The Tiny Hazelnut: A Nutrient Giant?
February 20, 2002
Maybe the Chinese were onto something. Chinese medicinal remedies as early as 2838 B.C. took advantage of plants and herbs to cure disease and sickness. Then, in 1000 B.C. a Chinese manuscript noted that the hazelnut was one of five sacred nourishments God bestowed to human beings.
The hazelnut or filbert was connected with European mythology and witchcraft and even more recently some folks are said to use a hazel wand (twig) to locate underground water.
But in today’s no-nonsense high-tech 21st century, science based on fact speaks louder than myths. Scientists and food developers are determined to prove or disprove the limitless theories, conjectures and myths of their ancestors.
Once maligned, nuts may ultimately be heroes in protecting against heart disease and other serious illnesses, according to researchers. This is particularly good news for Oregon’s 800 hazelnut growers.
Recently, science seems to bear out what hazelnut growers have suspected for years: their tiny hazelnuts are nutrient giants. For instance, in the well-publicized study of 86,000 female nurses, ages 34-59, subjects were found to be less likely to die of heart disease when they ate nuts one to four times per week. A study of male physicians reported a similar decrease in the risk of heart attacks for men.
In another study, at Boston’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital, participants on a weight loss study who ate nuts daily, including hazelnuts, not only continued to lose weight but experienced less hunger during the day. More and more, it appears that nuts offer advantages heretofore unrecognized. And contrary to what many people believe, nuts contain no cholesterol.
Even though approximately 80 percent of the hazelnut’s calories come from fat, more or less than other tree nuts, the monounsaturated hazelnut fat is healthy fat. Recall that olive oil has long been the favored oil in Mediterranean diets. Yet, generations growing up in that culture have been extraordinarily free of heart disease.
Research now shows that monounsaturated fatty acids can decrease low-density (LDL) "bad" cholesterol levels and decrease the risk for cardiovascular heart disease (CVD). Hazelnuts offer not only this monounsaturated healthy fat but antioxidant protection and other bonuses, including protein, vitamin E, fiber, potassium, calcium and the folic acid so important for pregnant women.
Ironically, despite the bad reputation fat has developed over the past two decades, dietitians insist some fat is essential for optimal health. Fat provides a long-term energy source for the body as well as insulation for the vital organs and transport for the fat-soluble vitamins - A, D, E, & K
Fat also supplies essential fatty acids (EFAs), which the body cannot make, so it must depend on food intake as its source. EFAs are necessary for growth, healthy skin and hair, controlling blood pressure and blood clotting.
Need for Folic Acid
Hazelnuts are an excellent source of folic acid or folate, one of the B vitamins, often low in American diets. Folate is an important factor in new cell production and the growth and repair of cells, and is involved in the formation of DNA.
Further, folate has been shown to help reduce the risk of neural tube defects (NTD) when consumed prior to conception and during early pregnancy. NTD’s affect the spinal cord and brain of a baby, which is the case in spina bifida and ancephaly, according to Kelly Streit, MS, RD, LD, a spokesperson for the Oregon Dietetic Association.
Folate may also play a part in reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease. Folate, along with vitamins B-12 and B-6 are important in regulating the amount of homocysteine in the blood. Homocysteine is an amino acid that circulates in the blood, much like cholesterol. High levels of homocysteine may damage artery walls putting those individuals at a higher risk for CVD and stroke. Folic acid lowers homocysteine levels, Streit said.
She pointed out the difficulty getting an adequate quantity of folic acid from food alone. According to the Daily Reference Index (DRI), a pregnant woman is advised to get 600 mcg of folate daily, less for men, women and children.
Yet, in spite of the fact that hazelnuts are a good source for folate, 40 percent of American adults do not meet the standards for folic acid. The majority take in only about 200 micrograms per day, nutritionists say. For women of child-bearing age, a special recommendation was made to consume 400 mcg. of folic acid per day, increasing to 600 mcg. after conception. Hazelnuts, which contain more folic acid than any other tree nut, are an easy, safe, portable source of folate.
Three-fourths cup kernels or 100 grams provides up to 56 percent of the daily folate requirement for men, women and children, even 10 percent of a pregnant woman’s demand.
Easy to add hazelnuts to the diet
Traditionally a favorite with European and American bakers, hazelnuts can also be ground into flour, processed into butter, chopped for salad, soup and cereal toppers, added to pastas and casseroles for a crunchy texture, or possibly best of all, for encrusting fish or chicken pieces, adding not only folate, but the myriad of other vitamins and minerals available in tree nuts.
For the generations of families who raise hazelnuts in Oregon, the implications of this new perspective from the medical community is profound. These growers have worked at their craft since 1905 in Oregon’s historic Willamette Valley. No where else in the world is there a combination of rich soil and mild climate as well suited to grow hazelnuts as on these farms in the Northwest corner of Oregon. Today, 800 growers tend just under 30,000 acres of hazelnuts to produce 99 percent of the commercial U. S. hazelnut crop, a remarkable feat in the past 100 years, without government subsidy.
In his just published book, "Healthy Nuts," Dr. Gene Spiller describes nuts and hazelnuts as "superfoods," adding that the large amount of alpha-tocopherol available in hazelnuts makes them a wise choice.
"Hazelnuts and all nuts provide a notable boost of nutrients in spite of their fat content," added Streit, the Oregon nutrition expert. There are several phytochemicals in nuts but it’s too early [in the research] to identify which ones and which quantities are best, she explained. "We know nuts are high in fat but it’s healthy fat; spending your fat grams on hazelnuts and other nuts is a good choice." It takes only a small amount of hazelnuts, just one-third cup, to provide about five grams of protein. This is equivalent to one ounce of cooked meat, fish or poultry.
Even though Streit and her fellow dietitians advise eating nuts in moderation, an Oregon nut farmer disagrees. From his farm just south of Portland, Ore., Earl Bruck claims he eats a handful of hazelnuts every day and remarked, "that’s why I feel so good." Even a casual glance at this trim, spirited 69-year old, third generation hazelnut farmer certifies that he is doing something right.
Adding her important expert endorsement, Streit, verified that hazelnuts are a plant source of these phytochemicals, adding that phytochemicals appear to decrease the risk of heart disease, certain cancers and other chronic disease.
Hazelnuts Health Tips:
The fat in hazelnuts is primarily monounsaturated, now proven to provide protection against heart disease.
Hazelnuts are a source of phytochemicals, such as flavonoids, isoflavones, ellagic acid and phenolic acid.
Hazelnuts provide the highest level of folic acid in the nut family. Of the daily recommended 200 mcg. of folic acid recommended for hazelnuts provide 113 mcg. in 3/4 cup.
Hazelnuts offer antioxidant protection due to a high level of vitamin E.
Hazelnuts kick in fiber for protection against colon cancer.
Hazelnuts are also a good source of protein, calcium, niacin, vitamin B6, minerals such as magnesium, copper, zinc, selenium, phosphorous and potassium.
Hazelnuts contain no cholesterol.
What the growers have known for years, nutritionists and doctors now confirm, the hazelnut packs a wealth of nutrition in its tiny, portable, protective shell.
Note: Phytochemicals are non-nutritive, secondary plant metabolites present in relatively small amounts with a considerable efficacy in protecting against human disease.
Spiller, G. Healthy Nuts, New York 2000. pp.9, 38
Streit, Kelly, MS, RD, LD, media spokesperson, Oregon Dietetic Assn.
The three studies quoted:
Hu, Frank, Male Physicians’ study, pending publication
McManus, K, Sacks, F, a Randomized Trial of a High Unsaturated Fat Diet vs. a Low Fat Diet for Weight Reduction.
Dept. of Nutrition, Brigham & Womens Hospital and Harvard Medical School, Boston, Mass, (pending publication) 1999
Nurses Health Study, British Medical Journal, 14 Nov. 1998, Vol 317, pp. 1341-1345
From NutraSolutions.com, July 2000