Niki Bezzant says there's no such thing as a super food. But nuts and seeds come pretty close.
I'm always banging on about how there's no such thing as a super food; there are no magic foods that are going to transform our heath and make us glow.
But there are foods that are super-healthy additions to our diets. And nuts and seeds are up there on that list.
We probably all know that nuts are good for us. They're a great protein-packed snack, and they contain healthy fats – including omega-3 in some cases – and vitamins, minerals and fibre.
It's this great combination of goodness that is likely responsible for nuts' health benefits. For example, it's been found that eating a handful of nuts (about 30g) every day is associated with a reduction in the risk of heart disease. Nuts are a key part of several well-researched diets that are known to be great for health: the Mediterranean diet springs to mind, along with the blood-pressure-lowering DASH diet, which recommends 50g of nuts each day.
Nuts vary in their content of protein, fat and fibre – peanuts (not technically a nut, actually; they're a legume, but usually considered in the nut category) are a bit of a fibre star; macadamias are the highest-fat nuts with about 75 per cent fat. Walnuts are high in ALA – the plant form of omega-3. Nuts also contain cholesterol-lowering plant sterols.
Brazil nuts deserve special mention for their selenium – an important mineral we tend not to get enough of here in New Zealand, since it's low in our soils. A couple of Brazil nuts each day will give us our daily quota of selenium.
Nuts are energy-dense, because of their fat content, but that's not a bad thing. There's evidence to suggest nuts don't cause weight gain, and may actually help with weight loss. It's not clear why, but it may be that the satiety they provide – helping us feel full – means we're less likely to eat other, less-healthy foods.
Health-wise there are nuts and nuts; salted, honey-roasted or tamari nuts are not ideal because of the salt and sugar that's added; nut-based snack packs with chocolate and dried fruit means added sugar and carbohydrate, as does the addition of coatings like yoghurt.
Seeds are nuts' under-appreciated cousin. They have many of the same benefits as nuts: fibre, healthy fats, minerals and vitamins. I like seeds - especially toasted pumpkin or sunflower seeds - as an addition to meals: sprinkled as a garnish on salads, vegetable dishes and soups. Having a selection of seeds in the pantry and using them regularly can give your meals a real health boost. Plus, they add delicious flavour and crunchy, contrasting texture.
Seed "butters" are great, too; tahini is the one we're probably most familiar with (made from sesame seeds) but a seed butter (homemade or bought) made from pumpkin seeds or sunflower seeds is super-tasty and makes a nice change from peanut butter. If you have a reasonably powerful blender, you can make your own nut or seed butters in no time, with no additives.
Chia seeds are a special case in the seed world; they are super-high in fibre, and have the ability to turn into a kind of gel when soaked; this can be used as an egg replacer in cooking or can be made into puddings or added to smoothies.
So-called "activated" nuts and seeds are popping up more and more. Activated nuts and seeds have been soaked in water, and then dried at low temperature. The idea being promoted here is that this increases the nutrient value and breaks down compounds called phytates, making them easier to digest.
There's not a lot of evidence to show soaking like this does anything to improve the nutrition of nuts (which are already pretty nutritious), just as there's not really good evidence that phytates are too much of a problem for most people. Activated nuts won't hurt you – but I'd question whether they are worth the extra money. And of course if you want to, there's nothing stopping you activating your nuts at home.
Whether they are activated or not, however, if you're not including nuts and seeds regularly in your diet, they're a great thing to add in. They're like super-tasty vitamin pills; Much more fun to eat and much less expensive than a supplement.