The healthy nut has healthy markets
When peanut growers plant, they feel good about the product that is about to grow. That’s because peanuts have been designated as the “healthy nut” by scientists and are being promoted nationally that way by peanut organizations, including the National Peanut Board (NPB).
“Everyone is striving to eat healthier these days,” says Ryan Lepicier, NPB director of communications. “So much of what we read or see on TV about food is focused on health and nutrition. Because of this, foods that consumers consider nutritious are sought after for their healthful benefits. Peanuts and peanut butter certainly fit the bill, and NPB works hard to make sure peanuts are included when nuts are talked about or written about as healthful foods. Simply put, as a marketing tool, promoting peanuts and peanut products for their healthful benefits drives consumption and demand, which ultimately benefits growers,” Lepicier adds.
“It’s given people more reason to buy peanuts and use peanut products,” says Jeffrey Pope, a grower in Drewryville, Va., and NPB chairman.
Under the current system of supply and demand, he says growers wonder each year if they will receive a contract, and if so, for how many acres and at what price. Consumption is one factor that dictates how many acres of peanuts that the shellers will contract for and how much they will pay. “So, the more peanuts that we can get into the consumers’ hands, the more we can educate consumers about how healthy they actually are,” Pope says. “Hopefully, that equates into more consumption and higher prices at the farming level. If shellers think more acres of peanuts need to be grown, then they may go out and contract more acres of peanuts.”
Pope and other peanut growers have seen both positive and negative effects of promoting peanuts as the healthy nut. Two years ago, he says growers planted large acreages of peanuts and harvested record yields. That overproduction caused the industry to carry over peanuts, meaning shellers needed fewer acres until demand outpaced oversupply. Pope, who grows about 300 acres of peanuts, says the industry is working through the supply and demand situation, and, of course, some demand is better than none.
“That overproduction, though, I feel like it came from the promotion of healthy nuts, partly due to the funding of the healthy nut and partly due to promoting it in an overall sense,” Pope says.
The research to back up the claim that peanuts are the “healthy nut” exists at almost every turn. The Adventist Health Study conducted at Loma Linda University in Loma Linda, Calif., indicates that the consumption of nuts, including peanuts, at least once a week can lower the risk of heart disease by 25 percent. In the study that involved 31,200 people, peanuts accounted for 32 percent of the nuts eaten. The study concluded that consumption of nuts five or more times a week doubles the public’s protection.
At Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., a Nurses’ Health Study followed the eating habits of more than 86,000 nurses for 14 years. Frank Hu, principal investigator of the study, indicated that women who ate small amounts of nuts lowered their heart disease risk by about one-third compared with those who did not.
A Physicians’ Health Study conducted on more than 22,000 male physicians by Harvard researchers indicated that when nuts were increased in the diet, the participants’ risk of cardiac death declined. Eating peanuts also helped prevent heart attack victims from dying.
Lepicier says peanuts contain the most protein out of any nut, with 7 grams per serving. In addition, he says they have zero trans fats and are cholesterol-free. “Scientific evidence suggests that eating 1.5 ounces per day of most nuts, like peanuts, as part of a diet low in saturated fats and cholesterol may reduce the risk of heart disease,” he says.
Promoting peanuts is a big part of Virginia-Carolinas Peanut Promotions. “Because of the above studies [and many others], Virginia-Carolinas Peanut Promotions tout peanuts as a heart-healthy food through signage on our exhibits at fairs and festivals, in our recipe brochures and other educational materials that we distribute, as well as the merchandising materials we furnish to grocery store produce departments to use in special peanut displays,” says Betsy Owens, executive director of the organization in Nashville, N.C. “Our farmers in North Carolina and Virginia even have signs that they post roadside in their peanut fields saying that ‘We grow heart-healthy peanuts.’”
In its promotions, NPB reaches consumers directly through events and advertising. “We also work very hard to reach the people who influence consumers,” he says. “This includes health care professionals, bloggers, media and chefs. When people hear that peanuts are good from someone they trust, like their doctor, that third-party endorsement adds a lot of credibility, Lepicier says.
Virginia-Carolinas Peanut Promotions takes advantage of the “healthy aspect” of peanuts in its marketing campaigns. “Today’s consumers are more nutrition-conscious than ever before and are desiring nutrition information about food so that they can make educated choices,” Owens says. “In our interactions with consumers and in consumer surveys, we have found, for instance, that many people do not realize that peanuts are naturally cholesterol-free. Learning that peanuts are cholesterol-free, in addition to the heart-healthy research information, makes choosing peanuts and peanut butter a comfortable choice for those on heart-healthy diets. The feedback we get is frequently, ‘I’m so glad to hear that peanuts are good for you. Now I will eat all I want without worry.’”
“Americans spend almost $800 million a year on peanut butter and eat enough peanut butter in a year to make more than 10 billion peanut butter and jelly sandwiches,” Lepicier says.
Lepicier says National Peanut Board research shows that 72 percent of the people who were surveyed believe peanut butter is a good source of protein, 80 percent say it tastes great and 75 percent say it is a convenient and portable meal.
Another health benefit is that peanuts, peanut oil and peanut flour are naturally gluten-free, Lepicier says, and health dietitians realize the healthy, nutritional benefits for people who must follow a gluten-free diet, or for diabetics, athletes and children.
According to Virginia-Carolinas Peanut Promotions, research suggests that many of the nutritious minerals found in peanuts, such as copper, phosphorus, magnesium, iron, potassium, selenium, zinc and calcium, may protect against coronary heart disease. Peanuts and peanut butter provide 15 percent of the recommended daily intake level of protein per serving (1 ounce of peanuts or 2 tablespoons of peanut butter).
Owens says peanuts also are a good source of folate, which is recommended to be included in a diet in the earliest weeks of pregnancy for preventing neural tube birth defects.
Lepicier says peanuts are also an excellent source of niacin, an essential B vitamin that helps convert food to energy. In fact, they contain more niacin than other nuts and contain 20 percent of the daily value of niacin.
In addition, nutritionists recommend the food for diabetics. Owens says peanuts have a low glycemic index, making them a good food for keeping blood levels in check. She cites a study conducted by the Harvard School of Public Health, which found that women who ate 5 tablespoons of peanut butter each week could reduce their risk of Type 2 diabetes by more than 20 percent.
“This relationship between peanut or peanut butter consumption and Type 2 diabetes was linear—higher consumption resulted in a greater protective effect,” Owens says.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicates that the rates of Type 2 adult onset diabetes have tripled in the last 30 years. In the U.S., more than 17 million people have diabetes and 16 million more are at high risk for developing the disease.
“Research has shown that adding peanuts and peanut butter as part of a moderate-fat diet aids in weight loss and weight maintenance,” Owens says.
Healthy nuts; happy growers
Adding the healthy nut to a diet will certainly please Pope and other U.S. peanut growers. After all, the more peanuts eaten, the more growers can plant, harvest and sell.
Rocky Womack has written about agriculture and business for more than 25 years and currently serves as a contributing writer and correspondent for agriculture and business magazines, domestically and internationally. In the past, he has worked as a magazine editor and daily newspaper writer. Womack has won numerous awards for his interviewing, writing and in-depth reporting.