Real Food Encyclopedia | Peanuts
As with chiles, tomatoes and potatoes, the story of peanuts is the story of European expansion, trade and colonialism. It is also the story of the amazing way cultures incorporate new ingredients into their cuisines, and indeed, peanuts have insinuated themselves into dishes all over the world.
Peanuts are native to South America, with their likely origin in either Bolivia or Peru. They were probably first cultivated by the Incas. Evidence of peanuts has been found by archaeologists in Andean Peruvian tombs dating from about 7600 BCE. The Spanish “discovered” peanuts in South America and Mexico. Portuguese and Spanish then traders introduced peanuts all over the world — to Malaysia, China, India and East and West Africa.
The Portuguese planted peanuts in West Africa to feed slaves on their forced trips to North and South America and the Caribbean. Through the West African slave trade, peanuts were introduced into the American south, where they quickly became a cash crop, along with cotton. African-American George Washington Carver, working at Alabama’s Tuskegee Institute, is famous for popularizing the crop among rural southerners in the 1890s, as a solution to the devastation the boll weevil and soil depletion wrought to the cotton crop there.
Two Italian immigrants were the first to develop a method to roast peanuts in oil in the early 20th century (they later started the “Planters” brand). Peanut butter was first invented in 1890 in St. Louis and was introduced to the wider public at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis.
Fun Facts about Peanuts:
- Most peanuts grown in the US are made into peanut butter. According to the National Peanut Board, Americans spend almost $800 million a year on the nutty spread.
- Alternate names for the peanut include “groundnut” (because the seed pod grows underground) and “goober pea,” a corruption of a native West African word for the legume.
- In recent years, high protein and calorie peanut paste has played a large part in the reduction of famine-related deaths in parts of Africa, the Caribbean and other areas.
What to Look for When Buying Peanuts
You can most commonly find peanuts roasted in their distinctive textured shell, dry roasted and roasted in oil. In the US, there are four main types of peanuts grown:
- Valencia: make up the smallest percentage of peanuts grown in the US. Valencia peanuts are small and are usually roasted in the shell.
- Spanish: small seeds covered in reddish skins. You will sometimes see recipes call for Spanish peanuts specifically, although other peanuts can be substituted. They are higher in oil than other types of peanuts and are commonly used in candy and confections.
- Virginia: have the largest seeds. They are commonly roasted in the shell and sold either in the shell or as salted peanuts.
- Runner: make up most of the peanuts grown in the US. They have higher yields than the other peanut types. Frequently ground into peanut butter.
Sustainability of Peanuts
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) notes that climate change could be devastating to US peanut production. In fact, recent droughts have already taken a toll on peanut production, causing the price of peanuts and peanut products to rise.
Pesticides and Peanuts
Toxic pesticides are common in conventional peanuts and peanut products. At least eight different pesticide residues were found by the USDA’s pesticide data program in conventional peanut butter. In addition, peanuts are commonly crop-rotated with cotton. Why do we care? Because nearly all cotton grown in the US is genetically engineered, much of which is herbicide tolerant cotton. This means that herbicides can be sprayed on the cotton without damage to the plant.
In the US, fresh peanuts are generally harvested in September and October. If you are lucky to live in a peanut-growing area, you may find fresh “green” peanuts for sale at your local farm stand or farmer’s market. The rest of us will have to make due with dried and roasted peanuts more commonly available year-round.
Peanuts and Geography
Contrary to popular belief, peanuts (Arachis hypogaea) are not true nuts at all, but legumes. They are part of the Fabaceae (legume) family, which also includes beans, lentils, peas, tamarind, clover and mesquite. Peanuts grow much like other legumes, with one critical difference: after the plant is pollinated and the lovely blossoms drop off of the plant, the stalks begin to elongate, eventually pushing themselves underground where the peanut pods and seeds mature.
Peanuts require a long, warm growing season and ample water, which limits their production to sub-tropical and warmer temperate regions, like the southern US. And like other legumes, peanuts are soil nitrogen fixers. Indeed, this is part of the reason George Washington Carver and the USDA encouraged southern farmers to convert their nitrogen-depleted cotton fields to peanut growing.
China, India, Nigeria and the US lead the world in peanut production. The National Peanut Board says that peanuts are grown commercially in 13 US states, with Georgia and Florida leading the pack.
Store peanuts and peanut products in a cool, dry place. Immediately discard any peanuts that show signs of mold.
Cooking with Peanuts
Few ingredients make the transition from sweet to savory with as much ease as peanuts. Classic pairings from around the world include chocolate, caramel, vanilla, chiles, curry and fruit (think apples and bananas). Of course, peanuts and peanut butter are exceedingly important in American cuisine, but the legume also plays a role in cuisines from around the world.
Peanuts are frequently used in Southeast Asian cuisine: most commonly in Malaysian and Indonesian dishes, and in Thai dishes influenced by Malaysian cuisine. In Vietnam, cookbook author Mai Pham notes that chopped, roasted peanuts are used to add “richness and texture” to many dishes, especially noodle and rice dishes. Peanut-based sauce also shows up in many countries in Southeast Asia, most famously as dipping sauce for satay. In India, peanuts are sold as street food (as in this peanut chaat). Peanuts are also added to rice dishes and curries, and peanut oil is commonly used as cooking oil in India. The legume is also popular in China, especially as a cooking oil and street snack, but they also add crunch to stir fries and other dishes.
In the US, boiled peanuts are a Southern specialty, traditionally made with the first harvested “green” peanuts. But really, peanut butter is where’s it’s at in the US. You can easily make your own peanut butter, but it is also increasingly easy to find high-quality organic peanut butter at the supermarket (and many markets even allow you to grind your own). Chocolate and peanut butter is a match made in heaven, from peanut butter cups (make your own) to peanut M&Ms. Or chocolate peanut butter pie. Or peanut butter brownies.
Peanuts are an incredible food. Like other legumes, they are extremely high in protein and fiber. They are a great source of niacin, Vitamin E, Vitamin B6, folate, magnesium, manganese and potassium. Peanuts also contain iron and calcium, and are loaded with monounsaturated fats, which can help lower cholesterol.
There are some rather gnarly health issues with peanuts, however. If you are a parent or have young children in your life, you probably already know that peanuts have been banned from many schools in the last few decades. This is because peanut-related allergies, some of which can be extremely severe, are on the rise.
In addition to allergies, improperly handled and stored peanuts and peanut products can become contaminated with aflatoxin, a type of toxin that is produced by certain fungi present in legumes, grains and other foods. Fortunately, peanuts and peanut products like peanut butter are rigorously tested for aflatoxin, and most aflatoxin-related deaths have occurred in places where regulatory oversight is lax.