Peanuts have always been a favorite food of Americans and can be consumed in a variety of ways, including the stand-alone peanut to cooking with peanut oil. In fact, we consume ~2.5 billion pounds of peanuts per year, about half of which is in the form of peanut butter. At one time, the health benefits of peanuts were called into question since they're high in fat and calories. However, over the past few years, more scientific research has shown that peanuts can be quite good for our health, specifically cholesterol, when consumed in moderation.
Contrary to its name and popular belief, the peanut is not a nut at all. In fact, it is more closely related to beans and peas than to a walnut or pecan. Peanuts belong to the legume family which are edible seeds covered in pods. There are three main types of peanuts consumed in this country: Virginias (commonly known as the cocktail peanut), Runners, and Spanish. Most American peanuts are grown in the southeastern states such as Georgia and Virginia.
In 2003, the FDA announced that producers of certain nuts such as peanuts, almonds, and walnuts could make the health claim linking nut consumption to reduced heart disease risk. The following label was approved: “Scientific evidence suggests but does not prove that eating 1.5 ounces per day of most nuts as part of a diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol may reduce the risk of heart disease." The FDA made this decision based upon several studies that showed eating 1-2 oz of peanuts five or more times a week can lower total cholesterol, LDL, and triglyceride levels. The effect was greatest when peanuts or peanut oil was substituted for saturated fats.
Furthermore, epidemiological studies have shown a direct correlation with lower cardiovascular risk and increased nut consumption. Some estimates have reported that peanut consumption may reduce the risk from 25 to 45%.
Peanuts can be beneficial to cholesterol for a variety of reasons. Firstly, they contain no cholesterol. Secondly, they contain lots of mono- and poly-unsaturated fat. Peanuts can be quite filling and by eating a food that has no cholesterol and is full of good fat, one is more likely to eat fewer foods full of cholesterol and bad saturated fats. Peanuts also contain phytochemicals, folate, and anti-oxidants which may have additional health benefits. Resveratrol, a chemical found in red wine, which has been linked to heart health benefits, is also found in peanuts. Lastly, peanuts contain dietary fiber which has also been shown to reduce cholesterol.
So, how many peanuts should you eat?
If you have a peanut allergy like the 1.5 million people in the US, then obviously the answer is none. But, other nuts such as almonds and walnuts seem to have similar benefit and therefore may be a safe alternative. As mentioned above, a reasonable amount is 1-2 oz per day. Although peanuts are high energy foods, the concern about excessive weight gain appears to be exaggerated. In fact, several studies have shown that a diet containing regular peanut or nut intake is weight neutral and may in fact promote weight loss.