Are pine nuts healthy? The short answer to this common question is “yes!” If you love pesto, it’s likely that you’ve enjoyed the delicious taste of pine nuts. There’s more to these wonderful little morsels of goodness than flavor, though. Thanks to a potent blend of vitamins, minerals, and healthy fats, there are many pine nuts health benefits to enjoy.
What are pine nuts?
Pine nuts are the ripened seeds of certain pine trees. They develop after the “flowers” of pine trees transform into cones. After being pollinated and developing for approximately two to three years, female pine cones develop seeds, which form between the cone’s scales. A thin membrane connects the seeds to the cone, and a hard shell protects the nutritious kernel inside each seed. When the pine cones open and dry, the membranes are released from the cones’ inner structures and the seeds are dispersed by the wind as well as by the birds and animals that eat them.
These little nuts are typically smaller than your pinkie nail. Depending on the variety, they are shaped like tiny, elongated almonds. All pine trees produce pine nuts, but only about 20 pine species produce nuts that are large enough to be harvested. If you happen to have access to a pine tree with mature seeds inside its cones, you can crack the shells open and nibble on the seeds. If you’re lucky, you’ll happen across a pine species that offers flavorful seeds that are worth the effort it takes to open each one!
Like many of the world’s healthiest foods, pine nuts come with an interesting history. Stone pines have been cultivated for their nuts for more than 5,000 years, and people enjoyed foraging for pine nuts from wild trees for even longer. In Europe and Asia, archaeological evidence suggests that people have been enjoying pine nuts health benefits since the Paleolithic period, which is estimated to have begun about 2.6 million years ago. This isn’t at all surprising: Pine nuts are an excellent source of fat and protein, plus they’re portable and easy to find in evergreen forests all over the world.
Are pine nuts good for you?
No doubt about it! Pine nuts are highly nutritious, and they offer some important health benefits.
Pine Nuts Nutrition
Not only are pine nuts wonderfully delicious, with a subtle buttery flavor and just a touch of natural sweetness, they’re an excellent source of pure, plant-based nutrients. A one-ounce serving of pine nuts contains 191 calories and offers 19.38 grams of fat, along with 3.71 carbohydrates and 3.88 grams of protein. There is no cholesterol in pine nuts, however they offer 169 milligrams of potassium per ounce. Other essential nutrients in pine nuts include vitamin E, Thiamin, niacin, copper, iron, calcium, magnesium, manganese, phosphorus, and zinc. Pyroxidine, vitamin A, vitamin C, and selenium are found in pine nuts as well, but in smaller concentrations.
What are the health benefits of pine nuts?
Despite its small size, the chief pine nuts health benefit is a big one. This little seed is great for your heart! There’s more. If you’re looking for a natural way to curb your appetite, strengthen your immune system, keep your muscles, bones, and skin healthy, maintain good mental health, and even keep your eyes functioning well, these tasty little morsels can help.
Good for Cardiovascular Health
Pine kernels offer lots of essential vitamins and minerals, along with heart-healthy monounsaturated fatty acids, which are known to help reduce the amount of “bad” LDL cholesterol in the blood while increasing “good” HDL cholesterol levels.
Natural Appetite Suppressant
It’s true: Pine nuts suppress your appetite! Cedar nuts and pine nuts contain an omega-6 essential fatty acid called pinolenic acid. This nutrient helps reduce LDL cholesterol, and it triggers the release of two hunger-suppressing enzymes called GLP-1 and cholecystokinin. While this is not the main pine nuts health benefit, these enzymes are being studied for use in natural weight loss aids. As part of a nourishing but low-calorie lunch or dinner, pine nuts can help you stay away from tempting foods that taste good but don’t do your body any favors.
Among all the nutrients that make pine nuts healthy, manganese stands out. This nutrient works alongside an antioxidant enzyme called superoxide dismutase, helping the body scavenge free radicals and develop a strong immune system.
Protect Cellular Structures
Vitamin E is responsible for another important pine nut benefit. This fat-soluble antioxidant helps keep cells membranes strong and protects them from free radicals. It is particularly beneficial for skin and mucus membranes.
Build Skeletal Strength
Most of us know that calcium is important for building and maintaining strong bones, but other nutrients play an important role in skeletal health as well. Vitamin K is one of these; in fact, it’s such an important factor in bone health that it is used in supplements and medications designed to prevent and even treat osteoporosis. Pine nuts are a good source of vitamin K. Now you have another reason to enjoy them!
Maintain Mental Health
Certain foods are renowned for their ability to help keep the brain healthy, and nuts of all kinds are chief among these. With plenty of iron to help transport oxygen to keep brain cells sharp, pine nuts also offer an ample supply of magnesium, which helps protect our psyches from depression, stress, and anxiety. Like other foods that are good for your brain, pine nuts should be consumed regularly to keep nutrient levels high.
Keep Vision Sharp
Lutein is a vital antioxidant that helps keep eyes healthy. According to the American Optometric Association, this carotenoid may reduce the risk of cataracts and other chronic eye diseases by filtering high-energy blue light waves and protecting sensitive cells in the eyes’ retinas. Since our bodies don’t produce lutein on their own, we need to get plenty of it in our daily diets.
Some studies suggest that lutein and another carotenoid called zeaxanthin can improve visual performance in people with macular degeneration and cataracts. These nutrients may also improve vision in healthy people. While it’s not likely that pine nuts alone will work miracles for your vision, they’re certainly a beneficial addition to your diet! Add them to salads with lots of leafy greens to boost your lutein and zeaxanthin intake even further.
How to Harvest Pine Nuts
If you want to enjoy pine nuts health benefits and get out into nature for some foraging, feel free! Remember that not all pine nuts are large enough to be commercially viable, but keep in mind that many smaller seeds are good to snack on.
Start by locating healthy pine trees that aren’t exposed to pesticides and herbicides. If you’re foraging in a publicly owned forest, be sure that it’s OK to collect wild edibles such as pine nuts. Regulations vary from one place to the next, so double-check to ensure that you won’t be breaking any laws by gathering food in the forest.
If you’re lucky, you’ll visit the woods on a day when pine cones have released seeds onto the forest floor, and those seeds haven’t already been harvested by birds and squirrels. If you find pine seeds lying on the ground, simply gather them up into a breathable bag.
If the pinecones haven’t yet released their seeds, you can still enjoy some pine nuts. If the cones are ripe and open, you can pick individual pine seeds out. Simply crack them open to see if you like the taste. If you do, you can nibble on them while you’re hiking. If you want to harvest pine nuts for culinary use or snacking, it’s faster to gather the ripe cones and remove the seeds once you’ve gotten them home.
Start by gathering seed-filled pine cones in breathable bags. Burlap or another fabric is ideal.
Next, place the bags of pinecones in a warm, dry area, preferably one with exposure to sunlight. Check the pinecones periodically to see if they have released their seeds. This process can take about three weeks, so don’t worry if this doesn’t happen right away. You can shake the bags around to encourage the nuts to come out of the pinecones if you like.
Once you have removed the pine nuts from the pinecones, remove the winged membranes and discard them. Discard any pine nuts that have holes; these have already been nibbled on by insects. Keep the rest to enjoy.
You can store unshelled pine nuts in a cool, dry place for months. An airtight jar is ideal, particularly if you keep it in the refrigerator or freezer.
How to Shell Pine Nuts
If you’re hoping to snack on pine nuts as you hike, you will want to carry a nutcracker with you unless you’re willing to smash the shells between two rocks, or unless you are in an area where the pine nuts have soft shells that are safe to crack with your teeth (Gray Pine nuts are an example). Hard-shelled pine nuts like New Mexico pinon pine nuts will damage your teeth, so don’t try to open them with your molars.
Because pine nuts are small, it can take quite a while to crack them open individually. You can shell lots of pine nuts at once by placing them in a bag, then hitting them with the flat side of a meat hammer. Be sure to place a cutting board or a piece of cardboard underneath the bag so that the hard nuts don’t damage your countertop or table. Softer shelled varieties can be placed in a bag and cracked with firm pressure from a rolling pin. Once the shells have cracked, you can remove the pine nuts from the bag and use your fingers to remove any remaining shell particles.
After the pine nuts have been shelled, you can use them immediately or store them. If storing, be sure to take extra precautions to prevent spoilage by keeping the pine nuts away from heat and moisture. A sealed bag placed inside of an airtight container works well. If you’re hoping to preserve shelled pine nuts for longer than a week or so, be sure to keep them in the refrigerator or freezer.
Pine Nut Flavor
While many pine nut species are edible, some have a definite “pine” taste that you might or might not enjoy. Here’s a quick guide to some of the most popular pine nuts sold commercially.
Pinon Nuts: Pinon nuts are highly desirable thanks to their buttery, smooth flavor. These nuts are difficult to find in stores, but can be purchased online. In drought years, it can be almost impossible to find New Mexico pinon nuts. New Mexico pine nuts are grown throughout the dry, high desert regions of the American southwest. Wild and domestic New Mexico pinon trees grow in Colorado, Utah, Arizona, and of course New Mexico.
Italian Pignola: Pignola pine nuts are typically harvested from European stone pine trees. Despite the “Italian” moniker, these nuts are grown throughout the Mediterranean region. Their flavor is lovely, with creamy, buttery notes and just the barest hint of pine.
Korean Pine Nuts: The flavor of Korean pine nuts is a little bolder than pignola or New Mexico pinon, but with less resinous flavor than you’ll find in Nevada pine nuts.
Siberian Pine Nuts: Sometimes referred to as cedar nuts, Siberian pine nuts have a nice, mellow flavor with a touch of piney resin.
Nevada Pine Nuts: If you like a stronger pine taste, then you’re probably going to enjoy Nevada pine nuts. These grow throughout the American southwest, and are a little easier to find (albeit less desirable) than Pinon nuts.
Where to Buy Pine Nuts
If you’re lucky, you might be able to find pine nuts at your local supermarket. Trader Joe’s carries pine nuts, and Costco often has them as well. Be sure to check the date to ensure freshness if you’re shopping locally. Although pine nuts are becoming more popular, they’re still not a staple item in many places and this means that there’s a chance that the nuts may have been sitting on the grocer’s shelf for a while.
As with other foods, pine nut health benefits are at their best when the nuts are fresh. You can get pinon nuts in the shell directly from the grower if you like. If you prefer pignola nuts, you’ll find that this variety of shelled pine nuts is typically fresher and more cost-effective when purchased in bulk online.
Eating Pine Nuts
Just like other nuts, pine nuts are fantastic as a snack, as-is or with just a touch of sea salt or pink Himalayan salt. Be careful to watch your portion size if you’re simply snacking, as these little nuts are calorie-dense. Here are some other ways to enjoy pine nuts:
Toss them onto salads.
Measure out your portion of pine nuts, assemble your salad, add your favorite healthy dressing, and put the pine nuts on top.
Roasted pine nuts are easy to make. Simply spread the pine nuts out onto a parchment-lined baking sheet, set the oven’s temperature to 300 degrees, and toast the pine nuts for about 10 minutes. Keep a close eye on the nuts since roasting time might need to be a bit shorter or longer depending on nut size. Aim for a light golden brown. Cool the nuts for several minutes before eating them or adding them to recipes.
Whip up a simple pesto recipe.
In a food processer, Grind ½ cup of raw or toasted pine nuts in the food processer along with an entire bunch of fresh basil, 3 cloves of garlic, ½ cup of parmesan cheese, and 4 tablespoons of olive oil, plus salt and pepper to taste. This is enough for 4 servings. Toss it in with your favorite pasta or enjoy it with veggies.
Add them to baked goods.
Just like other nut varieties, pine nuts are delicious baked into your favorite muffins, breads, cakes and cookies. This might not be the healthiest way to eat pine nuts but it will make your treats a bit better for you!
Whichever variety you enjoy and however you choose to eat them, pine nuts make a valuable addition to your diet. Try them for yourself, and enjoy them frequently to get as many pine nut health benefits as you can!