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All about nuts

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Chestnuts are both botanical and culinary nuts.

Some common "culinary nuts", including hazelnuts (which are also botanical nuts), Brazil nuts (which are not botanical nuts, but rather seeds of a capsule), walnuts, pecans, and almonds (which are not botanical nuts but rather the seeds of drupes)

A nut is a fruit composed of a hard shell and a seed, which is generally edible. In botany, there is an additional requirement that the shell does not open to release the seed (indehiscent). In a general context, a wide variety of dried seeds are called nuts, but in a botanical context, only ones that include the indehiscent fruit are considered true nuts. The translation of "nut" in certain languages frequently requires paraphrases, as the word is ambiguous.

Most seeds come from fruits that naturally free themselves from the shell, unlike nuts such as hazelnuts, chestnuts, and acorns, which have hard shell walls and originate from a compound ovary. The general and original usage of the term is less restrictive, and many nuts, such as almonds, pecans, pistachios, walnuts, and Brazil nuts, are not nuts in a botanical sense. Common usage of the term often refers to any hard-walled, edible kernel as a nut.


A nut in botany is a simple dry fruit with one seed (rarely two) in which the ovary wall becomes very hard (stony or woody) at maturity, and where the seed remains unattached or free within the ovary wall. Most nuts come from the pistils with inferior ovaries (see flower) and all are indehiscent (not opening at maturity). True nuts are produced, for example, by some plant families of the order Fagales.

Order Fagales (NOT all species produce true nuts)

  • Family Fagaceae
    • Beech (Fagus)
    • Chestnut (Castanea)
    • Oak (Quercus)
    • Stone-oak (Lithocarpus)
    • Tanoak (Notholithocarpus)
  • Family Betulaceae
  • Hazel, Filbert (Corylus)
  • Hornbeam (Carpinus)

A small nut may be called a nutlet. In botany, this term specifically refers to a pyrena or pyrene, which is a seed covered by a stony layer, such as the kernel of a drupe. Walnuts and hickories (Juglandaceae) have fruits that are difficult to classify. They are considered to be nuts under some definitions, but are also referred to as drupaceous nuts. "Tryma" is a specialized term for hickory fruits.

In common use, a "tree nut" is, as the name implies, any nut coming from a tree. This most often comes up regarding allergies, where some people are allergic specifically to peanuts, others to a wider range of nuts that grow in trees.


A walnut, left, and its seed, right, having been removed from its pericarp

Korean Pine seeds — unshelled, and shell, above; shelled, below

A nut in cuisine is a much less restrictive category than a nut in botany, as the term is applied to many seeds that are not botanically true nuts. Any large, oily kernels found within a shell and used in food are commonly called nuts.

Nuts are an important source of nutrients for both humans and wildlife. Because nuts generally have a high oil content, they are a highly prized food and energy source. A large number of seeds are edible by humans and used in cooking, eaten raw, sprouted, or roasted as a snack food, or pressed for oil that is used in cookery and cosmetics. Nuts (or seeds generally) are also a significant source of nutrition for wildlife. This is particularly true in temperate climates where animals such as jays and squirrels store acorns and other nuts during the autumn to keep from starving during the late autumn, all of winter, and early spring.

Nuts used for food, whether true nut or not, are among the most common food allergens.

Raw mixed nuts, sold as a snack food. This is a "fancy" mix, meaning that it does not include peanuts.

Some fruits and seeds that do not meet the botanical definition but are nuts in the culinary sense are:

  • Almonds are the edible seeds of drupe fruits — the leathery "flesh" is removed at harvest.
  • Brazil nut is the seed from a capsule.
  • Candlenut (used for oil) is a seed.
  • Cashew is the seed of an accessory fruit.
  • Chilean hazelnut or Gevuina
  • Macadamia is a creamy white kernel of a follicle type fruit.
  • Malabar chestnut
  • Pecan is the seed of a drupe fruit
  • Mongongo
  • Peanut is a seed and from a legume type fruit (of the family Fabaceae).
  • Pine nut is the seed of several species of pine (coniferous trees).
  • Pistachio is the seed of a thin-shelled drupe.
  • Walnut (Juglans)
  • Yeheb nut is the seed of a desert bush, Cordeauxia edulis


Nuts are the source of energy and nutrients for the new plant. They contain a relatively large quantity of calories, essential unsaturated and monounsaturated fats including linoleic acid and linolenic acid, vitamins, and essential amino acids. Many nuts are good sources of vitamin E, vitamin B2, folate, fibre, and the essential minerals magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, copper, and selenium. Nuts are most healthy in their raw unroasted form. because up to 15% of the fats are destroyed during the roasting process. Unroasted walnuts have twice as many antioxidants as other nuts or seeds. It is controversial whether increasing dietary antioxidants confers benefit or harm.

People who consume nuts regularly are less likely to develop coronary heart disease (CHD). Nuts were first linked to protection against CHD in 1993. Consumption of various nuts such as almonds and walnuts can lower serum low density lipoprotein (LDL) concentrations. Although nuts contain various substances thought to possess cardioprotective effects, their Omega 3 fatty acid profile is at least in part responsible for the hypolipidemic response. Nuts have a very low glycemic index (GI) due to their high unsaturated fat and protein content and relatively low carbohydrate content. Consequently, dieticians frequently recommend that nuts be included in diets for patients with insulin resistance such as Type 2 diabetes mellitus. One study found that people who eat nuts live two to three years longer than those who do not. However, this may be because people who eat nuts tend to eat less junk food.


The nut of the horse-chestnut tree (Aesculus species, especially Aesculus hippocastanum), is called a conker in the British Isles. Conkers are inedible because they contain toxic glucoside aesculin. They are used in a popular children's game, known as conkers, where the nuts are threaded onto a strong cord and then each contestant attempts to break their opponent's conker by hitting it with their own. Horse chestnuts are also popular slingshot ammunition.


Nuts, including the wild almond, prickly water lily, acorns, pistachio and water chestnut, were a major part of the human diet 780,000 years ago. Prehistoric humans developed an assortment of tools to crack open nuts during the Pleistocene period. Aesculus californica was eaten by the Native Americans of California during famines after the toxic constituents were leached out.


A small bowl of mixed nuts

A typical assortment of mixed nuts

Culinary nuts are dry, edible fruits or seeds that usually, but not always, have a high fat content. Nuts are used in a wide variety of edible roles, including in baking, as snacks (either roasted or raw), and as flavouring. In addition to botanical nuts, fruits and seeds that have a similar appearance and culinary role are considered to be culinary nuts. Culinary nuts are divided into fruits or seeds in one of four categories:

  • True, or botanical nuts: dry, hard-shelled, uncompartmented fruit that do not split on maturity to release seeds;
  • Drupes: fleshy fruit surrounding a stone, or pit, containing a seed (e.g. almonds);
  • Gymnosperm seeds: naked seeds, with no enclosure (e.g. pine nuts);
  • Angiosperm seeds: unenclosed seeds within a larger fruit (e.g. peanuts).

Nuts have a rich history as food. For many indigenous peoples of the Americas, a wide variety of nuts, including acorns, American beech, and others, served as a major source of starch and fat over thousands of years. Similarly, a wide variety of nuts have served as food for Indigenous Australians for many centuries. Other culinary nuts, though known from ancient times, have seen dramatic increases in use in modern times. The most striking such example is the peanut. Its usage was popularized by the work of George Washington Carver, who discovered and popularized many applications of the peanut after employing peanut plants for soil amelioration in fields used to grow cotton.

The common hazelnut, native to Europe and Western Asia

A kola nut


The following are both culinary and botanical nuts.

  • Acorn (Quercus, Lithocarpus and Cyclobalanopsis spp.), used from ancient times among indigenous peoples of the Americas as a staple food, in particular for making bread and porridge.
  • Beech (Fagus spp.)
    • American beech (Fagus grandifolia), used by indigenous peoples of the Americas as food. Several tribes sought stores of beech nuts gathered by chipmunks and deer mice, thus obtaining nuts that were already sorted and shelled.
    • European beech (Fagus sylvatica), although edible, have never been popular as a source of food. They have been used as animal feed and to extract a popular edible oil.
  • Breadnut (Brosimum alicastrum), used by the ancient Maya peoples as animal fodder, and as an alternative food when yield of other crops was insufficient.
  • Candlenut (Aleurites moluccana), used in many South East Asian cuisines.
  • Chestnuts (Castanea spp.)
  • Chinese chestnuts (Castanea mollissima) have been eaten in China since ancient times.
  • Sweet chestnuts (Castanea sativa) unlike most nuts are high in starch and sugar. Extensively grown in Europe and the Himalayas.
  • American hazelnut (Corylus americana), appealing for breeding because of its relative hardiness.
  • Eastern and western beaked hazel (Corylus cornuta), native to the United States.
  • European hazelnut (Corylus avellana) is the source of most commercial hazelnuts.
  • Filbert (Corylus maxima) is commonly used as "filler" in mixed nut combinations.
  • Several other species are edible, but not commercially cultivated to any significant extent. These include the cold-tolerant Siberian hazelnut (C. heterophylla), C. kweichowensis, which grows in the warmer parts of China, C. sieboldiana, which grows in Japan and China, and other minor Corylus species.
  • Hazelnuts (Corylus spp.), most commercial varieties of which descend from the European hazelnut (Corylus avellana). Hazelnuts are used to make pralines, in the popular Nutella spread, in liqueurs, and in many other foods.
  • Johnstone River almond (Elaeocarpus bancroftii), a prized food among northern Indigenous Australians.
  • Kola nut (Cola spp.), from a West African relative of the cocoa tree, is the origin of the cola flavor in soft drinks.
  • Kurrajong (Brachychiton spp.), native to Australia, highly regarded as a bush food among northern Indigenous Australians.
  • Malabar chestnuts (Pachira aquatica) have a taste reminiscent of peanuts when raw, and of cashews or European chestnuts (which they strongly resemble) when roasted.
  • Mongongo (Ricinodendron rautanenii) nuts are an abundant source of protein among Bushmen in the Kalahari desert. Also of interest as a source of oil for skin care.
  • Planted karuka (Pandanus julianettii) is a cultivated species, planted by roughly half the rural population of Papua New Guinea.
  • Wild karuka (Pandanus brosimos) is an important food source in villages at higher altitudes in New Guinea.
  • Palm nuts (Elaeis guineensis) are an important famine food among the Himba people in Africa.
  • Karuka (Pandanus spp.), native to Papua New Guinea. Both the planted and wild species are eaten raw, roasted or boiled, providing food security when other foods are less available.
  • Red bopple nut (Hicksbeachia pinnatifolia) is native to the east coast of Australia. Low in fat, high in calcium and potassium. Eaten as bush food. Considered similar, but inferior to the macadamia.
  • Yellow walnut (Beilschmiedia bancroftii) is native to Australia where it served as a staple food among Indigenous Australians.


A drupe is a fleshy fruit surrounding a stone, or pit, containing a seed. Some of these seeds are culinary nuts as well.

Smoked almonds

  • Almonds (Prunus dulcis) have a long and important history of religious, social and cultural significance as a food. Speculated to have originated as a natural hybrid in Central Asia, almonds spread throughout the Middle East in ancient times and thence to Eurasia. The almond is one of only two nuts mentioned in the Bible.
  • Apricot kernels are sometimes used as an almond substitute
  • Australian cashew nut (Semecarpus australiensis) is a source of food for Indigenous Australians of north-eastern Queensland and Australia's Northern Territory.
  • Betel or areca nuts (Areca catechu) are chewed in many cultures as a psychoactive drug. They are also used in Indian cuisine to make sweet after-dinner treats (mukwa) and breath-fresheners (paan masala).
  • Borneo tallow nuts (Shorea spp.) are grown in the tropical rain forests of South East Asia, as a source of edible oil.
  • Canarium spp.
    • Canarium nut (Canarium harveyi, Canarium indicum, or Canarium commune) has long been an important food source in Melanesia.
    • Chinese olive (Canarium album) pits are processed before use as an ingredient in Chinese cooking.
    • Pili nuts (Canarium ovatum) are native to the Philippines, where they have been cultivated for food from ancient times.
  • Cashews (Anacardium occidentale) grow as a drupe that is attached to the cashew apple, the fruit of the cashew tree. Native to northeastern Brazil, the cashew was introduced to India and East Africa in the sixteenth century, where they remain a major commercial crop. The nut must be roasted to remove the caustic shell oil before being consumed.
  • Chilean hazel (Gevuina avellana), from an evergreen native to South America, similar in appearance and taste to the hazelnut.
  • Coconut (Cocos nucifera), used world-wide as a food. The fleshy part of the seed is edible, and used either desiccated or fresh as an ingredient in many foods. The pressed oil from the coconut is used in cooking as well.
  • Gabon nut (Coula edulis) has a taste comparable to hazelnut or chestnut. It is eaten raw, grilled or boiled.
  • Hickory (Carya spp.)
  • Mockernut hickory (Carya tomentosa), named after the heavy hammer (moker in Dutch) required to crack the heavy shell and remove the tasty nutmeat.
  • Pecans (Carya illinoinensis) are the only major nut tree native to North America. Pecans are eaten as a snack food, and used as an ingredient in baking and other food preparation.
  • Shagbark hickory (Carya ovata) has over 130 named cultivars. They are a valuable source of food for wildlife, and were eaten by indigenous peoples of the Americas and settlers alike.
  • Shellbark hickory (Carya laciniosa) nuts are sweet, and are the largest of the hickories. They are also eaten by a wide variety of wildlife.
  • Bush mango (Irvingia gabonensis) has both edible fruit and an edible nut, which is used as a thickening agent in stews and soups in West African cuisines.
  • Ogbono nut (Irvingia wombolu) is similar to the bush mango, but the fruit is not edible.
  • Irvingia spp. are native to Africa
  • Jack nuts (Artocarpus heterophyllus) are the seeds of the jack fruit. With a taste like chestnuts, they have an extremely low fat content of less than 1%.
  • Bread Nuts (Artocarpus camansi) similarly have a chestnut taste and very low fat content
  • Panda oleosa is used in Gabon in a similar way to bush mango nuts, as well as to extract an edible oil.
  • Pekea nut, or butter-nut of Guiana (Caryocar nuciferum), harvested locally for its highly prized edible oil.
  • Black walnut (Juglans nigra), also popular as food for wildlife, with an appealing, distinctive flavor. Native of North America.
  • Butternut (Juglans cinerea) (or white walnut) is native to North America. Used extensively, in the past, by Native American tribes as food.
  • English walnut (Juglans regia) (or Persian walnut) was introduced to California around 1770. California now represents 99% of US walnut growth. It is often combined with salads, vegetables, fruits or desserts because of its distinctive taste.
  • Heartnut, or Japanese walnut (Juglans aitlanthifolia), native to Japan, with a characteristic cordate shape. Heartnuts are often toasted or baked, and can be used as a substitute for English walnuts.
  • Pistachio (Pistacia vera L.), cultivated for thousands of years, native to West Asia and Asia Minor. It is one of only two nuts mentioned in the Bible.
  • Walnut (Juglans spp.)


A gymnosperm, from the Greek gymnospermos meaning "naked seed", is a seed that does not have an enclosure. The following gymnosperms are culinary nuts. All but the ginkgo nut are from evergreens.

  • Cycads (Macrozamia spp.)
    • Burrawang nut (Macrozamia communis), a major source of starch for Indigenous Australians around Sydney.
  • Ginkgo nuts (Ginkgo biloba) are a common ingredient in Chinese cooking. They are starchy, low in fat, protein and calories, but high in vitamin C.
  • Araucaria spp.
  • Bunya nut (Araucaria bidwillii) is native to Queensland, Australia. Nuts are the size of walnuts, and rich in starch.
  • Monkey-puzzle nut (Araucaria araucana) has nuts twice the size of almonds. Rich in starch. Roasted, boiled, eaten raw, or fermented in Chile and Argentina.
  • Paraná pine nut (Araucaria angustifolia) (or Brazil pine nut) is an edible seed similar to pine nuts.
  • Chilgoza pine (Pinus gerardiana), common in Central Asia. Nuts are used raw, roasted or in confectionery products.
  • Colorado pinyon (Pinus edulis), in great demand as an edible nut, with average annual production of 454 to 900 tonnes.
  • Korean pine (Pinus koraiensis), a pine-nut yielding species native to Asia.
  • Mexican pinyon (Pinus cembroides), found in Mexico and Arizona. Nuts are eaten raw, roasted, or made into flour.
  • Single-leaf pinyon (Pinus monophylla) grows in foothills from Mexico to Idaho. Eaten as other pine nuts. Also sometimes ground and made into pancakes.
  • Stone pine, or pignolia nut (Pinus pinea) is the most commercially important pine nut.
  • Pine nuts (Pinus spp.) Pine nuts can be toasted and added to salads and are used as an ingredient in pesto, among other regional uses.


Macadamia nuts are edible angiosperm seeds

These culinary nuts are seeds contained within a larger fruit.

  • Brazil nuts (Bertholletia excelsa) are harvested from an estimated 250,000–400,000 trees per year. Highly valued edible nut used in the confectionery and baking trades. Excellent dietary source of selenium.
    • Macadamia (Macadamia spp.) are primarily produced in Hawaii and Australia. Both species are native to Australia. They are a highly valued edible nut. Waste nuts are commonly used to extract an edible oil.
    • Macadamia nut (Macadamia tetraphylla) has a rough shell, and is the subject of some commercialization.
  • Queensland macadamia nut (Macadamia integrifolia) has a smooth shell, and is the principal commercial macadamia nut.
  • Paradise nut (Lecythis usitata), native to the Amazon rain forest, highly regarded by indigenous tribal people.
  • Peanut, or groundnut (Arachis hypogaea), originally from South America, has grown from a relatively minor crop to one of the most important commercial nut crops, in part due to the work of George Washington Carver at the beginning of the 20th century.
  • Peanut tree (Sterculia quadrifida) or bush peanut, native to Australia. One of the tastiest native nuts. Requires no preparation.
  • Soybeans (Glycine max) are used as a nut, in addition to their use as oil seeds.


2009 world-wide production, in tonnes







Cashew nuts








Betel nuts






Kola nuts


Brazil nuts


Other nuts


Currently roughly a dozen nuts are responsible for the bulk of world-wide nut production. The major nut-producing countries for each of the major commercial nuts are:

  • Almond: Afghanistan, Australia, Chile, Greece, Iran, Israel, Italy, Morocco, Portugal, Spain, Tunisia, Turkey, United States
  • Cashew: Brazil, China, India, Indonesia, Guinea-Bissau, Kenya, Mozambique, Nigeria, Tanzania, Thailand, Vietnam
  • Chestnut: China, Turkey, France, Greece, Hungary, Japan, Korea, Portugal, Spain and, more recently, Australia, Chile, New Zealand
  • Coconut: Brazil, India, Indonesia, Philippines, Sri Lanka
  • Hazelnut: France, Greece, Italy, Russia, Spain, Turkey, United States
  • Macadamia: Australia, Brazil, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Israel, Malawi, South Africa, Thailand, United States
  • Peanut: Argentina, China, India, Indonesia, Myanmar, Nigeria, Senegal, Sudan, United States, Vietnam
  • Pecan: Australia, Israel, Mexico, South Africa, United States
  • Pine nut: China, Italy, Lebanon, Portugal, Spain, Turkey
  • Pistachio: Greece, Iran, Italy, Syria, Turkey, United States
  • Walnut: Argentina, Chile, China, France, Greece, Hungary, India, Iran, Italy, Moldova, North Korea, Turkey, Ukraine, United States, Poland

International trade in exported edible nuts is substantial. In 2004, for example, exports amounted to $5.2 billion, with 56% of these exports coming from developing countries.

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