Nuts once got a bad rap, now considered nutritional heroes

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Nuts. Well, let's see what the nuts have in store for us. They served as an alternative to meat and fish, and in some parts of the world where meat is forbidden, nuts are still a staple food. Most nuts can be eaten as is from the tree, and others are dried to preserve them (a process that helps to improve flavor). We tend to regard nuts as a snack food, but they are actually much more nourishing than most snacks and are an important source of a wide range of nutrients.

In recent history, nuts were considered high-fat villains, but they are now emerging as nutritional heroes. Nuts are a nourishing, concentrated source of plant protein, heart-healthy monounsaturated fatty acids and a vast array of vitamins and minerals.

Though the amino acid content of nuts isn't perfect, it nevertheless provides a high-quality plant protein. The fat content is rather high, but very little of it is saturated. Nuts are high in monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, which help lower blood cholesterol, especially when substituted for foods high in saturated fat, such as meat or cheese. The fat content varies from nut to nut, with chestnuts having the least fat and macadamias containing the most.

Each nut has its own nutritional virtues, which is just another reason to eat a variety of these valuable foods. For example, walnuts stand out for their heart-healthy alpha-linolenic acid content; Brazil nuts provide an exceptional amount of the antioxidant mineral selenium; and almonds offer excellent protein and vitamin E with less fat than other nuts.

When purchasing nuts, there are a variety of forms - with or without shells, whole, chopped or slivered, raw, dry roasted or oil roasted, salted, sugared, spiced or plain, packaged or loose. Commercial "roasting" of shelled nuts is actually a form of deep-frying, and the fat used is often highly saturated coconut oil. Roasted nuts are usually heavily salted too, although you can find unsalted roasted cashews and peanuts. Nuts can be roasted or toasted at home without fat.

Dry-roasted nuts are not cooked in oil, but they are only lower in calories and fat than oil-roasted nuts. Like regular-roasted nuts, dry-roasted nuts may be salted or contain other ingredients, such as corn syrup, sugar, starch, monosodium glutamate and preservatives.

Heart-healthy nuts: One study that gave nuts a boost found that people who ate nuts at least five times a week cut their risk of a heart attack in half, compared with those who ate nuts less than once a week. Other studies also found that nut eaters had a lower risk of heart disease. Other studies have also suggested that nuts may help lower blood cholesterol levels.

There are plenty of substances in nuts that may explain these heart-healthy results including monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids, vitamin E, folate, copper, magnesium, potassium and fiber, as well as plant sterols.

Whether you choose nuts in the shell or shelled is mostly a matter of convenience. Nuts keep better in their shells, but they do require cracking before you can eat or cook with them. Raw nuts have the advantage of no added fat, but their flavor is rather bland compared with that of roasted nuts, and once shelled they do not keep as well.

Here is a recipe to try:

Wild Rice with Fruit and Almonds

2/3 cup wild rice

1/2 cup chopped celery

1 1/2 cups low-fat, low sodium chicken broth

1 tablespoon walnut oil (choice of your oil)

1/2 cup chopped Red Delicious apple

1/4 cup currants

2 tablespoons chopped parsley

3 tablespoons toasted almonds

Combine the rice, celery, chicken broth and oil in a medium saucepan. Bring to a boil, cover, reduce heat, and simmer 25-30 minutes or until the rice is tender.

Remove from heat and stir in the apple, currants, and parsley. Mix gently and sprinkle with toasted almonds to serve.

Pecan Waffles

1 1/4 cups flour

1 tablespoon sugar

2 1/2 teaspoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/4 cup unprocessed, uncooked wheat bran

1 egg yolk plus 2 egg whites

1 1/2 cups skim milk

2 tablespoons cooking oil

1/4 cup chopped pecans

Sift the dry ingredients together. Beat the egg yolk, combine with the milk and oil, and stir into the dry ingredients.

Fold in the pecans, mixing only until blended. Beat the egg whites until stiff and fold into the batter. Cook the batter in a waffle iron.

Enjoy!