The health benefits of nuts, including walnuts, are hard to ignore. Not only are they an excellent source of heart healthy unsaturated fat, they're also a good source of antioxidants and plant protein. They also deliver a wide range of vitamins and minerals, including potassium, magnesium, copper and manganese.
Numerous studies have shown that including nuts in your diet can reduce the risk of heart disease. One of the largest studies to date on the subject, from researchers at Harvard, found that men who ate nuts at least twice a week were 47 percent less likely to die from a heart attack, compared to men who rarely or never consumed nuts.
The on-going Nurses' Health Study in the U.S. had similar results; researchers found that women who consumed 5 ounces (140 grams) of nuts each week were 35 percent less likely to suffer a heart attack compared to women who avoided nuts in their diet.
The cardiovascular benefits of nuts is so compelling that in 2003 the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved a health claim for seven types of nuts, including walnuts, that says "eating 1 ½ ounces (45 grams) per day of most nuts as part of a diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol may reduce the risk of heart disease".
Walnuts may help guard against heart disease by lowering blood pressure and elevated LDL (bad) cholesterol.
Walnuts deserve special recognition for their exceptional alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) content. ALA is an omega-3 fatty acid that has been linked to a lower risk of heart attack, stroke and diabetes. One-quarter cup serving of English walnuts contains 2.3 grams of ALA. Women require 1.1 grams of ALA per day; men need 1.6 grams of the fatty acid.
Walnuts, like all nuts, come with one drawback however: they are high in calories. A food guide serving of walnuts, ¼ cup (60 ml) or roughly 14 halves, contains 166 calories. Because they are easy to overeat, measure out one serving of walnuts to keep your portion size in check. To prevent weight gain, substitute walnuts for less healthy foods in your diet, such as chips, soft drinks, candy or cookies.
Nutrient information per ¼ cup (60 ml) English walnut halves (about 14 halves):
Source: Canadian Nutrient File, 2007b
English walnuts and black walnuts are the two main varieties of walnuts. Both are grown on trees of the genus Juglans.
The majority of walnuts grown for consumption in North American are the English variety, which is native to the Middle East. English walnuts are favoured for their relatively thin shell that is easy to crack as well as their mild taste.
Black walnuts have a very tough shell; often the nut cannot be extracted in one piece. Black walnuts also tend to have a slighter stronger and more robust flavour.
Most walnuts in Canada come from California where they are harvested from late August through November. When buying walnuts in the shell, look for those that are heavy for their size and free of any cracks or holes.
When buying shelled walnuts, look for nuts that are plump, meaty and crisp. Avoid any nuts that have an off, or rancid, smell to them.
If you usually store walnuts on the shelf for months at a time, you may want to think again. Exposure to light, heat or moisture will reduce the shelf life of walnuts. Due to their naturally high fat content, walnuts are susceptible to going rancid, resulting in an off taste and smell.
According to The California Walnut Board and Commission, you can maintain the freshness of shelled walnuts by storing them in the fridge of freezer. Be sure to store them away from foods with strong odours, such as onions, as walnuts can absorb the flavours of other foods.
Walnuts are available in a variety of sizes, ranging from halves and pieces to a coarse meal. Walnuts don’t require any preparation, and can be eaten straight from the shell. However, chopping and toasting walnuts adds their culinary versatility.
To chop walnuts: Spread walnuts evenly on a large chopping board. Using a very sharp knife, chop walnuts by keeping the tip of the knife relatively stationary against the board. Move the handle of the knife up and down, moving from side to side until you have the desired size. Alternatively, place walnuts in a food processor and pulse until desired size.
To toast walnuts: Preheat oven to 350°F (180°C). Evenly spread walnuts in a single layer on a large baking sheet. Place in oven for 5 to 8 minutes, or until walnuts are light brown and fragrant. Be sure to keep a close eye on them, as walnuts can burn very easily!
Thanks to their wonderfully sweet taste and crunchy texture, walnuts are a great addition to many types of dishes. They pair especially well with cheese, fresh fruit, baked goods and even leafy greens.
Healthy ways to enjoy:
- Add a handful of walnuts to a bowl of hot oatmeal. They taste especially good with diced apple or dried cranberries.
- Top a bowl of yogurt off with some toasted walnuts and fresh berries.
- Add chopped walnuts to pancake batter for a heart healthy start to your day.
- Skip the croutons; add a handful of toasted walnuts to a green or spinach salad.
- Garnish a bowl of squash or pumpkin soup with candied walnuts. Click here for a recipe.
- Add coarsely chopped walnuts to homemade chicken or turkey burgers.
- Stir chopped walnuts into a rice pilaf.
- Add chopped walnuts to poultry stuffing.
- Add chopped walnuts to muffin, loaf or cookie batters. Click here for a recipe.
- Toss walnuts with coconut, honey and cayenne pepper for a tasty snack. Click here for a recipe.
- Make your own trail mix by combining walnuts with almonds, dried cranberries, dark chocolate chips and rolled oats. Click here for a recipe.
- Leave a bowl of unshelled walnuts on the table when entertaining for the holidays - have a couple of nutcrackers handy so your guests can enjoy them!
Did you know?
- Black walnuts are native to North America, while English walnuts are native to the Middle East.
- China is currently the largest commercial producer of walnuts in the world. Other countries that produce walnuts include the U.S and Turkey.