Pine nut 101
Even if you couldn’t recognize a pine nut by itself, you’ve likely eaten one if you’ve ever had basil pesto, a traditional Italian sauce in which pine nuts are a staple ingredient.
But that’s far from their only use. With nutty and earthy tones, pine nuts are great to snack on, cook with, or sprinkle on dishes to add texture and crunch.
So it’s clear they’re tasty. But are they good for you? We asked nutrition experts about pine nuts’ nutrients, health benefits, and more.
What are pine nuts?
It may come as a surprise, but despite their name, pine nuts aren’t part of the nut family. They are actually seeds that come from certain types of pine trees.
Many of the pine nuts from Canada and the United States are harvested from wild trees in the pinyon pine group, such as Pinus edulis, or Colorado pinyon, and a few others.
When it comes to global production and export, however, most pine nuts come from the stone pine tree, Pinus pinea.
If you plant a pine tree today, you can expect to wait 15 to 25 years before it produces these small seeds. This time frame is one reason for pine nuts’ hefty price tag.
What do pine nuts look like?
The seeds are shaped like an oval or an elongated kernel and have an ivory or beige hue. Typically, they are harvested by hand, another reason they’re more expensive than other seeds.
Usually the shell is removed before packaging. People eat pine nuts raw or roasted.
Pine nuts nutrition
“Pine nuts, specifically, are great sources of plant-based protein, iron, magnesium, vitamin E, vitamin B, calcium and phosphorus,” says Uma Naidoo, MD, a nutritional psychiatrist, professional chef, nutrition specialist, and the author of This is Your Brain on Food.
Here are the nutrients in 30 grams (about one ounce) of raw pine nuts:
Fat: 21 g (27 percent daily value, or DV)
Cholesterol: 0 (0 percent DV)
Sodium: 0 (0 percent DV)
Carbohydrates: 4 g (1 percent DV)
Fiber: 1 g (4 percent DV)
Sugars: 1 g
Protein: 4 g (8 percent DV)
Calcium: 0 mg (0 percent DV)
Iron: 1.8 mg (10 percent DV)
Magnesium: 71.2 mg (17 percent DV)
Potassium: 169 mg (3 percent DV)
Phosphorus: 163 mg (13 percent DV)
Vitamin E: 2.64 mg (18 percent DV)
Health benefits of pine nuts
Thanks to all of their health-promoting nutrients, pine nuts may have positive effects on your body.
Keep in mind that just because the compounds below have been linked to health benefits doesn’t mean there’s proof pine nuts yield such benefits.
More research is needed to determine whether pine nuts can directly affect your health, and how.
They might boost brain health
Pine nuts have antioxidants, which are beneficial compounds that can minimize how unstable atoms, also known as free radicals, affect the body.
“Antioxidants help lower levels of cellular stress in the brain and reduce inflammation, and [they] have been tied to a decreased risk of dementia and cognitive decline,” explains Dr. Naidoo.
Of course, that doesn’t mean there’s evidence that pine nuts specifically can help your brain. Still, it doesn’t hurt to get antioxidants where you can, including from pine nuts.
They’re not the only compound in pine nuts that’s been linked to better brain health. An abundance of fatty acids, such as omega-3s, are another reason pine nuts might benefit your brain.
“Omega-3s promote brain function and reduce inflammation and have been tied to improved mental health as well as an overall healthier brain,” explains Dr. Naidoo.
A study in Pharmacological Reviews found just that. The authors note that that omega-3 fatty acids were beneficial for overall brain health, helped with brain function, and lowered inflammation.
But the link is far from confirmed, according to Danielle Gaffen, a registered dietitian nutritionist and nutrition consultant in San Diego.
“More research is needed to determine if pine nuts can contribute to cognitive functioning and brain health,” she says.
They may be good for the heart
Packed with minerals and healthy fats, these small seeds hold potential for the heart
“Pine nuts are loaded with heart-healthy unsaturated fats—both poly and mono—which are important for heart health and general health, and numerous other health-promoting nutrients, including magnesium,” says Melina B. Jampolis, MD, an internist, board-certified physician nutrition specialist, and author of Spice Up, Live Long.
She names magnesium as another health-promoting nutrient that can benefit heart function.
They may also be beneficial in terms of your cholesterol.
“Like many other nuts, pine nuts have been shown to regulate cholesterol levels, even increasing levels of HDL cholesterol as well as preventing the buildup of plaque in blood vessels,” says Gaffen.
They might help manage blood sugar
Healthy fats and minerals such as magnesium may aid in maintaining blood sugar levels.
“The unsaturated fat, especially in place of carbohydrates, can help improve blood sugar control, and magnesium helps the body respond better to insulin, which can also improve blood sugar control and reduce the risk of diabetes,” says Dr. Jampolis.
Those aren’t the only nutrients that help maintain even blood sugar levels.
“[Pine nuts] contain some fiber and plant protein, which helps reduce diabetes risk, as well as polyphenols that may help in blood sugar regulation and reduction of inflammation, which is often associated with diabetes and insulin resistance,” says Dr. Jampolis.
And don’t forget the sugar and carb content.
“Pine nuts are generally low in sugar and contain good amounts of plant-based fats and protein, which reduces [the] potential for high blood sugar or blood sugar spikes that can lead to diabetes over time,” says Dr. Naidoo.
That low carbohydrate content makes them a good snack or topping for people with diabetes too.
They could potentially improve skin
Pine nuts contain vitamin E, which is beneficial for many parts of the body, including the skin.
“Vitamin E promotes healthy hair, skin, and nails,” says Dr. Naidoo.
Of course, whether pine nuts can directly improve the skin is another matter—and needs to be studied.
Risks or side effects of eating pine nuts
They’re high in calories
There’s nothing wrong with a sprinkle of these seeds on salads or other dishes.
Just keep in mind that pine nuts are high in calories. Dr. Jampolis suggests controlling portion size.
“We can reap their nutrient benefit from just a handful or couple of tablespoons a day,” says Dr. Naidoo.
You could be allergic
People who are allergic to tree nuts or peanuts aren’t automatically allergic to pine nuts (after all, they’re not really a nut), but it’s possible they could be.
Allergies to pine nuts are similar to tree nuts, and reactions can range from mind to severe, says Gaffen. Serious reactions can include anaphylaxis, a potentially life-threatening reaction in which your airways can narrow, blocking your ability to breathe.
It’s advised to speak with your doctor before eating them.
“If you have a peanut or tree nut allergy, it is best to be tested by a doctor for a pine nut allergy before deeming yourself safe,” says Dr. Naidoo.
They can cause a strange reaction
Although it’s uncommon, pine nuts may literally leave a bad taste in your mouth.
Eating pine nuts from time to time can cause some people to experience a bitter or metallic taste that lasts for a few days up to two weeks.
“There is arare risk of something called pine mouth, or pine nut syndrome, in which people get a bitter taste in their mouth 12 to 48 hours after eating pine nuts that can last for weeks,” says Dr. Jampolis. “This is not an allergy, and the cause is unknown.”
How to cook with pine nuts
With their light and delicate flavor, pine nuts are versatile and easy to eat. Gaffen suggests pairing them with sauces, pastas, breads and other baked goods, salads, and sautéed veggies such as green beans, spinach, or asparagus.
“They can be eaten by themselves as a snack, mixed into a homemade nut/seed trail mix, or added to a salad or vegetable dish,” says Dr. Naidoo.
You can eat them just as they are, but you may want to consider toasting them in a pan to bring out the flavors.
“Roasting them, especially with herbs or spices, is a delicious way to enjoy them as a topping for vegetables or salads,” says Dr. Jampolis, who suggests roasting with cinnamon or nutmeg to add as a topping to yogurt.
Pine nuts recipes
Looking for more ideas? Make one of these 20 pine nut recipes. Or try Dr. Jampolis’ pine nut seafood recipe, below.
Caper Pesto-Glazed Sea Bass
Courtesy of Dr. Melina B. Jampolis
2 tablespoons capers
3 tablespoons parsley
1 teaspoon pine nuts, toasted
1/8 teaspoon fresh garlic, minced
Juice of half a lemon
4 tablespoons olive oil
6 ounce sea bass fillet, deboned and skinned
Kosher salt, to taste
White pepper, to taste
- Add the capers, parsley, pine nuts, garlic, lemon juice, and olive oil to a food processor or blender. Blend on high until well incorporated. Set aside.
- Season the sea bass with salt and white pepper to taste.
- In a nonstick pan, add a little olive oil. Heat on medium-high until the pan starts to smoke slightly.
- Add the fish from front to back to avoid oil splash, and sear for three minutes, until golden brown. Flip the fish over and cook for another three to four minutes.
- Make sure to cook the fish through. Glaze the top of the fish with pesto and serve.
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