here, there are two types of walnuts we are most familiar with: the ‘English’ walnut (Juglans regia) and the black walnut (Juglans nigra), which is native to North America, originating in the Appalachian region and central Mississippi Valley. The first type, the English walnut, is native to India and the regions around the Caspian Sea (Persia). In the 4th century, the ancient Romans introduced it into many European countries where it has grown since. Later, it acquired its current name from the English merchants who carried it for trade to other parts of the world.
In Lebanon, walnuts are grown too and their harvest season kicks off towards the end of August. If you look at the walnut tree you will see green thick-skinned hulls, which look nothing like the walnuts we eat. Once they ripen they begin to crack open and the familiar brown-shelled nuts are revealed. You will normally find walnut trees all around the country, but they are mostly concentrated in the West mountains of Mount Lebanon, the Bekaa, South of Zahleh, towards Baalbek and in Hermon as shown here.
Photo credit: http://www.lebanoninapicture.com/pictures/take-a-look-at-these-beautifully-fresh-green-walnuts-th#next
However, in Lebanon you can find fresh walnuts throughout the year, whether they are locally produced (the season lasts until early winter) or imported. But if you want them to last in your home and stay fresh, there are two things you can do. First, to prevent spoilage, keep them in their shells (walnuts become rancid quickly once shelled) in an airtight container, and store in the fridge (they will keep fresh for about a month). If you keep them in the freezer, they can last for a whole year. When you are ready to eat them, keep the papery outer exterior on. This part, the skin, has most of the phenols, including key phenolic acids, tannins and flavonoids. “Phenolic compounds are said to have anti-oxidative, anti-inflammatory, anti-mutagenic, and anti-carcinogenic properties and a capacity to modulate some key cellular enzyme functions.”
When it comes to nutrition and health benefits, here is what else you can find in these crunchy wholesome nuts:
- High content of alpha-linolenic acid (omega-3)
- Magnesium, phosphor, zinc, l-arginine, thiamine (vitamin B1), Vitamin B6 and folic acid
- High content of protein, fiber, magnesium, potassium, Vitamin E and iron
- Tryptophan, a sleep-enhancing amino acid that helps make serotonin and melatonin.
Here is what The Journal of Nutrition by Oxford Academic also has to say about Walnuts:
“English walnuts (Juglans regia L.) are rich in numerous phytochemicals, including high amounts of polyunsaturated fatty acids, and offer potential benefits to brain health. Polyphenolic compounds found in walnuts not only reduce the oxidant and inflammatory load on brain cells but also improve inter neuronal signaling, increase neurogenesis, and enhance sequestration of insoluble toxic protein aggregates.”
Now speaking of brain health (which walnuts clearly promotes) you may notice that the walnut is uncannily similar to our brain in appearance, whether it is the shape, texture or composition! Walnuts are known to have an exceptionally high amount of the specific omega 3 fatty acids, EPA/DHA and alpha linolenic acid (ALA), which the brain needs for staying healthy.
Bringing Walnut Into Your Diet
Needless to say, walnuts are pretty good for you. They are also super versatile and work with so many dishes, whether savory or sweet. While they are great for snacking on their own, they can be incorporated into plenty of meals. Here are some simple ideas to get more walnuts into your everyday meals:
- Top your favorite salad with chopped walnuts
- Make pesto sauce using walnuts (instead of pine nuts)
- Mix crushed walnuts into plain yoghurt and top with honey or maple syrup
- Add walnuts to sautéed seasoned vegetables
- Sprinkle chopped walnuts on your breakfast cereal or muesli
If you like to toast your walnuts (for that extra crunchy texture and flavor) go ahead but do it with caution. Remember, too much heat can damage the healthy fats in nuts. If you roast them in the oven, keep the temperature just under 180°C and bake them for no more than ten minutes. If you prefer to do it on the stovetop toast them in a skillet on medium heat for 3-5 minutes while stirring frequently.
If you are ready to be more adventurous with walnuts in your kitchen I highly recommend the No Bake Apple Walnut Tart. It’s packed with goodness and flavors, featuring a generous portion of walnuts and dates that make up the tart’s light crust. You can find the complete recipe here.
For something more savory which has the touch of both Mexican and Italian flavors, I would advise you try the Walnut and Olive Quesadillas found here. To accompany the scrumptious cheesy Quesadillas, I have the perfect nutty salad that is refreshing and nutritious, which could also be the perfect complement for any main dish found here!
Well, I hope I’ve left you with some ‘food for thought’ and some inspiring ideas for eating nutritious walnuts! If you know any other interesting walnut dishes, do share them with us. We always love to hear from you! When choosing walnuts, along with any produce you source, always go for organic, fair trade and responsibly sourced products. You will be doing yourself, others and our planet a whole lot of good.
First picture credit: https://superfoodsrx.com/healthyliving/which-nuts-walnuts-benefits/