The Difference between Nuts & Seeds

There are differences in the botany of nuts and seeds.   Seeds are the small, propagative part of the plant found within flowers or the fruit that is produced from the flowers of a plant.  They are typically encased in a covering, called the seed coat.  Every seed has the potential to germinate and grow into a mature adult plant.  They are both the embryo and food supply for creating a new plant and they can be sprouted.  Sunflower seeds, flax seeds, sesame seeds, pumpkin seeds, poppy seeds are all examples of seeds. 

Why This Matters:

Many people are allergic to tree nuts, but not to seeds. So understanding the basic differences between nuts and seeds can be interesting and helpful. Nevertheless, store staff should not rely on this information to counsel customers.   Customers must determine what products are appropriate for them to purchase and consume both for their own safety and to eliminate any risk or liability for the store and its staff.

Nuts, on the other hand, are actually hard-shelled, single seed fruits of trees.  The hard dry outer shell doesn't crack open at maturity.  Hazelnuts, almonds chestnuts, hickories, walnuts, etc., all have hard, stone-like shells and inside the shells is the nut which is also the seed.  An acorn (the fruit of an oak tree) is a perfect example.   Most seeds will be labeled with the variety and the word seed.  Most nuts will have stand-alone common names.

Nutrients and Anti-nutrients of Nuts & Seeds

Both nuts and seeds are rich in various combinations of protein, vitamins, minerals, fat, dietary fibers, and phytonutrients.  Studies have shown that consuming one ounce of nuts and seeds a day can diminish inflammation and provide satiating and immune-boosting nutrients.  Nuts and seeds contain mono- and polyunsaturated fats, including alpha-linolenic omega-3 fatty acid, essential for maintaining normal cell structure and brain function, nourishment of red blood cells, and reduction of cholesterol. 

However, nuts and seeds are similar to beans and legumes in that they also contain anti-nutrients that are beneficial for the propagation of the plant and protection from plant predators, but they are harmful to humans when consumed totally raw.   The most known anti-nutrient is phytic acid (or phytate), a phosphorous-bound organic acid that protects the plant seed from premature germination and locks its nutrients tightly inside to nourish the embryo.   If this acid is not properly released before processing and cooking, it will combine with minerals in the food that is consumed and prevent the body from absorbing any of the nutrients, including the protein in the food that is eaten.  Plant seeds also contain enzyme inhibitors that protect the plant from predators.   Raw nuts can also contain harmful bacteria if they haven't been handled correctly.   This is the reason that California has banned the sale of almonds (which have had several episodes of contamination) that have not been heated sufficiently to kill salmonella bacteria.  So most nuts that are labeled raw in the store have actually been soaked and dried to remove the harmful substances such as phytic acid and in some cases steam treated to remove any harmful bacteria.

In addition to the phytic acid and enzyme inhibitors in raw nuts and seeds, they take a longer time to digest because they contain considerable amounts of fats, protein, fiber, and other harder to digest components including lectins, glutens, tannins, and goitrogens.  If a person eats more than one or two servings of nuts at one time (about 10 nuts equals one serving), it may seem as though the nuts are "heavy" in the stomach and may result in bloating and discomfort for some people.

There is considerable disagreement among experts about the differences between the nutrients in roasted versus raw (not roasted or toasted) nuts and seeds.  Many conventional experts say the difference in nutrients between raw and roasted is slight, most noticeably in the reduction of B vitamins in roasted nuts compared to raw.  Other activists contend that only raw nuts should be consumed because roasting destroys the nutrients.   But most agree that soaking nuts and seeds (and beans and other legumes) before they are consumed either raw or roasted will remove anti-nutrients, neutralize enzyme inhibitors, reduce other anti-nutrients that are hard to digest, encourage the production of beneficial enzymes, prevent mineral deficiencies, and increase nutrient content, especially vitamin B, and break down hard-to-digest proteins, thus maximizing digestion and increasing bioavailability of the nutrients to the human body.

Both raw and roasted nuts have nutritional benefits.  They can be oil or dry roasted, but they are so dense that they don't absorb too much of the oil.  Roasting also does reduce the water content, concentrating the nutrients, except in the case of the B vitamins which are reduced because they do not tolerate heat. 

Storage and Uses

Because of their high content of delicate polyunsaturated fats, roasted or raw nuts and seeds are susceptible to going rancid quickly. Heat and light can degrade nut and seed freshness and nuts and seeds also absorb odors from their surrounding environment. So, all nuts and seeds should be stored in airtight containers that also block out moisture and light and are non-permeable.   Plastic bags are not sufficient.  Mason jars are often recommended, especially when stored away from light.   Ideally, nuts should be stored at temperatures less than 70°F.  Most room temperature storage is higher, so storage in the refrigerator or freezer is recommended, which will generally keep them out of light and fresh for 6 to 12 months, depending on the type of nut or seed. 

Nuts and seeds can be consumed as snacks by the handful, or mixed with dried fruits in trail mixes, or with grains in granolas.  They can be ground into flour and used for baked goods, especially items that are gluten-free.  They can be soaked and cooked and pureed into sauces or soups.  They are added to all types of baked goods for flavor and crunch or added to stir-fries, pilafs, and meatloaves.  They are often the base for meat alternative products, e.g. almond or hemp milk, or coconut ice cream.  They are sold in bulk or packaged, with and without shells or hulls, raw or roasted and toasted.    

Common Nuts

While there are literally hundreds of different kinds of nuts in the world, roughly a dozen nuts are responsible for the bulk of world-wide commercial nut production and consumption.

Almonds - Excellent source of riboflavin, Vitamin E, magnesium.  Almond oil can be applied to the skin as well as used in cooking.  It is considered a carrier oil in traditional medicines and aromatherapy. Typically available year-round, sold whole unshelled (typically during the holiday season), shelled, raw (actually steam-treated), roasted and salted, sweetened, or flavored (e.g., tamari almonds, chocolate covered almonds), blanched, slivered or sliced. 

Unshelled
Shelled

Brazil Nuts - Originating in the Amazon, these nuts are rich in magnesium, selenium, and copper.  They are high in calories and antioxidants and have served as a staple source of energy for native Amazonians for centuries.  Brazil nuts are usually sold in their shells during the holiday season, and shelled and roasted.  Since these nuts are high in polyunsaturated fats, they tend to turn rancid and deteriorate rapidly especially if they are exposed to air, humidity, and sunlight.  It's typically recommended to sell these nuts in their shell so they can be cracked and shelled as needed. 

Cashews – Native to Brazil, cashews are crescent-shaped nuts with a sweet flavor and a plethora of uses in the kitchen. Considered third in consumption among all the tree nuts in the world, cashews are rich in manganese, magnesium, copper, Vitamin K, and plant sterols.  Contrary to popular belief, cashews do not contain cholesterol and its fat is oleic acid, which aids in the elimination of LDL. Research has also shown that roasting cashews and the thin skin between the nutmeat and the shell actually produces higher levels of beneficial nutrients than eating them raw. More specifically, the antioxidant activity of cashew nuts increased as the roasting temperature increased.  Cashews are often mixed with other nuts, seeds, and dried fruits for trail mixes and cashew butter is a staple in many households.  Vegans, vegetarians, and raw food diet enthusiasts also use raw, soaked, and pureed cashews as a base for sauces and desserts.

Chestnut – Chestnuts are popular cold season (October through March) nuts indigenous to the northern hemisphere in China, Japan, Europe, and North America.  These nuts are relatively low in calories and are chiefly made of starch, more similar to sweet potatoes or plantains, than other protein-rich nuts.  Nevertheless, chestnuts are a good source of dietary fiber, minerals, oleic acid, and a rich amount of Vitamin C.  When handling, chestnuts should be treated more like vegetables and fruits due to their perishable condition, especially when the kernels are exposed to air and excessive humidity.  Most consumers use chestnuts for roasting as a snack or included in poultry stuffing.  In other parts of the world, they are used in polenta, baked goods, sweet desserts and candied as glazed chestnuts.

Coconut – A coconut is the mature fruit of a cocos Nucifera palm tree.  It is native to Southeast Asia and the Pacific islands and has figured prominently in their diet and lifestyle for centuries.   In a season, a single tree can produce 20 - 150 mature nuts.  The outer husk starts out as green and turns gray as it matures.  Under the husk is the nut with its woody shell surrounding the inner, edible, white kernel and water.  The coconut is considered by some as a super fruit for its nutritional benefits.  An average-sized nut can provide almost all the daily required essential minerals, vitamins, and energy for a medium-sized person, including essential potassium, all the B-complex vitamins, and key minerals such as copper, iron, and manganese.  One of the most important nutritional components of coconuts is lauric acid which helps to regulate cholesterol levels in the blood. 

Coconut water, the watery liquid found in the center of the coconut, is a very popular beverage in health food stores, known for its hydrating properties of simple sugar, electrolytes, minerals, and bioactive compounds and enzymes.  In addition, oil extracted from coconuts is used in cooking and also topically as an emollient for the skin.  Coconut milk is made by soaking grated coconut flesh in hot water, skimming off the cream that rises to the top, and filtering the remains to extract the white liquid.  Very different from coconut water, coconut milk is used heavily in Southeast Asian curries, soups, sauces, and even sweets. In the US, there are countless ways to use coconut meat, oil, water, and milk to enhance a person's diet.   

Hazelnut – Also considered filberts, hazelnuts are ranked #1 among tree nuts in folate content, particularly beneficial to childbearing women, infants, and children.  In addition to the usual fiber content, they also have the highest proanthocyanin content of any tree nut and are rich in manganese and copper.  Hazelnuts are closely related to filberts; they look alike and only differ in the structure of the shell.  They are rich in linoleic acid which helps lower LDL and increases HDL (good cholesterol).  They also contain vitamins, particularly Vitamin E, copper, manganese, and other minerals plus fiber.  Hazelnut oil is often used in aromatherapy and as a base or carrier oil in medicine.  In food, hazelnuts have a slightly sweet taste and are eaten raw or roasted, salted or sweetened.  Hazelnuts can also be ground into a fine powder often used as a flour additive.  They are widely used in candies and sweets, and hazelnut butter, which is helpful for those allergic to peanuts.  People who are allergic to tree nuts will most likely suffer a reaction to hazelnuts, so customers and store staff should be sure to read all labels for evidence of hazelnuts.

Macadamia – These nuts are native to the East Coast rainforests of North Eastern Australia, along with the tropical and subtropical areas of the Hawaiian Islands, Middle Americas, Brazil, and South African regions.  Only two of the seven different macadamia nut species are edible, producing a smooth buttery sweet taste.  These nuts are among the highest in calories of nuts.  They provide all the key vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and phytonutrients expected of nuts including a remarkable amount of selenium, an important cardio-protective phytochemical. Macadamia is sold in their shell or shelled, or roasted and either salted or sweetened.  They are most often eaten as a snack, widely used in sweets and baking, or sprinkled on food as a crunchy condiment.

Pecan – Pecans are often used interchangeably with walnuts in much of America's recipes.  They differ in their proportion of healthy fats.  Where pecans have more grams of monounsaturated fat, walnuts have more polyunsaturated fat; both of which are important for heart and cardiovascular health.  They are a species of hickory native to Mexico and south-central, southeastern United States.  Most pecans are harvested from October through December, and then dehydrated.  Pecans are strong in oleic acid, important for cholesterol management, and ellagic acid, an effective antioxidant.  They are also a good source of B-Complex vitamins.  Like other nuts, pecans are sold in their shells or shelled; roasted or raw, and salted for snacking or added to sweets of all kinds and work particularly well with caramel, honey, maple, or chocolate flavors.

Pine – Pine nuts are the edible seeds of about twenty species of pine trees.  They are also known as pinyon or piñon nuts in some areas of the U.S.  They are relatively high in calories and have similar combinations of vitamins, minerals, and other important phytonutrients.  These nuts are used for baked goods and granolas, and they are also used in salads, meat, fish, and vegetable dishes.  Pine nut oil is also sold or used in salad dressing and in cooked recipes.

Pistachio – Like other nuts, pistachios are an excellent source of essential vitamins and minerals, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids, protein, and fiber, along with an array of phytochemicals.  They are naturally cholesterol-free and have more potassium and Vitamin K than other nuts.  A one-ounce serving (49-50 nuts) has the same amount of potassium as half of a large banana.  They also contain Vitamin B-6, thiamine, phosphorus, and magnesium.  They also contain l-arginine, a nutrient that helps with the prevention of blood clots.  Pistachios are a favorite for snacks, cookies, and ice cream; and are also good sprinkled on roasted squash stirred into pasta, added to salads, and used in place of pine nuts or walnuts for pesto.

Walnut - Among nuts, walnuts contain the greatest amounts of alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), the plant-based omega-3 fatty acid along with a variety of antioxidants and zero cholesterol.  They are also a source of protein, fiber, magnesium, and phosphorus.  Ninety percent of the antioxidants in walnuts are found in the papery skin.  A one-ounce size is about 12-14 shelled halves or about 1/4 cup of pieces.  Walnuts originated in Persia (now known as Iran) and are one of the oldest tree foods known to man.  California was introduced to walnuts in the late 1700s when the Franciscan Fathers introduced them to America.  Today, California is the center for walnut growth, accounting for 99% of the U.S. supply of commercial walnuts.  Walnuts are suitable for all types of dishes and can be blended smooth for spreads or pesto, added to salads of all types (chicken, tuna, green, fruit, etc.), and added to pilafs, and pasta.   

Popular Seeds

Seeds are embryonic plants that are packed with nutrition intended to fuel the plant's germination and growth.  They are also nutritious and filling food for humans.  The most popular seeds are:

Flax – Flax seeds are in high demand due to their dietary fiber and their rich content of ALA and lignans.  ALA is a powerful anti-inflammatory; lignans provide powerful antioxidant action, especially helpful in reducing the risk of breast and prostate cancer.  The seeds promote healthy bowel function and help to suppress appetite and help support weight loss.  Commercial flax seeds are typically brown; however, they are also available in the golden variety and taste better when they are roasted.  Ground flax seeds provide more nutrition than do the whole seeds and can be added to cereals, baked goods, and smoothies.   

Sesame – Sesame seeds have been used as a condiment by man of thousands of years.  The seeds are valued for their oil, which is resistant to rancidity, and for their nutrition, including Vitamin B1, various minerals, especially copper, and two phytochemicals unique to sesame seeds - sesamin and sesamolin.  These are lignans, useful for lowering cholesterol and preventing high blood pressure.  Sesame seeds are tiny, flat seeds with a nutty taste and delicate crunch.  They are typically available in the U.S. in hulled (white) and un-hulled (brownish) varieties.  Sesame seeds come in other colors including yellow, red, and black, but most natural product stores will only offer the black type as a specialty item.  These seeds are great additions to baked foods, vegetables, salad dressings, stir-fries, and are also used in traditional macrobiotic seasoning, gomasio.  Sesame seeds are also used to make tahini and a Middle Eastern sweet call halvah.     

Sunflower - Sunflower seeds are produced in the center of those large yellow sunflowers.  The seeds have a black with white stripes conical pod that is not edible. When the hulls are removed, the tiny grey kernel can be eaten raw or roasted.  About 100 grams of seeds yields about 580 calories, so they are high in energy, most of which comes from poly-unsaturated linoleic acid and mono-unsaturated oleic acid.  They are also a good source of protein, vitamin E, B vitamins, folic acid, niacin, minerals, and other antioxidants.  In fact, a handful of sunflower kernels each day provides most of the phenolic antioxidants and other nutrients recommended by experts.   Sunflower seeds are extensively used for their oil, and in addition, they are used in baked goods, salads, stir-fry dishes, casseroles and can be ground into flour or made into sunflower seed butter, a good alternative to peanut butter for people who are allergic to peanuts.

Pumpkin – Pumpkin squashes produce flat white seeds that will yield a smaller green kernel when shelled.  Although the whole pumpkin seeds are edible, most pumpkin seeds are sold already hulled, in their green form.  They are among the best seeds for magnesium, zinc, and other omega-3's.  They are often recommended for consumption by men for their prostate health, especially in combination with saw palmetto. They are also a rich source of tryptophan, an amino acid that the body converts to serotonin.  Serotonin is turned into melatonin, a sleep hormone, so eating a few raw pumpkin seeds a few hours before bed may be beneficial for a restful night’s sleep.  Like many other seeds, pumpkin seeds are an excellent addition to granola, sautéed vegetables, green salads, and ground and mixed into salad dressings, added to hot or cold cereals or ground and added to burgers and stir-fry recipes.

Poppy – Poppy seeds are tiny round black seeds that are most often used on bagels, in poppy seed lemon muffins, and in salad dressings.  But these mild-flavored seeds are high in dietary fiber, protein, calcium, and copper, and other important nutrients including Vitamin B1, folate, and Vitamin E.  Poppy seed oil is also used as a carrier for iodine in pediatric medicine and in other alternative medicine uses.  However, poppy seeds carry opium alkaloids such as morphine and codeine, which can result in false positives for opiates in a drug test if too many poppy seeds are eaten up to 24 hours before the test. 

Chia – Chia seeds are all the rage now due to their huge nutrient make up and ability to be easily absorbed by the body in their whole seed form.  They have 2.5 times more protein than kidney beans, 3 times the antioxidant power of blueberries, and 6 times more calcium than milk.  They have 8 times more omega-3 than salmon, 10 times more fiber than rice, and 15 times more magnesium than broccoli.  The mild, nutty flavor makes it easy to add to foods and beverages. They are most often sprinkled on cereal, sauces, vegetables, rice dishes, or yogurt or mixed into drinks and baked goods. They can also be mixed with water and made into a gel.   

Hemp - Hemp has traditionally been used in the commercial production of clothing and rope.  Hemp is a sustainable crop, grown without pesticides.  Hemp plants require about half the water as other agricultural crops and do not deplete the soil of nutrients.  Recently hemp seeds have become more widely recognized as a superfood for their nutritional benefits and they are making their way into various food products in natural food stores.  Hemp is about one-third essential fats (Omega 3 & 6) and one-fourth complete proteins, with all of the essential amino acids including the rarely found Gamma Linolenic Acid (GLA).  They are extremely digestible and can be eaten by people who are unable to tolerate nuts, gluten, lactose, or sugar.  There are no known allergies to hemp foods.  Hemp seeds come from the edible part of the Cannabis sativa L plant used for marijuana, but they don't carry any of the THC (the psychoactive component of marijuana).  Hemp seeds are used for making oil, protein powder, milk, frozen dessert like ice cream, cereals, waffles, and snack bars.  Hulled hemp seeds can be purchased in packages or in bulk and can be eaten raw or toasted, added to smoothies and granola, made into pesto, or added to salads and dressings.

Other Nut & Seed Products

Nut and Seed Butters – Nut or seed butters are nuts or seeds that have been ground into a thick paste.   Peanut butter is of course a butter made from the legume.   But there are also almond and cashew butters, pumpkin seed and sunflower seed butters.   Most conventional supermarkets carry commercial nut butters that have added sugar, salt, oils, and various stabilizers added. The stabilizers are added to prevent the natural oil from separating and to maintain uniform texture.   Natural nut butters made without stabilizers often separate, with the natural oil from the nuts rising to the top.   That said, there are some natural and organic “no-stir” varieties now available.  Store staff should read the label to see what type of nut butters they have available.  Customers may also ask how to mix the oil back into the butter and the best recommendation is to empty the contents of the jar into a bowl, stir well, and put back into the jar. Then store the jar upside down and in the refrigerator to prevent separation.

Nut butters can be used in a variety of ways.  They are traditionally used as a sandwich spread.  But they can also be mixed with dried fruit, honey, or other sweetener, nuts, and/or various cold cereals for great sweet treats; added to make sauces and frostings; and added to cookies, pancakes, muffins, or other baked goods.  In some recipes, the nut butter can even replace some other fat (butter, margarine, etc.) in the recipe.  

Tahini – A common way to use sesame seeds is to grind them into tahini or sesame butter.  Tahini is a staple in Mideast and Oriental cookery.  It is made by finely grinding hulled sesame seeds, while sesame butter is made by finely grinding un-hulled sesame seeds.   The hull or skin in sesame butter provides an additional boost of calcium.  The seeds may be roasted or raw in either product.  Tahini is lighter flavored than sesame butter and used in a wide array of food products.   Both products make excellent bases for salad dressings and sauces, are good as a spread on crackers or bread, or can be added to casseroles and baked goods.

Why This Matters:

Many customers avoid dairy often find it difficult to find a completely dairy-free cheese since casein is often added to improve texture and melting properties. Knowing that “cheese” spreads can be made from nuts at home is a great way to engage customers and increase sales. 

Nut Cheeses - Relatively new in natural food markets is packaged almond cheese.   Almond cheese is made in a similar way as soy cheese, except almond milk is used instead of soy milk.  Besides almond milk, almond cheeses may also contain oil, the milk derivative casein, a thickener, and various flavorings.  Some brands are enriched with vitamins and minerals.  Vegans have been making various nut cheeses that have similar consistency and taste as conventional cheeses.  Typically these cheeses require finely ground nuts, water, a coagulant such as rejuvalac, flavorings, and time.   Usually, these nut cheeses are set aside to allow for separation of the solids from the liquids, then shaped and baked or dehydrated for a few hours.    Different nuts make different flavors and textures.  Vegans who are interested in learning how to make vegan cheeses will find many recipes and helpful hints online.

Nut Milks - Nuts can also be made into beverages typically called milk.  The varieties now available in most natural food stores include almond, hemp, coconut, and cashew.  Manufacturers add a variety of ingredients to produce a good tasting, consistent product.   While nut milks are a healthy, cholesterol-free beverage, they do not have the same nutrient content as cow’s milk. For example, nut milk does not have as much calcium or Vitamin D as cow’s milk.  Most of these nut milks come in natural unflavored or flavored (typically vanilla and sometimes chocolate), and unsweetened or sweetened. 

 

 

Words to Remember

ALKALOIDS

A class of nitrogenous organic compounds of plant origin that have pronounced physiological actions on humans. They include many drugs (morphine, quinine) and poisons (atropine, strychnine).

 

ELLAGIC ACID

A natural plant chemical (phenol) antioxidant found in fruits and vegetables, particularly raspberries, strawberries, cranberries, walnuts, and pecans, known for its antioxidant properties.

 

GOITROGENS

Substances that suppress the function of the thyroid gland by interfering with iodine uptake. Goiter is a name for an enlarged thyroid gland.

 

GOMASIO

A dry condiment made from sesame seeds and salt, most often used in Japanese cuisine.

 

HALVAH

A dense, nougat-like, Middle Eastern confection made of sesame flour and honey.

 

L-ARGININE

An amino acid that is one of the building blocks of protein.

 

LAURIC ACID

A medium-chain saturated fatty acid found in coconut oil that is valued for its antiviral, antimicrobial, anti-protozoal, and anti-fungal properties. Mother's breast milk is the only other natural source of lauric acid which helps to explain the decrease in infections of all types in breast-fed babies.

 

LECTINS

A class of protein from plants that bind specifically to certain carbohydrates. They are natural anti-nutrients in plants that protect against unwanted pests.

 

MELATONIN

A hormone secreted by the small pineal gland in the brain that helps to control sleep and wake cycles. Very small amounts are found in foods.

 

OLEIC ACID

A monounsaturated omega-9 fatty acid naturally occurring in various animal and vegetable fats. It is considered one of the healthier sources of fat in the diet.

 

PHENOLIC ANTIOXIDANTS

A type of antioxidant containing a polyphenolic or natural phenol substructure derived from plants. This class is different from sulfur-based antioxidants and selenium antioxidants because their protective powers come strictly from polyphenols which are only found in plant foods including fruits, grains, vegetables, spices, herbs, and teas.

 

PHYTIC ACID (PHYTATE)

A storage form of phosphorus considered an antinutrient because it binds minerals in the digestive tract, making the minerals less available to the body. When phytic acid is bound to a mineral in a seed, it's known as phytate.

 

REJUVELAC

A fermented liquid made from sprouted grains that contains beneficial bacteria and active enzymes.

 

SEROTONIN

Serotonin is a naturally occurring chemical called a neurotransmitter that relays signals from one area of the brain to another. Produced in the brain, it is largely found in the digestive tract and in blood platelets. Derived from tryptophan, an essential amino acid, it is a critical component for regulating brain functions such as mood, appetite, sleep, and memory.

 

TANNINS

Yellowish or brownish, bitter-tasting organic substance (polyphenol) present in some plants.

 

TRYPTOPHAN

One of the 22 amino acids required for a complete protein. Humans cannot make L-tryptophan so must absorb it from food. It is converted to serotonin in the body.