While college students and other consumers value the peanut for both its ability to combine well with other global fare and capacity to stand alone as a favorite grab-and-go snack, they also have begun to appreciate the versatile nut for its distinctive health halo.
Good nutrition plays a major role in the growing popularity of peanuts on campus, says Ken Toong, executive director of Auxiliary Enterprises at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. “And we see that interest growing big time every year. Students definitely see them as a healthy food item.”
College and university foodservice operators recognize the increasing popularity of the nutrient-packed peanut, offering it as a key ingredient in hot and cold dishes, in a wide variety of snacks — including trail mixes — and in customizable sandwiches made from freshly ground peanuts merchandised from special campus carts.
The peanut's ability to satisfy diverse tastes and demands is helping to fuel the sale of nuts in this country. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, peanut consumption is at an all-time high, at more than seven pounds per person per year.
Clearly, though, Americans' desire to pursue a more nutritious diet is contributing to the peanut's upward momentum, as well. Peanuts — which have been characterized by many as being a “superfood” — are seen as a source of good, mono- and polyunsaturated fats which can help to lower bad cholesterol while protecting the cardiovascular system. 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.
Peanuts also contain a wide array of vitamins and minerals such as copper, vitamins B1, B3 and E, folate, phosphorus and manganese. The National Peanut Board also points out that they are higher in energy boosting protein than any other nut — providing 7 grams per ounce serving — making them the perfect addition to meatless meals.
Meanwhile, the government is recognizing the value of adding peanuts to the diet. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration — which is charged with supervising labels to ensure that manufacturers do not make misleading claims — is currently revising its definition of “healthy.” Until recently, foods that were high in good, polyunsaturated fats — like peanuts — were prohibited from being labeled as healthy because they contained higher levels of fat, higher levels of unsaturated fat or not enough of other key nutrients.
But, writes Sherry Coleman Collins, MS, RDN, LD, of the National Peanut Board, “As the FDA works to incorporate the latest nutrition science into their definition, we can take heart that the official definition, when translated to labeling, will help us make healthy food choices. Meanwhile, peanut lovers rejoice because interim guidance from FDA now allows nutrient-packed peanuts to be called healthy.”
Popular plant-based protein
Peanuts also are rapidly emerging as a favorite plant-based protein for students and other consumers seeking to curtail — or restrict entirely — their meat intake.
“While there is a place for animal proteins in our diets, we do not need to eat meat to be healthy and thriving. Many people are recognizing the potential health, environmental or animal welfare benefits of going meatless, even a day or two per week. To that end a food like peanuts can play an important role,” says Jen Bruning, RDN, a media spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
When meat is eliminated from the diet, however, a void sometimes is left in terms of protein, good fats and certain vitamins and minerals. As a result, “anyone going meatless needs to understand how to replace these essential nutrients in order to avoid a nutrient deficiency,” Bruning continues. “Most plant foods do not boast the full complement of amino acids that we need, so they need to be combined with other types of plant foods to make a complete protein. This is true for peanuts. But, happily, making a PB&J on whole wheat bread will give us the complete amino acid profile that we need.”
Students are also responding to peanuts' positive environmental profile, which ties into the evolving sustainability movement.
“Younger generations are plugged in when it comes to the environmental impact of how they choose to eat,” Bruning observes. “Peanuts are known as nitrogen-fixers, which means they host specific kinds of bacteria that in turn can harness the nitrogen from the environment for the plant’s use. This means that less fertilizer is needed to grow peanuts and other legumes than some other plants. When used in rotation with other crops, overall fertilizer use can decrease because the 'peanut hay' — the leftover plant parts after harvest — can continue to enrich the soil.” In addition, she says, peanuts are short plants with deep roots, which makes them efficient in regards to water usage.
According to UNESCO data, shelled peanuts have an approximate average of blue and gray freshwater footprint of 4.7 gallons per ounce. By comparison shelled almonds have an approximate average of 80.4 gallons per ounce.
Peanut are a popular food with UMass' 28,000 students, and are featured in a number of ways, says Toong. For example, peanuts are served as a topping for congee, a popular Asian-based rice soup that can contain a variety of ingredients like fish, pork or chicken. Toong says UMass serves 600 bowls daily. Peanuts also show up in sushi, pad thai, chicken sate, fish with peanut sauce, peanut soup as well as on the salad bar and mixed with yogurt.
One of the popular venues for peanuts is the school's peanut bar station where the nuts are ground fresh and students can customize their peanut butter and jelly sandwiches with a choice of breads, jellies and other toppings. UMass serves 800 sandwiches each day, Toong says.
Merchandising peanuts' health halo is a smart tact to take, he continues. At UMass nutritional information about peanuts and menu items containing peanuts is available through special apps, he says. In addition, 8 by 11-inch posters are hung near campus peanut butter carts highlighting the nutritional aspects of peanut butter. Menus also identify ingredients and nutritional information.
Students also want to know the provenance of certain food items like peanuts. “We identify that our peanuts come from Virginia,” Toong says. “And we plan to identify the farmers in the future.”
In the meantime, foodservice and nutritional experts recognize that peanuts can be an important and versatile component when included in a balanced diet. “Peanuts can be part of a varied and healthy diet for the majority of people, providing a satisfying snack option, protein boost or meatless staple,” says Bruning.