A Million Years of Pistachios

A look at the health benefits of one of nature’s greatest nuts
By Adam Swenson

If you like pistachios you’re in good company: as in the Queen of Sheba, Israel (the man), Babylonian kings, Alexander the Great, and, more recently, the USA Water Polo team. And the enduring popularity of the pistachio through the ages is well-founded: it has many health-enhancing properties and a savory, unique taste that the Joy of Cooking describes as “haunting.” High praise indeed.

Though considered by most to be a nut, pistachios are (along with almonds, cashews, coconuts, and walnuts) a “culinary nut,” not a botanical nut. Looks like a nut, tastes like a nut, is evidently good enough for food types, but botanists note that the pistachio is actually the seed of a fruit.

Pistachios, wild and farmed

A forerunner to the modern pistachio was discovered at an archeological site in Israel’s Huleh Valley—the fossilized nut, along with some primitive nut-cracking tools, dates back to roughly 780,000 years ago. (I am going to go out on a limb here and hazard a guess that our ancestors have been eating pistachios for a million years … ponder that one.) A common food by 6750 BC, the picturesque pistachio trees were later featured in the famed Hanging Gardens of Babylon.

The modern pistachio, Pistacia vera, was first cultivated in the cooler parts of Iran and Iraq. A member of the cashew family, pistachio trees are now found throughout the Middle East and the US. They came to the US for commercial purposes after a botanist named William E. Whitehouse traveled to Persia in 1929 to collect pistachio nuts in hopes of finding one suitable for growing in America. He brought back about 20 pounds worth of nuts and they planted test patches. Ten years later, a clear winner emerged. They called the variety Kerman after a city in Persia where the nut was gathered. Scientists strengthened it by budding it to more hearty varieties and the American pistachio industry came into its own in the ‘60s.

Though the US is a relative newcomer to the scene, it is now the world’s largest producer of pistachios. 2013 US production is expected to be a record 250,000 tons—72 percent of which is exported. (Iran and Turkey are the next leading producers at 200,000 and 125,000 tons respectively.) Pistachio demand is skyrocketing worldwide (China’s imports have tripled in the last four years), as is production.

California grows 98.5 percent of the US pistachio crop, with a quarter of a million acres devoted to production. A desert plant, pistachio trees are quite hardy, tolerating winter cold down to 14 degrees and summer heat up to 118 degrees. They need an environment with low humidity and soil that drains well together with long, hot summers to ripen the fruit properly. Pistachio trees bear no fruit for five to six years and don’t really enter into peak production until 15 or 16 years, so would-be pistachio farmers must be patient indeed.

But when the harvest comes, it is plentiful. Each tree yields about 50,000 nuts every other year. When they ripen, the shells pop open with an audible crack, a trait bred into them by humans.

The health nut

Cardiovascular benefits, weight control, blood sugar management, and an inflammation fighter—if you needed a few good-for-you reasons to eat pistachios, try these on for size. Like many whole foods, pistachios offer a healthy collection of vitamins and minerals including ample doses of copper, phosphorus, magnesium, potassium, manganese, phytosterols, fiber (a hefty 13 grams per cup), thiamin, vitamin B6, and the antioxidant lutein.

Numerous studies have shown a positive shift in cholesterol profile that is tied to pistachio consumption, due to the high levels of heart-healthy fats and phytosterols they contain. One study showed that eating three ounces a day (about two handfuls) for one month raised HDL levels by 15 percent. It’s also worth noting that in this study, participants consumed their normal diets, so they took in an extra 400 calories with the three ounces of pistachios—but none of them experienced any significant weight gain. Another study found that eating three ounces of pistachios a day lowered LDL by 11.6 percent.

And as to the fat issue … there is a widely held view that eating fats is unhealthy and makes you fat. To test this, UCLA did a study in 2010 that divided obese individuals into two groups and fed them a diet that resulted in a 500 calorie a day deficit. The only difference between the two groups was that one group had an afternoon snack of 240 calories worth of pistachios, whereas the other group has 220 calories worth of low-fat salted pretzels. At the end of the study, the pretzel eaters had lost .6 points of BMI and had average triglycerides of 132, whereas the pistachio group had lost 1.3 points of BMI and had average triglycerides of 88. Moral of the story? Eating fats can help make you thin.

Pistachios have also been shown to help reduce blood sugar spikes when eaten with processed carbs, and the lutein in them is a potent antioxidant. Calorie for calorie they have more antioxidant punch than most fruits.

On the other hand, pistachios do have an unfavorable omega-6 to omega-3 ratio. This isn’t ideal, but if you’re taking an omega-3 supplement or eating your fish (and we hope you are) it shouldn’t keep you from eating them in moderation.

Roasted, salted, shelled?

The question of roasting always seems to come up with nuts. Roasting does not seem to make a big difference in the nutritional profile of pistachios, so if you prefer the flavor of roasted pistachios, go for it. As to getting salted or unsalted, that’s a personal decision as well. Conventional wisdom says we need to lower our sodium consumption, but the recent NHANES studies show that sodium corresponds with a lower death risk. If you’re going to get salted, get sea salt—it tastes better and is much better for you. If you find red pistachios, well … pistachios aren’t red. Unless you’re a fan of food dye, skip those and go for the naturally green ones.

And of course you can get the in the shell or already shelled. One study found that having to crack open the shells meant snackers ate 41 percent less, so if want to eat less, having to crack shells may be a good option.

Snacks, meals, and desserts

Due to their nutritional profile and nutty, haunting goodness, pistachios go well with a lot of things. A handful of pistachios (with or without other nuts or berries) makes for a good snack. One ounce (50 nuts) has 160 calories, three grams of fiber, six grams of protein, and 11 grams of good fats—a perfect midmorning, get-me-through-to-lunch tider.

For breakfast, pistachios go well with dried fruit to give a little zing to morning oatmeal. And, if you’re an oatmeal eater, the fat content in the pistachios will slow the blood glucose spike you can otherwise get with such a carb-heavy meal.

For lunch or dinner, mixing pistachios in with couscous is a nice flavor complement, and they are delicious on salads or as a crumbled coating on fish. They also go well with pastas or in fall-themed thick and hearty soups.

Whether you’re eating them on the go or incorporating them into your main dishes, give this venerable culinary nut a try. You’ll be glad you did, and your heart will thank you too.