Pistachios

If pistachios are a holiday food you enjoy eating every December, you're in luck.  But don't limit eating these nuts in December. Pistachio's heart healthy nutrient profile make them worthy of adding to your diet year-round.

Pistachios

Nutrition Notes

Thanks to the latest research, pistachios are shedding their image as a holiday food and establishing themselves as a health food.  Relative to other nuts, pistachios have the fewest calories per ounce and are a rich source of the antioxidants lutein, beta-carotene, and vitamin E.  They're also rich in heart healthy monounsaturated fats and have a fair amount of vitamin B6, potassium and magnesium. 

Long regarded for their culinary use, pistachios are now becoming known for their ability to help fight heart disease.  Numerous studies have shown pistachios help lower LDL ("bad") cholesterol.  In fact, a study presented in October 2008 at the American Dietetic Association Food and Nutrition Conference found that adding pistachios to a heart healthy diet lowered LDL ("bad") cholesterol up to 11 percent.

A food guide serving of pistachios is 1/4 cup (50 ml) - about 40 kernels (31 grams) or a small handful.

If you're watching your sodium intake, opt for unsalted roasted pistachios instead of salted.  A serving of unsalted pistachios has a mere 3 milligrams of sodium, whereas the same amount of salted pistachios has 126 milligrams.

While pistachios are a good source of monounsaturated fats and antioxidants, they're also rich in calories: a 1/4 cup serving of pistachios has 178 calories.  When adding nuts to your diet, especially in ¼ cup (50 ml) serving sizes, you'll need to subtract a similar number of calories from your diet in order to prevent gaining weight. Substitute nuts for less healthy foods like cookies, ice cream, candy, soft drinks, chips, and refined (white) starchy foods.

In my opinion, the best way to eat nuts is portion controlled: pre-portion one serving of nuts in a snack-sized Ziploc bag. Don't snack directly from a large package or jar of nuts! You'll end up eating more than you intended - and more than you need for heart health.

Per 1/4 cup (about 40 kernels) unsalted roasted pistachios:

Calories   178 kcal

 Total Fat

 14 g
   Unsaturated Fat     12 g
   Saturated Fat     1.7 g
 Protein  6.6 g
 Carbohydrate  8.6 g
 Fibre  3.2 g
 Sodium  3 mg
 Calcium  34 mg
 Folate  16 mcg
 Iron  1.3 mcg
 Magnesium  37 mg
 Potassium  325 mg
 Vitamin B6  0.4 mg

(Source: Canadian Nutrition File, 2007b)

Varieties

Pistachios are native to Asia and the Middle East where they were grown as early as 7000 BC.  Since pistachios have been grown and cultivated for thousands of years many different varieties exist.

The two main varieties available today are Kerman and Peters, which are common in North America.  Other varieties differ in how easily their shell opens and the size of the kernel.

Despite the common misconception that red pistachios are different from their green counterpart, the red colour is actually dye, not a natural pigment.  Dyed pistachios are coloured to hide their imperfections.  Green pistachios on the other hand are natural; the green colour comes from chlorophyll in the plant.

While dried pistachios are most popular, fresh pistachios are also common in some parts of the world where they're cultivated.

Buying

Pistachios can be found in stores year round.  They're available raw, roasted, salted, in the shell, or just the kernel. 

Whether you prefer to buy pistachios in their shell, or as kernels, make sure you buy a high quality product. Choose nuts that have a hard shell and an intact kernel.  In general, the greener the kernel the fresher the nut.

Choose pistachios that have their shell open at one end.  A closed shell is a sign the nut was picked prematurely.

If buying pistachios in bulk, buy nuts from a reputable store that has a high turnover of product.  A good whiff of the nuts will help determine their freshness - if they smell off, they've likely gone rancid due to their high fat content.  Avoid any nuts that have visible mold on them.

If you want to avoid food colouring, opt for green pistachios instead of red pistachios.

Storing

Because of their high fat content and open shell, pistachios, like all nuts, are susceptible to going rancid. To prolong their freshness store pistachios in a cool, dark, dry place. Exposure to light, heat and moisture for an extended period of time will decrease their shelf life.

Pistachios can be stored in a sealed container in the fridge for up to 6 months, or the freezer for up to 12 months.  If refrigerated or frozen nuts have lost their crunch, simply place them on a baking sheet and roast for 5 minutes at 375°F before consuming.

Preparing

When eating pistachios from the shell, split the shell and eat the small kernel inside.  The kernel may have a thin skin on it that can be eaten or removed before eating.  If you find a nut in a shell that doesn't pry apart easily, simply use a nutcracker to open it up.

Eating

Pistachios taste great when eaten right out of the shell, or added to prepared dishes.  They're commonly added to sweet dishes including baklava and ice cream.  Due to their healthy fat profile, pistachios are a great addition to breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks. 

Healthy ways to enjoy

Breakfast:

  • Add toasted pistachios kernels to your favourite granola recipe.
  • Sprinkle pistachio kernels on low fat yogurt for a crunchy texture and a boost of heart healthy monounsaturated fat.

Lunch:

  • Top a spinach salad with brightly coloured red pistachios kernels.
  • Add pistachios to a whole grain salad made with quinoa, shredded carrots, dried cranberries and chopped fresh parsley.  Season to taste with your favourite low fat dressing.

Dinner:

  • Garnish a chicken curry dish with toasted slivered almonds and pistachios.
  • Sprinkle pistachios on homemade meatloaf for a nutty flavour.
  • Instead of garnishing a warm pumpkin soup with pumpkin seeds, opt for toasted pistachios instead.
  • Sprinkle a handful of pistachios over a stir-fry for added crunch and nutrients.

Snacks:

  • Substitute pistachios for other nuts in cookie, square and muffin recipes.
  • For a warm afternoon snack, place 1/4 cup (50 ml) of pistachios on a baking sheet and toast at 375° for 5 to 7 minutes, until lightly brown and fragrant.  Lightly sprinkle with coarse sea salt.

More Information

Wikipedia - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pistachio

Pistachio Health - http://www.pistachiohealth.com/

Did you know?

  • When translated in different languages, pistachio means everything from ‘happy nut' to ‘smiling nut' to ‘green almond'.
  • Pistachios are closely related to mangos.
  • Pistachios were first cultivated in the United States in the 1970's.  Today, the U.S. remains of one the leading growers of pistachios and now produces upwards of 300 million pounds of pistachios each year!