Cashew nuts: Health benefits, facts and uses
Tuesday, April 25, 2017. Author Martin Cheifetz
Tuesday, April 25, 2017. Author Martin Cheifetz
Disclaimer: Cashews are a tree nut. If you have a nut allergy, don’t eat them. If you don’t have a nut allergy, eat them. They’re delicious, nutritious, extremely versatile, and easy to incorporate into your nutrition plan.
Last week, we discussed a fruit that is used as a vegetable, so we’ll continue our theme of masquerading foods with cashew nuts. Kidney shaped cashew nuts are actually the seeds of the cashew apple, which is the fruit of the cashew tree. Cashew trees and apples are native to coastal Brazil and were spread to other parts of South America and Africa by Portuguese explorers and colonizers in the 16th century. The bitter tasting cashew apples, while not known in the U.S., UK, or Australasia, are regarded as delicacies in Brazil and the Caribbean and scientifically belong to the same family as the mango and pistachio nut.
Interestingly, unlike its relative the pistachio (and most other nuts), you’ll never find cashews sold in their shells. Why? The inside of the cashew shells contains a caustic resin known as cashew balm, which must be carefully removed before the nuts are fit for human consumption. Cashew balm is used in the production of varnishes and insecticides, but the prized cashew nut is an expensive delicacy that is perfectly safe for human consumption (providing you do not have a nut allergy).
Cashews are an excellent source of protein, healthy monounsaturated fats and essential minerals like copper, phosphorus, magnesium, manganese and zinc. Due to their rich nutrient profile and culinary versatility in both sweet and savory dishes, as well as simply being delicious snacks, cashews have become a very popular food around the world.
Earlier, I mentioned masquerading foods. Cashews have a naturally creamy texture and when soaked in water, are very easy to break down into a rich, dense “cream” that is often used by vegans as a nutritious, protein-rich dairy substitute. If you can find it in your local heath food store, cashew yogurt or cashew cheese are really delicious non-dairy substitutes, or try our fabulous Fig and Rosewater Cashewcake dessert recipe!
Similar to olive oil, the majority of the fat content in cashews is the heart-healthy monounsaturated variety. Numerous studies have shown monounsaturated fat can help reduce high blood triglyceride levels, improve cholesterol profiles (i.e. lower “bad” LDL levels and raise “good” HDL levels), and reduce oxidative stress and inflammation, all of which are important for minimizing the risk of heart disease, strokes, and gallstones.
The high level of healthy fat also aids nutrient absorption of fat soluble vitamins, thereby improving overall bioavailability from the other nutrients in your food.
Finally, since your brain consists mostly of fat (~60% - but not in fat cells like in adipose tissue), you need a constant supply of fatty acids for normal cognitive function.
Cashews are a good source of plant-based protein and are rich in the amino acid L-arginine, which is a precursor of nitric oxide known to help improve circulation.
Cashews have high antioxidant levels, particularly proanthocyanidins, which help scavenge the free radicals (damaged molecules) that attack healthy cells in your body, altering DNA and potentially leading to cancer. Consuming phytonutrient rich foods high in antioxidants is proven to have significant cancer-fighting properties.
Cashews are loaded with copper (110% DV/100g), which plays a role in a wide range of physiological processes including iron utilization, elimination of free radicals, development of bone and connective tissue, and the production of collagen and melanin in the skin and hair. When copper intake is inadequate, numerous health problems can develop including anemia, osteoporosis, arthritis, brain disturbances, elevated LDL (bad) cholesterol and reduced HDL (good) cholesterol levels, irregular heartbeat, and increased susceptibility to infections.
Cashews are also a good source of magnesium (73% DV/100g), which is vital for healthy bones and numerous other bodily processes. Insufficient magnesium can contribute to high blood pressure, heart disease, muscle cramps, migraine headaches, disturbed sleep patterns in menopausal women, insulin resistance, diabetes, muscle soreness and fatigue.
Cashews also contain good levels of other minerals important for bone health like manganese (83% DV/100g) and calcium, the absorption of which is helped by the presence of magnesium.
High in protein (18%), high in healthy fats (44%) and also a good source of fiber (4%) mean high levels of satiety and appetite control. Fears of weight gain from moderate nut consumption are baseless and numerous studies of frequent nut consumption show nuts actually reduce the risk of weight gain, despite their high energy density (553 kcal/100g).
The high levels of monounsaturated fats also help slow the rate of glucose release into the bloodstream, which is important in the prevention (or control) of diabetes and other metabolic disorders.
If you enjoyed this article, please check out my other FitnessGenes food blogs:
Out of the kitchen, I also cover the following topics for FitnessGenes:
References and for further reading