Snacking at a holiday gathering is one of the most natural things to do. Bringing a handful of party nuts to your mouth leaves you with a satisfying crunch. Although calories add up quickly, so do the nutrients and benefits from healthy fats. But are nuts as good for the environment as they are for you?
Sustainable nuts are both good for you and minimally impactful on the environment. The amount of water nuts need, the nutrients they give and take from the soil, what other plants can grow in the area, the amount of energy needed to harvest them, and even the distance they have to travel to land on your table all make a difference as to how beneficial or detrimental they are to the environment.
When it comes to trucking nuts to their destinations in the United States, pecans, which are grown in the South, and sunflower seeds, which come from the middle of the country, the energy needed and resulting carbon emissions are relatively minimal. If you go to pick your own nuts in your area, of course, there is virtually no carbon footprint.
Environmentalists push the idea of Brazil nuts as highly sustainable. Grown in the Amazon rainforest, these nuts depend on the diverse ecosystem found there. Because Brazil nuts are an important export, locals make it a priority to maintain the land and environment. The Brazil nut acts as an activist in its own merit. Hazelnuts have the advantage of a shorter commute, as the ones in the U.S. come mostly from Oregon, and they are long-lasting, are hardy, block erosion and require no pesticides.
Even though cashews take little from the land and help reduce erosion, the process to harvest them is demanding and even a little dangerous. Grown in tropical areas such as Vietnam, the nuts are harvested and shipped for processing, 60 percent of which happens in India. Because cashew shells contain trace amounts of acid, they can cause burns to the hands of the workers removing them. There are also alleged human rights violations by Vietnamese processors. But there are fair-trade cashew farmers in the U.S., so if you enjoy cashews, buy their product. Fair-trade producers use sustainable farming methods.
Almonds require a lot of water during growth and through the production process. The good news is that nut farmers in California have been revising their methods. In 2005, the board of directors of the Almond Board of California adopted a new premise: "Sustainable almond farming utilizes production practices that are economically viable and are based upon scientific research, common sense and a respect for the environment, neighbors and employees. The result is a plentiful, nutritious, safe food product." One of their initiatives includes in-field irrigation to improve water efficiency and more sustainable management of groundwater.
Even though they are technically legumes and do not grow on trees, peanuts share many of the positive health benefits of tree-grown nuts. Peanuts are high in heart-healthy monounsaturated fats and are a good source of vitamin E, niacin, folate, protein, manganese and antioxidants. Peanuts begin as an aboveground flower whose runners burrow into the ground, where the peanuts develop. Peanuts make their own fertilizer through nitrogen fixation, and if you buy organically grown peanuts or grow your own, you can enjoy peanuts without any fungicides.
Your holiday table is better with nuts as a snack by themselves or in recipes such as cookies, brownies and vegetable casseroles. Set out a bowl of simple mixed nuts; you can serve them plain, slightly salted or oven-roasted with a sweet or spicy coating. Check out the websites of Emeril Lagasse, Rachael Ray, Molly Sims and Pillsbury for creative holiday nut recipes that are good for the table or can be put in a container with a bow for a fabulous holiday gift.