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20 Nut Options for Plant-Based Protein


Nuts are a great source of protein, healthy oils, vitamins and fiber. This guide to 20 of the most popular types of nuts includes facts about nutritional benefits, where and how they grow, how they are prepared for consumption, and the different ways they can be eaten.

A table filled with the various types of nuts.

Looking for a new source of protein and nutrients? One that’s healthier than meat? Look no further than nuts. Nuts are rich in protein, healthy oils, vitamins and fiber. They’re filling. And they have a substantive texture that makes them a viable substitute for meat in dishes like soups, stews, stir fry and more.

The health benefits of nuts are well-documented. A diet rich in nuts has been shown to reduce the risk of heart and respiratory disease, cancer, and other deadly illnesses. One study even showed that people who ate nuts on a daily basis were 20% less likely to die between 1980 and 2010.

But aren’t nuts boring? No way! Nuts are one of nature’s great bounties. Though we don’t often think of them as a fruit, that’s what many of them are – and all plants produce fruit. The variety of edible nuts is staggering, and includes many you probably haven’t tried yet.

A great place to start exploring nuts is with 20 of the most popular types. Here we offer a comprehensive guide to these, including nutrition facts, where they come from, how they are typically eaten, and more. We’ve also included several seeds because, nutritionally speaking, they are very similar to nuts.

Peanuts

A pile of peanuts with a rustic setting.

Fresh peanuts growing out of the ground.

Peanut nutritional facts chart.

Peanuts actually grow below ground. This is why, in some cultures, they are known as “groundnuts.” To prepare peanuts for eating, they should be washed and dried.  They can be consumed raw, roasted or boiled; with seasoning or without. In many parts of the world, peanuts are a staple food.

One of the best known peanut products is peanut butter, which can be used in everything from sandwiches to candy to ice cream, and even sauces for savory dishes. Peanuts are often used whole or chopped in baked goods, trail mix, granola, and Asian dishes like General Tso’s chicken. Peanuts grow best in warm climates in Asia, North America, South America, Africa, and Australia.

Cashews

A bowl of cashews.

Fresh cashews growing from the tree.

Cashew nutritional facts chart.

Cashew nuts are rich in antioxidants, minerals and healthy fats. A little known fact about cashews is that their outermost shells contain an acidic liquid that can burn the skin. Fortunately, there are many ways to safely extract the nut, including freezing and roasting in oil.

Cashews are used in Chinese cooking (think cashew chicken), chicken salad, and chocolatey desserts. They are also a great snack, with or without salt. Cashews are grown primarily in tropical climates, both wet and dry. These include Brazil, Vietnam, India, Africa, and South East Asia.

Pecans

A few shelled pecans.

Fresh pecans growing on a tree.

Pecan nutritional facts chart.

Pecans, known for their monounsaturated fat and are antioxidant content, grow on trees. The trees take time ─ 7 to 10 years, in some cases ─ to start producing nuts. Pecans are harvested by shaking the trees, then gathering the fallen nuts from the ground. Before eating, they must be dried in their shells for a minimum of two weeks.

After drying, they are often shelled and roasted. Dishes that feature pecans include pecan pie, cookies, breakfast pastries, chicken salad, stuffing and a variety of beef and chicken main dishes. Pecans are also used in chocolate turtles and other candies. Pecans are grown in south-central North America.

Walnuts

A close look at a few shelled walnuts.

Fresh walnuts growing on a walnut tree.

Walnut nutritional fact chart.

Rich in antioxidants and Omega-3 fatty acids, walnut are a stone fruit that grows on trees. After harvesting, walnuts must be thoroughly sprayed with a pressure washer and dried. They can be eaten raw or roasted, and seasoned or plain. Walnuts are favorite of cooks around the world.

A popular Persian stew known as Khoresh features walnuts, as do many sweet concoctions, like brownies, cookies, ice cream and candy. Walnut butter is also used by some as an alternative to peanut butter. Walnuts are grown primarily in China, the United States, Iran, Turkey, Mexico, and the Ukraine.

Almonds

A bowl of almonds.

A close look at fresh almonds growing on tree.

Almond nutritional facts chart.

Almonds are high in vitamins, monounsaturated fats and protein. Like pecans and walnuts, almonds grow on trees. While they can be eaten straight from the tree, they are usually dried for at least two weeks, which maximizes their flavor and reduces the risk of mold. Savory dishes featuring almonds include almond-crusted chicken and fish, rice pilafs and salads. They are also a popular ingredient in in trail mix and granola.

Bakers and confectioners make regular use of almonds, whether in the form of slivers or a paste. A variety of pastries, and the famous bakers’ staple marzipan, rely on almonds as their primary ingredient. Most of the world’s almonds are grown in the United States – specifically, in California. Spain and Italy are also almond producers.

Hazelnuts

Hazelnuts on a cutting board.

Hazelnuts growing on a tree.

Rich in monounsaturated fats, vitamins and minerals, hazelnuts grow on hardy medium-sized trees. Once picked, hazelnuts must begin drying within 24 hours. They can be kept for months in their shells, but, once shelled, must be used within a few weeks.

Hazelnuts are probably best known for their use, in combination with chocolate, in desserts like truffles. Nutella, a popular sweet chocolate and hazelnut paste, is has long been a staple in Europe and recently gained popularity in the United States. Hazelnuts are also used to flavor coffee, and in savory meat dishes. Hazelnuts are grown in North America, Europe, and Asia.

Pistachios

Bowl of pistachio nuts in the shell.

Pistachio nuts growing on a tree.

Pistachio nut nutritional facts chart.

Pistachios contain protein, fiber, healthy fat and antioxidants. The green nut grows on small trees in dry, sandy environments. Pistachios can be eaten raw, but many prefer them roasted and salted. Pistachios roasted in their shells are a popular snack. Pistachios are used in the popular Italian ice cream spumoni, the middle-eastern pastry baklava, and the creamy Indian dessert Kulfi.

Pistachios are also used in savory dishes like salads, chicken and fish. Pistachios are grown in the western United States, especially in the states of California, Arizona, and New Mexico. They are also prevalent in Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, Italy, and Syria.

Macadamia Nuts

Bowl of macadamia nuts.

Macadamia nuts growing on a tree.

Macadamia nut nutritional facts chart.

Macadamias are rich in vitamin A, protein, iron and other minerals. They grow on big, bushy trees that take up to 5 years to produce nuts. To prevent mildew, macadamia nuts must be shelled within 24 hours of harvest. Macadamias may be most famous for their use in cookies.

They can also be eaten by themselves as a snack; or used in fudge, granola, muffins, and savory chicken and fish dishes. Macadamia nuts are mainly grown in Hawaii and Australia, but can also be found in warm parts of Latin America, Africa, and Asia.

Pine Nuts

Pine nuts on a wooden spoon.

Pine nut nutritional facts chart.

Pine nuts, also known as pignolias, are high in healthy fat.  They grow on several species of pine trees,  but most come from the stone pine. Pine nuts are prepared for consumption through a process of drying and roasting. They are sometimes eaten raw, and often incorporated into salads and cooked dishes.

Pine nuts are probably best known as an ingredient in savory Italian pesto. To make pesto, ground pine nuts are mixed with parmesan cheese and pulverized basil to produce a rich, flavorful sauce that’s fantastic with pasta and chicken. Pine nuts can also be eaten as a snack, or added to meat dishes, fish, salads, and bread. Pine nuts are grown in Europe, North America and Korea.

Cedar Nuts (a type of pine nut)

A bunch of Cedar nuts.

Cedar nuts are a great source of polyunsaturated fatty acids – especially linoleic acid, which is known to support heart health. They are also considered to be good for the immune system, and are high in protein and many vitamins.

Cedar nuts are the product of the Siberian cedar, a type of pine tree that is grown almost exclusively in Russia. Cedar nuts can be eaten raw or roasted, or in any recipe calling for pine nuts. Many Russian dishes include cedar nuts, but there are also a wide range of recipes created by health enthusiasts in the west that incorporate the beneficial nut.

Brazil Nuts

A bowl of Brazil nuts.

A Brazil nut tree.

Brazil nut nutritional facts chart.

Brazil nuts are a terrific source of vitamins and minerals, including vitamin E, calcium, iron, selenium and niacin. Grown on large trees in the Amazon rainforests, Brazil nuts can be eaten raw, but beware: their shell, which must be cracked to get the nut, is very hard. Brazil nuts are popular as a snack, and can be used in macaroons, cookies and salads. They are also used to make vegan milk and cheese. Brazil nuts are grown in South America, specifically in Peru, Bolivia, and Brazil.

Chestnuts

Bowl of roasted chestnuts.

Chestnuts growing on a chestnut tree.

Chestnuts are higher in carbohydrates, and lower in fat, than most nuts. They grow on trees or shrubs, and can be eaten as soon as they are harvested. Storing chestnuts in the refrigerator for a few days improves their otherwise bland flavor by changing their starches to sugars. Chestnuts can be eaten raw, roasted, deep-fried, grilled, boiled, steamed or candied.

A popular way to use chestnuts is in desserts like pies and cakes. They can also be used to thicken sauces and soups. Chestnuts are grown primarily in China, the United States, South Korea, Italy, Greece, and South America.

Acorns

A bunch of Acorns in a bowl.

Acorns growing on an acorn tree.

Acorns contain plenty of protein, carbohydrates, healthy fats and minerals. Though squirrels eat acorns straight off the tree, humans should not. Acorns contain substances called tannins, which taste very bitter and can be poisonous. To make acorns edible, tannins are leached out through a process of repeated boiling and drying.

Once leached, acorns can be roasted and used in a variety of ways. A popular use for acorns is to grind them into a flour and include them in porridge, flatbread, and cake. Acorns grow on oak trees in America, Asia, Europe, and North Africa.

Kola Nuts

Bowl of dried kola nuts.

Kola nut tree with flowers.

Kola nuts contain potassium, magnesium and calcium; but they also contain caffeine and theobromine, both central nervous system stimulants. Consuming kola nuts may increase energy levels, boost metabolism and help digestion. It is also believed to help prevent prostate cancer and migraines.

Kola nuts are found inside the star-shaped fruit of the kola tree, an evergreen that grows to be about 20 meters high. In the western world, kola nuts are used to flavor soda. In West African cultures, it is chewed as a stimulant and to freshen breath. The kola tree flourishes in rainforests, especially in Africa.

Coconut

A coconut split in half.

A coconut tree farm.

Coconut nutritional facts chart.

Yes, the coconut is a nut! A complete food, it contains protein, fats, vitamins and minerals. Coconuts, which grow on palm trees, can be eaten raw. They can also be baked or fried. Coconut is a favorite dessert ingredient, lending its flavor to pies, candy, frozen confections and more.

And in many cultures, coconut milk, a creamy liquid extracted from grated coconut, serves as the base for meat, fish and vegetable curries, soups and stews. In the United States, palm trees are found in California, Florida and Hawaii. They also thrive in the Caribbean, South and Central America, and Mexico.

Ginkgo nuts

A bunch of Gingko nuts.

A close look at a Ginkgo nut tree.

Ginkgo nuts are high in vitamin A, vitamin C and a long list of minerals. However, it’s important not to eat too many of them, as they can actually be toxic in large quantities. Ginkgo nuts are found inside the ginkgo fruit, which grows on the ginkgo tree. While ginkgo trees are considered quite beautiful, their fruit has an unpleasant odor.

In addition, it is irritating to human skin, causing a rash similar to that caused by poison ivy. Ginkgo nuts must be boiled before consumption. They are often used in Asian cuisine, including as a key ingredient in congee and other dishes commonly served at Chinese New Year. The ginkgo tree is native to eastern China.

Sunflower Seeds

Bowl of sunflower seeds.

A cluster of sunflowers.

Sunflower seed nutritional facts chart.

Sunflower seeds are an exceptionally rich source of Vitamin E, Vitamin B1 and copper. The seeds of the sunflower are harvested when the flower’s petals begin to dry and fall out. The seeds themselves must then be allowed to dry for several days. They can then shelled and eaten as is, or roasted. Sunflower seeds are often eaten as a stand-alone snack. They can also be added to salads, bread or trail mix. Sunflowers are native to North America, but found throughout the world.

Pumpkin Seeds

Bowl of pumpkin seeds.

Fishing out pumpkin seeds from pumpkin.

Pumpkin seeds, also known as pepitas, are high in magnesium. Pumpkin seeds are found inside the pumpkin, an edible plant similar to squash. To prepare them for eating, pumpkin seeds must be scooped from the inside of the pumpkin and washed. Pumpkin seeds can be eaten raw or roasted. They are frequently consumed as a snack and used in Mexican cuisine. Pumpkins are found in China, India, Ukraine, the United States, Egypt, and Mexico.

Flaxseeds

Bowl of flaxseeds.

Flaxseeds growing in a field.

Flaxseed nutritional facts chart.

High in fiber, omega-3 fatty acids and naturally occurring chemicals called lignans, flaxseeds have a variety of digestive, heart and hormonal health benefits. Flaxseeds come from flax, a flowering plant that grows to about 2 feet high. They must be washed thoroughly and dried before eating.

While it is possible to eat flaxseeds raw and whole, they are easier to digest when they are ground up. Because of their health benefits, flaxseeds are frequently integrated into diet plans for weight loss. Flaxseeds are also used in Indian curry and rice dishes. The flax plant is commonly found in Canada, Russia, and Europe.

Cacao

A bunch of Cacao nuts.

Cacao growing on a tree.

Cacao is rich in minerals and has anti-inflammatory properties. The cacao tree is an evergreen, and its seeds are known as cocoa beans. Cocoa bean pods are harvested when ripe, then dried for 10 days. The beans are then extracted, fermented and dried further before they are consumed.

Cocoa beans are not usually eaten whole, but ground into a powder and used to add chocolate flavor to a variety of dishes, both sweet and savory. Cacao grows in the lowland rainforests of the Amazon and Orinoco river basins in South America, in western Africa, and in tropical parts of Asia.

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