Go Green with Pistachios? Rich Flavor and Health

The Folklore. Pistachios date back eons?evidence from excavations shows that tribes in the Near East gathered them as far back as 20,000 BC. Throughout history, pistachios were considered food suitable for the rich and noble. They were said to have been a favorite of the Queen of Sheba, and also thought to bring good luck to lovers, who would steal away to meet beneath pistachio trees. This royal nut was brought from the Middle East to southern European countries like Italy and Greece for cultivation. In 1976, pistachios appeared commercially in California, where they became an important crop.

The Facts. The pistachio tree (Pistacia vera L.) is related to the cashew, mango and poison oak trees. Pistachio nuts grow in grape-like clusters and are covered with soft, reddish husks that are removed when they are processed. The nut shells begin to split as the pistachios mature. Pistachio kernels get their green color from chlorophyll, the same pigment found in leaves. In the Middle East, pistachios were often left in their reddish husks and were brined before roasting, giving the shells a natural pink glow. When they were first imported to the U.S., processors dyed the shells red to imitate this process, but this method fell out of favor with today’s preference for natural foods.

The Findings. These jade gems are packed with healthy fats, protein, fiber and minerals. Pistachios are also rich in phytosterols, which appear to lower cholesterol levels and protect from certain types of cancer. Recent studies have found that pistachios may lower risk of type 2 diabetes by improving blood sugars, and reduce inflammatory markers (a known risk factor for heart disease.) The FDA allows a qualified health claim on food packages stating that eating 1.5 ounces of most nuts (including pistachios) as part of a diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol may reduce heart disease risk.

The Finer Points. What do you do with those pesky pistachio nuts that are not completely split? Wedge one half of the shell from an already-opened pistachio into the split and twist it open. Pistachios draw moisture from the air, which causes them to lose their crunch, so store them in an airtight container in the refrigerator. The nutty crunch and lovely hue of pistachios blends beautifully in breads, cereals, salads, side dishes, entrees and desserts. Tuck them into your bag for one of nature’s most perfect snacks on the go.

? Sharon Palmer, R.D.

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