Hazelnuts: for your heart, brain, and your good looks

Tuesday, June 6, 2017. Author Martin Cheifetz

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Hazelnuts are delicious, particularly when combined with chocolate. In fact, that combo is just about the perfect “guilty treat”...except you don’t need to feel guilty, because eating a reasonable amount of chocolate and hazelnuts is a really good idea.

For the avoidance of doubt, I’m not talking about those commercial chocolate, hazelnut spreads. You may find them tasty, but trust me, from a nutritional and dietary perspective, there’s nothing good about them, particularly if you are interested in managing your weight or body composition. In fact, they’re a classic example of how “Big Food Inc” takes a perfectly healthy ingredient or two, and then processes them with all sorts of sugar, cheap fats, additives, and other junk and turns them into an avatar for the obesity crisis.

 

A brief history of hazelnuts

Hazelnuts are also called filbert nuts and are an ancient food, with documented use dating back to 2838 BC in China where the nut was included among the “five sacred nourishments God bestowed on human beings”. The ancient Greeks were rather fond of hazelnuts too, touting them as a cure for coughs, colds, and even baldness.

As the legend goes, hazelnut or filbert trees grew throughout Europe and were named after the French Saint Philibert, whose birthday (22 August) coincided with the earliest known harvest of the nuts in England. French settlers brought the tree to the USA, and now, the filbert is the State Nut of Oregon, where approximately 98% of American hazelnuts are produced. The largest hazelnut producing countries are Turkey, Spain, and Italy, with the latter producing some of the most delicious bars of dark chocolate and hazelnuts you can find. If you don’t have easy access to Italian dark chocolate and hazelnuts, we’ll bring the taste sensation a little closer to home with this fabulous hazelnut, protein and chocolate cookie recipe. Or try this one, Chocolate hazelnut mousse Both are easy, delicious, and an ideal pre-or post-workout snack.

 

Nutrition profile of hazelnuts

Normally, I write this profile based on the European standard 100 gram serving, but I’m not going to do that with hazelnuts. The calorie and fat numbers are scary at that serving size, and given that an average hazelnut only weighs about 1.4 grams, 100 grams of hazelnuts = about 70 nuts. Since you’re not going to eat that amount anyway, we’ll work off the American standard measure of 1 ounce (28 grams) which is about 20 nuts, and is more appropriate for the “guilt-free pleasure” moniker I mentioned earlier.

Hazelnuts, like most nuts, are very energy dense (i.e. they are very high in calories), so portion control is essential. 1 ounce, 28 grams or 20 nuts contains 176 calories, of which 81% is fat, 11% is carbs, and 8% is protein.

It is important to note that while hazelnuts are very high in fat (17 g in our 1 oz serving), only 1 gram of this is saturated fat. It is also critical to note that this serving contains zero cholesterol and zero sodium.

Our 1 ounce serving also contains 5g of carbs, 3g of which are dietary fiber, with only 1g of sugar; plus there’s a healthy 4 grams of protein in our 20 nut portion as well.

This large handful of hazelnuts also contains 86% of your DV for manganese, 24% of your DV for copper, and 21% of your DV for Vitamin E. The same 20 nuts are also a good source of B vitamins, folate, Vitamin K, magnesium, phosphorus, iron, and zinc.

Let’s do a quick comparison of raw hazelnuts to the commercially available hazelnut-chocolate spreads: The same 1oz (28g) portion of the spread actually contains fewer calories (151 kcal) at a ratio of 49% fat, 47% carbs, and 4% protein. Lower in fat, yes…but all 8g of fat in this serving is from saturated fats and you’re also getting 11 mg of sodium. Your protein and fiber content are both halved to 2g, while your carbs increase to 17g, 15 of which is pure sugar! The overwhelming majority of the vitamins, minerals, antioxidant, and phytonutrients have all been processed out, so from a nutritional perspective, these spreads are pretty useless. In summary, hazelnuts are good. Dark chocolate is good. Commercially made chocolate-hazelnut spreads are bad.

If you’re really craving a chocolate-hazelnut spread on your toast or protein pancakes, we highly recommend you make your own. My wonder-woman colleague, PhD scientist and pro-level triathlete Dr Pleuni Hooijman has shared a race tested recipe from her training table. This is the real deal and gets the FitnessGenes stamp of approval.

 

Health benefits of hazelnuts

1. Vitamin E is also well known for its anti-inflammatory and regenerative properties for skin, hair, and nails, which is why you see it in so many beauty products. You may have even rubbed Vitamin E oil onto a cut to minimize scarring. It is important to note that Vitamin E is fat soluble, so hazelnuts’ high fat content aids its absorption and bioavailability.

2. Hazelnuts are a good source of plant-based protein, useful for muscle building, as well as increasing satiety. The interesting thing about hazelnuts (and tree nuts in general) is that despite their high fat and calorie content, people who regularly consume reasonable amounts of tree nuts tend to maintain healthier body weights. This is likely due to the fact that tree nuts are highly satisfying and filling (protein+healthy fat+fiber), and the fact that tree nuts appear to increase the overall metabolism. Most studies also show that nut consumers are generally more mindful about the foods they eat, which also may contribute to the healthier weight profile.

3. High levels of heart-healthy monounsaturated fat, fiber, potassium, folate, and vitamin E, plus zero cholesterol and sodium make hazelnuts a heart-friendly snack. Hazelnuts are also a source of magnesium, which helps to regulate the balance of calcium and potassium and is crucial to regulating blood pressure. Regular consumers of tree nuts also generally have healthier blood lipid and cholesterol profiles.

4. The combination of manganese and magnesium are both important for regulating glucose tolerance and are therefore helpful to people concerned about insulin sensitivity and diabetes.

5. Thanks to high levels of vitamin E, manganese, thiamine, folate, and healthy fats to fuel your grey matter, hazelnuts help keep your brain in top shape and ward off degenerative cognitive decline.

 

Hazelnuts and your genetics

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