Pine nuts have been enjoyed since ancient times. Roman soldiers ate them and they are mentioned by Greek authors as early as 300 BC. Nutritionally speaking, pine nuts contain many of the same healthy nutrients as other nuts, including healthy monounsaturated fats and antioxidants, but pine nuts are not actually nuts at all.
Pine nuts are the seeds of pine trees. They are found between the scales of pine cones, but while all pine trees yield pine nuts, only about 20 species have pine nuts large enough to be worth eating. It takes 18 months for most pine nuts to mature, although some species can take as long as three years. Ten days before the green cone starts to open, the nuts are ready for harvesting.
Pine nuts, also called pignolia or pignoli nuts, are one of the main ingredients in traditional pesto. These nuts come with a high price tag due to their slow growth and labor-intensive harvesting process. According to a Huffington Post article:
“The cones are dried in a burlap bag in the sun for 20 days, to speed up the process of drying and opening. The cones are then smashed (as a way to quickly release the seeds) and the seeds are separated by hand from the cone fragments.
Pine nuts have a second shell, which also has to be removed before eating … The shell varies from very thick and challenging to remove to thinner and therefore easier to handle.”
It will take between 15 to 25 years for pine trees to begin producing pine nuts, and about three times that time for the trees to reach ideal production. Most of the time, these nuts are harvested by hand, which contributes to the price.
Pine nuts are small, elongated, ivory-colored nuts that are about half an inch long. When eaten raw, they have a soft texture and a buttery, savory, and sweet flavor. You can lightly toast them to add some crunch and bring out their flavor.
Pine nuts are considered a delicacy in many parts of the world, and in the U.S. they’ve grown into a $100 million market (although about 80 percent of U.S. pine nuts are imported).
Eating pine nuts especially improves vitamins E and K dietary intake. A cup of pine nuts contains 91% of the recommended daily intake of vitamin K, and 63% of the daily value of vitamin E. Vitamin K is used to prevent blood clotting and promotes the calcification of bones rather than blood vessels. Vitamin E helps the body produce red blood cells, which are needed for oxygen transportation. Pine nuts and cashews are the only two tree nuts with any significant amount of vitamin K.
Pine nuts are also very high in manganese and zinc. A cup of pine nuts contains 594% of the recommended daily value of manganese and 58% of the recommended intake of zinc. Zinc is valued for its immune-boosting and wound-healing abilities, while manganese is essential for strengthening connective tissue and maintaining the body’s hormonal balance.
Pine nut consumption also improves magnesium and iron levels. A cup of pine nuts contains 41% of the recommended daily intake of iron, and 85% of your recommended daily amount of magnesium. Magnesium is essential for weight loss, lowering blood pressure, helping to prevent cancer, reducing fatigue, and stabilizing mood. Iron also reduces fatigue and improves muscle and brain function.
There are many additional reasons to eat pine nuts aside from the flavor:
1. Suppress your appetite: If you’re trying to lose weight, eating pine nuts may help. Research showed that fatty acids derived from pine nuts lead to the release of high amounts of cholecystokinin (CCK), an appetite-suppressing hormone. Women who consumed three grams of the fatty acid pinolenic acid prior to breakfast slowed the absorption of food in their gut and decreased their food intake by 37 percent.
2. Boost energy: Pine nuts contain nutrients that help boost energy, including monounsaturated fat, protein and iron. Pine nuts are also a good source of magnesium, low levels of which can lead to fatigue. Many Americans are deficient in magnesium.
3. Reduce heart disease risk: Pine nuts contain a synergistic blend of compounds known to support heart health. This includes monounsaturated fat, magnesium, vitamin E, vitamin K and manganese. Research suggests that the pinolenic acid in pine nuts supports healthy cholesterol levels and may have LDL-lowering properties by enhancing the liver’s LDL uptake.
4. Anti-aging antioxidants: Pine nuts contain a wealth of antioxidants, including vitamins A, B, C, D and E, and lutein. Antioxidants are crucial to your health as they are believed to help control how fast you age by combating free radicals, which are at the heart of age related deterioration. Antioxidants are nature’s way of defending your cells against attack by free-radicals.
5. Vision health: Pine nuts contain lutein, a carotenoid that may help you ward off eye diseases like age-related macular degeneration (AMD). Your macula is a small area just two millimeters wide, located in the back of your eye, in the middle portion of your retina. For reasons scientists have yet to pinpoint, parts of your retina and macula may become diseased. As AMD progresses, tiny, fragile blood vessels that leak blood and fluid begin to develop in your retina, causing further damage.
However, there is pigment in your macula that seems to act as a blue-light filter to protect your macular region against oxidation by light. In addition, this macular pigment can scavenge free radicals. Lutein is one of the predominant pigments in this area, and numerous studies have found that consuming foods rich in these nutrients can significantly reduce your risk of AMD (and non-Hodgkin lymphoma).
There are several reported cases of altered taste perception (cacogeusia or “pine mouth”) following eating pine nuts. It appears few days after eating the nuts and may persist for up to a week. However, “pine mouth” is self-limited condition and resolves on its own. While rare, pine nut syndrome can last a few weeks. It may be from one particular species of pine nut from China called Pinus armandii. It’s not harmful.
Pine nut allergy may occur in some sensitive individuals. The reaction symptoms may range from simple skin itching (hives) to severe form of anaphylactic manifestations, including breathing difficulty, pain abdomen, vomiting, and diarrhea. Cross-reactions may also occur with some other nuts and fruits, especially of Anacardiaceae family members such as mango, cashew nuts, pistachio, etc. Persons with known allergic reactions to these nuts may, therefore, need to be careful eating pine nuts.
How to Buy
With a high oil content, pine nuts quickly turn rancid if they’re not stored properly. If you buy them from a bulk provider, use your nose and avoid any nuts that smell rancid. Purchase them from a source with a high product turnover to ensure optimum freshness. Packaged pine nuts can be found in both the nut section of the supermarket as well as the gourmet Italian foods aisle. You can assume the nuts are all of a similar quality, but you may find those in the gourmet aisle will be sold in smaller quantities and are more expensive.
How to Store
Pine nuts should be kept in an airtight container, like a glass jar with a lid, in the refrigerator for one to two months. If you wish to extend the shelf-life, place pine nuts in a silicone bag (I like Stasher bags) in the freezer for three to six months. Once pine nuts turn rancid, they will give off an unpleasant odor and often develop a bitter taste. You may also notice that mold has appeared.
How to Cook
Use pine nuts in any recipe that calls for nuts. Add pine nuts to baked goods, granola, pasta dishes, salads, smoothie bowls, and anything else that could use extra flavor, crunchy texture, and a nutrition boost. You can also blend them into soups, sauces, and dips for a creamy texture that’s dairy-free and vegan-friendly.
Many recipes instruct you to toast the pine nuts before you use them, which brings out a deeper nutty flavor. To do this, heat a dry skillet over medium-low heat, then add the pine nuts and shake the pan frequently. Pine nuts can go from perfectly golden-brown to burned in the blink of an eye, and burned pine nuts taste unpleasantly bitter. Keep a close watch on the pan as you shake it, and remove the nuts from the pan as soon as they turn golden-brown, as they may burn if you leave them in the pan (even if you turn off the heat).