Sunday, August 8, 2010

Go to Health: Almonds, Peanuts, and PlumpyNut

Almonds are a delicious food, and one considered heart-healthy - because of studies showing that they decrease blood sugar and insulin response after a meal, and also lower damage to ingested protein as it is metabolized. Researchers at the University of Toronto followed this study with a look at ‘the portfolio diet’, in which subjects with elevated cholesterol followed an eating plan containing many heart-healthy foods: oatmeal, beans, olive oil, soy products, fibrous vegetables and a daily ounce of almonds (20-24 almonds). LDL cholesterol decreased by 29.6% in 4 weeks, compared to a 33.3% decrease on lovastatin. The ‘portfolio’ concept was to combine many known heart-healthy foods. Researchers called almonds a ‘mini-portfolio’ because they contain several components stressed in the eating plan - vegetable proteins, fiber, and plant sterols (structural components in cell membranes that lower cholesterol in humans). Almonds also are a good source of vitamin E, magnesium, heart-healthy monounsaturated fat, protein and calcium. Adding a daily ration of almonds to a weight loss diet is helpful, as their fat content can prevent overeating. Following salmonella outbreaks from raw almonds in 2001 and 2004, the USDA has mandated that all almonds be pasteurized to reduce bacterial contamination. This move has been very distressing to the raw food community. Some unpasteurized almonds can still be found, labeled as such. Other people prefer the taste of roasted almonds, and are not concerned by the ruling.

Peanuts are believed to have been domesticated about 7000 years ago in Peru; they are members of the bean family and grow underground. The Portuguese took them to China in the 1600s and to Africa in the 1800s; they became important in the diet of both areas. Besides being high in protein (25% by weight), peanuts have numerous health benefits. In 2003, the FDA allowed the following health claim: scientific evidence suggests, but does not prove, that eating 1.5 ounces per day of most nuts, including peanuts as part of a diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol, may reduce the risk of heart disease. (1.5 ounces of most nuts is about 1/3 cup.) Peanuts contain as much antioxidant capacity as blackberries and strawberries, and are richer in anti-oxidants than carrots or beets. Certain of their antioxidants are increased by roasting. They are also a good source of resveratrol, a compound in some plants that is studied for its anti-aging effects and protection against heart disease and cancers. Resveratrol is known to be present in grapes and concentrated in red wine – for non-drinkers, peanuts are a good alternative. For dieters, and people dealing with diabetes, a 2002 study from the Harvard School of Public Health found that women who ate 5 or more 1 ounce servings of peanuts or other nuts per week reduced their risk of type 2 diabetes by almost 30%. A similar finding was found among women eating 5 tablespoons of peanut butter per week.

Peanut allergy can be serious; it affects .6 to 1% of the US population, but is much less common in developing countries – possibly due to different ways of processing the nut. Peanuts can be contaminated with a mold called aflatoxin that can be carcinogenic; processing peanuts at high temperatures makes this contamination unlikely in the US.

PlumpyNut is a high protein, high energy peanut based paste that also contains vegetable oil, powdered milk, sugar, vitamins and minerals. It was specially formulated by a French nutritionist in the 1990s for use in famine conditions in Africa, where it has been lifesaving for emaciated children. It comes in a foil-wrapped bar which the child can use to feed herself or himself. You can see the remarkable results of PlumpyNut feeding on the 60 Minutes program of Oct 21st, 2007, narrated by Anderson Cooper. Recently there has been serious controversy about the patent on PlumpyNut held by the French company that makes it. Regardless of this problem, PlumpyNut is distributed by Doctors Without Borders and other relief organizations, which are worthy of our support.
Sadja Greenwood, MD, MPH Back issues on this blog

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