The Pecan – A Healthy Choice

You say “PEE-can,” I say “pa-KAWN,” or so the saying goes. However, a new national survey finds that “PEE-can” is the overwhelming choice among Americans. Nearly half of consumers (45 percent, including almost seven out of 10 living in the Northeast) prefer this pronunciation of the all-American tree nut, with the rest of the nation roughly split between pa-KAWN and PEE-kawn.

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Nutrition in a Nutshell

Regardless of how you say it, there is no debating the health benefits of pecans, according to the National Pecan Shellers Association (NPSA). Pecans are loaded with heart-healthy unsaturated fats and recently published scientific studies show that pecan consumption can help lower blood cholesterol.

But according to the new consumer survey (conducted for NPSA by Synovate), many people still are not aware of the health benefits of pecans. The survey found that only 34 percent of pecan consumers understand that pecans can help lower cholesterol.

Further, pecans can be helpful as part of a weight-control diet because the mono- and polyunsaturated fats – the “good fats” – in pecans contribute to satiety. Yet 42 percent of pecan consumers are not aware of this weight-control benefit, according to this the survey.

Although pecans are popular as part of snack mixes and baked goods (56 percent and 85 percent of pecan consumers, respectively, said they use pecans in this way), not as many use pecans in ways that can add more nutritional value to meals. Only one-third of respondents (31 percent) use pecans as an ingredient in main dishes, and only one-fourth (23 percent) use them in salads.

“It’s a shame that pecans are not being used in more ‘main event’ type meals such as entrees and salads,” said Sue Taylor, registered dietitian with NPSA. “Not only do they contribute great texture, crunch and taste, pecans also provide many important vitamins and minerals.”

“With April being National Pecan Month, now is the perfect time for consumers to start taking advantage of the versatility of pecans,” Taylor said, “and reaping the health benefits at the same time.”

In addition to being loaded with heart-healthy unsaturated fats, pecans contain more than 19 vitamins and minerals such as vitamin E, folic acid, calcium, copper, magnesium, manganese, phosphorus, zinc and several B vitamins. Pecans are naturally cholesterol-free and sodium-free, and one serving provides about 10 percent of the government’s recommended Daily Values for zinc and fiber.

The national survey, comprised of a nationally representative sample of 1,000 adults, was conducted March 14-16, 2003. The sample reliability is +/- 3 percent.The health benefits of pecans are similar to those of other nuts that provide a high content of monounsaturated fat and arginine. Pecans’ concentration of monounsaturated fat and beta-sito sterol are two potential reasons why, in a study recently conducted at New Mexico State University, pecans significantly lowered LDL cholesterol in healthy people with normal lipid levels.

19 people completed the study; 10 were randomly assigned to the pecan treatment group (seven women and three men ranging in age from 35 to 55) and nine to the control group (eight women and one man, ranging in age from 25 to 49). Both the pecan treatment group and the control group ate a self-selected diet, the only difference between them being that those in the pecan group consumed pecans daily, while those in the control group avoided all nuts.

Despite the fact that each day, the subjects in the pecan treatment group consumed about 31/2-oz of pecans, which delivered 459 calories and 44 g of fat, their body mass index and weight remained unchanged. Many people avoid nuts, thinking these high-fat foods will lead to weight gain, but this study clearly shows that the healthy fats in pecans do not translate into unhealthy excess fat stores in human beings. In another study conducted in 2001 at Loma Linda University, adding just a handful of pecans to a traditional low-fat, cholesterol lowering diet had a dramatic impact on the diet’s effectiveness. Study participants – a total of 23 men and women between the ages of 25 and 55, with normal to mildly elevated cholesterol levels – were randomly placed on either the Step I diet, which is recommended by the American Heart Association as the first line of therapy for individuals with elevated cholesterol levels, or on a pecan-enriched version of the Step I diet. The pecan-enriched diet replaced 20 percent of the Step I diet’s calories with pecans, which amounted to about a handful of pecans each day. After staying on their initially assigned diet for four weeks, subjects switched to the other diet.

Pecans are tops in terms of antioxidant activity, ranking highest among all nuts on the USDA ’s ORAC scale. They also have up to 70% of the daily value of manganese, which supports bone health and wound healing. Pecans’ healthy fats aid in the absorption of other fat-soluble nutrients, like vitamins A, D, E and K.

Nuts have been a part of the human diet for countless ages. The first documented evidence of nut consumption occurred around 7,000 BC during the Stone Age (King, 2007). More recently, nuts have received a large amount of media attention as an emphasis on heart-healthy diets has spread. Pecans are a well-known, favorite southern nut and widely available throughout Oklahoma and Texas. Pecans will be widely used in many recipes as families come together to celebrate during the holiday season. While many of these dishes may not necessarily be considered healthy, pecans by themselves provide many health benefits. In fact, you may be surprised to find out just how healthy pecans actually are.

During the 2006 Texas Master Gardener Conference in College Station, Texas, participants were asked to complete a survey that included questions about the nutritional properties of pecans. Surprisingly, 86.9 percent of the participants thought pecans would increase their level of LDL cholesterol. However, 54 percent of the respondents correctly indicated that pecans contained minerals (Lombardini, 2008). According to the National Pecan Shellers Association website, pecans contain more than 19 vitamins and minerals including vitamin A, vitamin E, folic acid, calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, several B vitamins and zinc. Even though pecans are a great source of these minerals, consumers often think that pecans are an unhealthy food choice due to their high percent of total fat. However, the majority of this fat is in the form of unsaturated fats, some of which may have a positive impact on health.

While the total fat composition may be high, many studies have shown that eating pecans is beneficial to health. Researchers at Loma Linda University conducted a diet study to determine the effects of using pecans to alter the serum lipid profiles of individuals. The results showed that a diet enriched with pecans lowers both total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol levels (Rajaram, 2001). It has also been proven that pecans can delay the decline in motor neuron function that often occurs with aging. In a study conducted at the Center for Cellular Neurobiology & Neurodegeneration Research at the University of Massachusetts, motor neuron function significantly increased in mice that were fed a diet with 0.05 percent pecans (Suchy, 2010).

Based on the results of these studies, adding pecans to a balanced diet may not only improve heart health, but also slow the effects of aging. As more research is conducted and more health benefits of pecan consumption are documented, pecans should remain a popular nut choice among consumers. As other nations like China and India begin eating pecans for the health benefits, the demand for pecans will increase. Increased demand will, in turn, encourage future pecan plantings and the need for additional pecan research. The Noble Foundation is committed to supplying needed information and research to those interested in pecan production.

Health Benefits of Pecans

Pecans: Source of Natural Antioxidants and FiberPecans – the only native American tree nut – have been a tasty favorite for centuries. The first known cultivated pecan tree plantings are thought to have taken place in the late 1600s or early 1700s in northern Mexico, whereas the first U.S. plantings took place in Long Island, NY in 1772. By the 1800s, pecans were at the heart of a full-fledged North American industry. Pecans have a rich history that goes back hundreds of years, but recent history is redefining how people think about those delicious little tree nuts. Research conducted over the past decade has confirmed that pecans can be a healthy addition to your diet. Below are summaries of landmark research studies confirming the health benefits associated with eating a diet rich in pecans.

Pecans May Protect the Mind
Natural Antioxidants in Pecans
Cholesterol-Lowering Pecans
Weight Control and Pecans
Heart Healthy Pecans
Nutrient Dense Pecans

Pecans May Protect the Mind

Eating about a handful of pecans each day may play a role in protecting the nervous system, according to a new animal study published in Current Topics in Nutraceutical Research. The study, conducted at the Center for Cellular Neurobiology at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, suggests adding pecans to your diet may delay the progression of age-related motor neuron degeneration. This may include diseases like amyotropic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease.

Researchers suggest vitamin E – a natural antioxidant found in pecans – may provide a key element to neurological protection shown in the study. Antioxidants are nutrients found in foods that help protect against cell damage, and studies have shown, can help fight diseases like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, cancer and heart disease. Lead researcher Dr. Thomas Shea, Ph.D and his research team carried out a number of laboratory studies on three groups of mice specifically bred to demonstrate severe decline in motor neuron function that are commonly used in studies of ALS. Each of the three groups was fed a control diet or one of two diets containing differing amounts of pecans ground into their food. Standard testing methods were used to determine how well the mice scored relative to motor neuron functions, both before and after they were provided with one of the three diets.

Mice provided a diet supplemented with pecans displayed a significant delay in decline in motor function compared to mice receiving no pecans. Mice eating the diet with the most pecans (0.05%) fared best. Both pecan groups fared significantly better than those whose diets contained no pecans. The result was based on how the mice performed in highly specific tests, each of which compared mice on the control diet with mice consuming pecan-enriched diets.

Natural Antioxidants in Pecans

Naturally-occurring antioxidants in pecans may help contribute to heart health and disease prevention, according to a study at Loma Linda Univesity. The results were published in the January 2011 issue of The Journal of Nutrition.

Pecans contain different forms of the antioxidant vitamin E—known as tocopherols, plus numerous phenolic substances, many of them with antioxidant abilities. The nuts are especially rich in one form of vitamin E called gamma-tocopherols. The findings illustrate that after eating pecans, gamma-tocopherol levels in the body doubled and unhealthy oxidation of LDL (bad) cholesterol in the blood decreased by as much as 33 percent. Oxidized LDLs may further contribute to inflammation in the arteries and place people at greater risk of cardiovascular problems.

These findings are from a research project designed to further evaluate the health benefits of pecans, according to Dr. Haddad. She analyzed biomarkers in blood and urine samples from study participants (a total of 16 men and women between the ages 23 and 44) who ate a sequence of three diets composed of whole pecans, pecans blended with water, or a control meal of equivalent nutrient composition. The pecan meals contained about three ounces of the nut. Samples were taken prior to meals and at intervals up to 24 hours after eating.

Following the test meals composed of whole pecans and blended pecans, researchers found that amounts of gamma-tocopherols (vitamin E) in the body doubled eight hours after both meals, and oxygen radical absorbance capabilities (ORAC—a scientific method for measuring antioxidant power in the blood) increased 12 and 10 percent respectively two hours after the meals. In addition, following the whole-pecan meal, oxidized LDL cholesterol decreased by 30 percent (after 2 hours), 33 percent (after 3 hours), and 26 percent (after 8 hours).

Research from Loma Linda University published in the August 2006 issue of Nutrition Research showed that adding just a handful of pecans to your diet each day may help inhibit unwanted oxidation of blood lipids, thus helping prevent coronary heart disease. The researchers suggest that this positive effect was in part due to the pecans’ significant content of vitamin E. Oxidation of lipids in the body – a process akin to rusting – is detrimental to health.

In the laboratory analysis of blood samples from the research subjects, Dr. Haddad’s team found that the diets enriched with pecans significantly reduced lipid oxidation (by 7.4 percent) versus the Step I diet. Oxidation levels were evaluated using the TBARS test, which measures oxidation products. The researchers also found that blood levels of tocopherols were higher after participants were on the pecan diet. Cholesterol-adjusted plasma gamma-tocopherol in the study participants’ blood samples increased by 10.1 percent (P < .001) after eating the healthy pecan diet. The researchers concluded that these data provide some evidence for potential protective effects of pecan consumption in healthy individuals. In addition, landmark research published in the Journal of Agriculture and Food Chemistry (June 2004) found that pecans rank highest among all nuts and are among the top category of foods to contain the highest antioxidant capacity, meaning pecans may decrease the risk of cancer, coronary heart disease, and neurological diseases such as Alzheimer’s.
Cholesterol-Lowering Pecans

Pecans also play a role in lowering cholesterol. Clinical research published in the Journal of Nutrition (September 2001) compared the Step I diet (28 percent fat), recommended by the American Heart Association for individuals with high cholesterol levels, to a pecan-enriched (40 percent fat) diet. The results showed the pecan-enriched diet lowered total cholesterol by 11.3 percent and LDL “bad” cholesterol levels by 16.5 percent – twice that of the Step I diet, without any associated weight gain.

Research conducted by Dr. Ronald Eitenmiller at the University of Georgia has also confirmed that pecans contain plant sterols, which are known for their cholesterol-lowering ability.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has acknowledged this and related research and approved the following qualified health claim: “Scientific evidence suggests, but does not prove, that eating 1.5 ounces per day of most nuts, such as pecans, as part of a diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol, may reduce the risk of heart disease.”

Weight Control and Pecans

A review of pecan and other nut research, published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition (September 2003), suggests that nuts like pecans may aid in weight loss and maintenance. The review cited studies indicating that nut consumption may increase metabolic rates and enhance satiety. When used in conjunction with a healthy low-fat diet, nuts also offer increased flavor, palatability and texture that can lead to greater dietary compliance, according to the review.

A one-ounce serving of pecans (approximately 20 halves) contains 196 calories, 20.4 grams total fat (1.8 saturated fat), 0 mg cholesterol, 0 grams sodium, 2.7 grams dietary fiber and over 19 vitamins and minerals including vitamin A, vitamin E, calcium, potassium and zinc.

Pecans are also a good source of oleic acid, vitamin B1, thiamin, magnesium and protein.
Heart-Healthy Pecans

Nearly 60 percent of the fats in pecans are monounsaturated and another 30 percent are polyunsaturated, leaving very little saturated fat in pecans. The unsaturated fat in pecans is heart-healthy fat meeting the new Dietary Guidelines that recommend Americans keep intake between 20 and 35 percent of calories, with most fats coming from heart-healthy sources like fish, nuts and vegetable oils. In addition, pecans contain no trans fat.

Nutrient-Dense Pecans

Pecans contain more than 19 vitamins and minerals – including vitamin A, vitamin E, folic acid, calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, several B vitamins and zinc. One ounce of pecans provides 10 percent of the recommended Daily Value for fiber. Pecans are also a natural, high-quality source of protein that contain very few carbohydrates and no cholesterol. Pecans are also naturally sodium-free, making them an excellent choice for those on a salt- or sodium-restricted diet.

Pecans, a nut native to North America, contain a host of health benefits. Native Americans used pecans as their main source of nutrition when meat was scarce. Recent research indicates that pecans may offer several health benefits, including:
High Protein and Fiber Content

3 ½ ounces of pecans contain 9 grams of protein and 10 grams of dietary fiber.

High in Antioxidants

Pecans contain the highest amount of antioxidants of any tree nut. Antioxidants are substances that protect the cells of the body from free radical damage, which may help to prevent diseases such as Alzheimer’s and cancer. One of the antioxidants contained in pecans is Vitamin E. This important nutrient helps prevent the oxidation of lipids in the body, which can aid in prevention of clogged arteries and heart disease.

High in Plant Sterols

Pecans are naturally high in plant sterols. Consuming plant sterols may lower LDL. Plant sterols have the ability to block your body from absorbing cholesterol. This is another way that eating pecans may be beneficial in the prevention of heart disease.

High in Minerals

Pecans are a good source of minerals such as calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium and zinc. Minerals are important to all functions of the body. You are more likely to be mineral deficient than vitamin deficient, so it’s important to consume foods with good mineral content.

Helps with Weight Loss

Research indicates that a diet rich in nuts, such as pecans, can help with losing weight and keeping it off. It’s thought that nut consumption enhances satiety (a feeling of fullness) and increases metabolism.
Other Information about Pecans

Pecans are harvested in the fall but are available for purchase year round. When buying pecans in their shells, keep in mind that nuts that are light weight, and if they rattle when shaken, they’re probably old. Look for nuts that are plump and uniform in size and color, when purchasing shelled pecans. Pecans are sold raw or roasted and may be sugared, glazed or spiced.

Pecans in the shell may be stored in a cool, dry place for up to a year. To get the maximum shelf life out of shelled pecans, store them in the refrigerator (up to 9 months), or freezer (up to 2 years).

Pecans are often associated with desserts, like pecan pie and pecan chocolate chip cookies, but there are many healthy ways to incorporate these tasty nuts into your diet. Toss some candied pecans into your salad. Try encrusting chicken or pork tenderloin with chopped, raw pecans prior to cooking. Use them to top low fat oatmeal muffins. Pecans added to fruit flavored yogurt make for a tasty dessert-like snack. Consider adding some pecans and grapes to chicken salad to really jazz it up.

Whether you eat them raw or incorporate them into your recipes, adding pecans to your diet can be a tasty way to meet a lot of your nutritional needs.

Pecans contain fat, so why should they be included in a healthy diet?

Healthy Snacks and Foods All Year RoundPecans do contain fat, but not all fats are created equal. Over 90% of the fat found in pecans is unsaturated, heart-healthy fat meeting the new Dietary Guidelines that recommend Americans keep intake between 20 and 35 percent of calories, with most fats coming from heart-healthy sources like fish, nuts and vegetable oils.
Are pecans a good source of protein?

Yes! Pecans are an excellent source of protein and can be substituted for meat, poultry or fish in a healthy diet, according to the 2005 Dietary Guidelines. The dietary guidelines recommend that the average American should eat 5 ½ servings from the “Meat and Beans” group every day. Pecans are included in this group because they contain approximately the same amount of protein and nutrients as meat, poultry, fish, beans and seeds. Eating 1 ounce of pecans (or about 20 halves) equals two servings from the meat and bean group and 2 teaspoons of oil. That means you still have 3 servings of meat and 4 teaspoons of oil left each day.
What about natural antioxidants?

Pecans are loaded with natural antioxidants. In fact, researchers at the USDA Arkansas Children’s Nutrition Center found that pecans contain the most antioxidant capacity of any other nut and are among the top category of foods (#13 overall) to contain the highest antioxidant capacity. Plus, new research, published in the August 2006 issue of Nutrition Research, shows that adding just a handful of pecans to your healthy diet each day may be help inhibit unwanted oxidation of blood lipids, thus helping prevent coronary heart disease. The researchers suggest that this positive effect was in part due to the pecan’s significant content of vitamin E – a natural antioxidant. Antioxidants are substances found in foods that protect against cell damage and – studies have shown – can help fight diseases like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, cancer and coronary heart disease.
Can I eat pecans if I’m trying to improve my cholesterol?

Absolutely! In fact, a 2001 study out of Loma Linda University found that adding just a handful of pecans to a traditional low-fat, cholesterol-lowering diet can have a dramatic impact on the diet’s effectiveness. Furthermore, the cholesterol lowering effect shown in the study is similar to what is often seen with cholesterol-lowering medications. When the Loma Linda study participants were on the pecan-enriched diet, they lowered their total and LDL (“bad”) cholesterol twice as much as they did when they ate the American Heart Association (AHA) Step I diet. Just as importantly, the pecan-enriched diet lowered blood triglyceride levels and helped maintain desirable levels of HDL (“good”) cholesterol compared to the Step I diet, which often unfavorably raises triglycerides and usually lowers HDL levels.
I usually think of pecans as “holiday” food. Are they available year round?

Yes they are. Although most people associate pecans with the holidays, it’s OK to eat these delicious tree nuts anytime of the year. Pecans contain more than 19 vitamins and minerals, and they’re cholesterol-free. To work pecans into your diet year-round, try some of these suggestions as healthy snacks:

Instead of chips, which are loaded with sodium, bring about 20 pecan halves to work to snack on throughout the day. Pecans are naturally sodium-free,
Substitute pecans for a candy bar when you’re looking for an afternoon pick-me-up. Research has shown people who eat pecans feel fuller longer. Pecans provide that long-lasting energy because they contain heart-healthy mono and polyunsaturated fats. Plus, a handful of pecan halves contain the same amount of fiber as a medium-sized apple.
Sprinkle pecans on top of your yogurt and you’ll get more zinc and vitamin E – important nutrients for proper growth and strong immunity.

Cooking With Pecan Shells

Soak shells overnight.
Remove grill racks from your BBQ; put pecans in a disposable pan and place pan directly atop coals (for charcoal barbecue) or place directly over flames (for gas barbecue). Return grill racks to barbecue. Sprinkle meat with salt and pepper. When pecan shells begin to smoke, place meat ( chicken, skin side down), on grill rack. Cover and grill until meat is cooked through, about 10 minutes per side

All those southern cooks can’t be wrong. You can also use the shells as flower pot/bed mulch: the shells will discourage cats and slugs.

We love total use for any agricultural product–sustainable agriculture at its best!

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