When I was a kid, my parents used to keep a bowl of unshelled, mixed nuts on the coffee table. They were sort of decorative, but occasionally my little sister and I would arm ourselves with the nutcracker and snack on nuts we cracked ourselves. It was a fun little kid activity, but was it serving our health? Are there practical reasons that you should crack your own nuts?
The answer is….maybe? The first thing I wondered about was whether nuts lose nutrition when they’re exposed to air. There doesn’t seem to be a lot of research on how shelling impacts the nutritional value of nuts, but this article from Berkeley Wellness suggests that nuts will keep better and longer if you leave them in their shells.
The Berkeley Wellness piece does suggest one health benefits to cracking your own nuts: it slows you down. When you have a tin of shelled almonds, it’s easy to grab a handful. And another. And another. Because almonds are delicious. But if you had to crack each almond, chances are you wouldn’t overdo it.
Nuts are healthy, but they’re calorically dense. To get the health benefit of eating nuts, you only need to eat three tablespoons per day. More than that doesn’t seem to add any extra health benefits, but it does add a lot of fat and calories to your diet, which in turn leaves less room for other healthy foods like leafy greens, fresh fruit and whole grains.
When Not to Crack Your Own Nuts
Of course, if you’re buying nuts for cooking, you’re best off choosing shelled. If a recipe calls for a cup and a half of hazelnuts, like these Raw Chocolate-Hazelnut Truffles, cracking all of those hazelnuts is going to add a lot of unnecessary time to your recipe.
There’s one type of nut that’s impossible to buy in its shell: cashews. That’s because cashew shells contain an oil called urushiol. Cashews are actually related to poison ivy, and truly raw cashews are poisonous. Urushiol is the same oil that makes most people break into a rash if they brush against a poison ivy leaf. Even cashews labeled raw at the store are actually steamed. The steaming process destroys the urushiol, making cashews safe to eat.
PCV Media and Peace Corps Ghana put together an informative video about how how cashew production works. It takes a lot to make cashews safe to eat! Check it out: