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Cashews: History and health benefits of the nutritional star

The nut is a rich source of both monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids.

The cashew, the seed of an evergreen shrub,

The cashew, the seed of an evergreen shrub, is the third-most consumed tree nut in the United States. Photo Credit: Dreamstime

The cashew is a favorite for flavor and is commonly regarded as a nutrition star for its punch of protein, heart-healthy fats, vitamins and minerals.

The folklore

Native to Brazil, the cashew was introduced to India and Africa by Portuguese explorers in the 16th century. The cashew tree, from its wood and bark to its fruit, was highly prized for its healing properties. In Brazil, cashew nut oil was used to treat leprosy, while in India the cashew was used restoratively, as an appetizer, hair tonic and aphrodisiac. But it wasn’t until the 20th century that the cashew nut became a culinary star. It’s now the third-most consumed tree nut in the United States, and for good reason.

The facts

Cashews (Anacardium occidentale) are seeds of an evergreen shrub related to pistachios, mangos and poison ivy. The cashew seed is attached to the bottom of its fruit, the cashew apple, which is high in vitamin C and popular where cashews are grown, including tropical regions of India and Brazil. The kidney-shaped cashew has two layers of shells, between which is a potentially toxic resin that is removed and used to make many products, including varnish and insecticide. Just a handful of cashews (one ounce) packs a satisfying 10 percent DV (Daily Value, based on 2,000 calories per day) of protein and 20 percent DV of bone-healthy magnesium. Compared with most nuts, cashews are lower in fat, which is mostly heart-healthy monounsaturated fat.

The findings

A rich source of both monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids, which are associated with reducing the risk of heart disease, cashews, when regularly substituted for high-carbohydrate snacks, may help control total and LDL (“bad”) cholesterol levels (American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 2017). Due to these fatty acids, emerging research is showing that maternal consumption of cashews may result in better reflexes and memory in their offspring (International Journal of Developmental Neuroscience, 2017).

Both raw and roasted cashews are widely available. When purchasing from bulk bins, be sure the container is well sealed and the nuts are moisture-free and smooth. A quick sniff for rancidity is wise as well. For longer freshness, choose vacuum-packed cans or jars over plastic bags. Store for the short term in a cool, dry place, or refrigerate or freeze up to six months or a year, respectively. Whole cashews are equally welcome as a snack or a party appetizer. Try them chopped in a stir-fry or curry, as well as a topping on salads and vegetable or whole grain side dishes, and even blended into cashew butter or “cheese” for a decadent, yet healthy spread.

(Reprinted with permission from Environmental Nutrition, a monthly publication of Belvoir Media Group LLC. 800-829-5384. www.EnvironmentalNutrition.com.)

(c) 2018 Belvoir Media Group. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency LLC.

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