Have you ever wondered why peanuts play such a permanent role in North American society and abroad? With all of the growing incidences of peanut allergies and horrific stories of unsuspecting people literally dropping dead after merely touching the substance to their lips, how could it even be possible that we still see this product in its many forms (peanut butter spread, cookies, candy, cooking oil, etc.) on grocery store shelves? If this were a pharmaceutical medicine, type of alcohol, or even a brand of glue, the regulatory-bodies-that-be would arrive in HAZMAT suits and usher the danger out in vacuum-sealed containers. Well, the answer is that peanuts are actually pretty amazing, and unfortunately often misunderstood.
The Nature of Peanuts
Myth #1: Some people believe that peanuts must grow on peanut trees. The vast majority of edible nuts grow this way; just think of chestnuts, almonds, cashews, brazil nuts, walnuts, and more.
The Facts: Peanuts do not grow on peanut trees. Peanut plants are herbaceous annuals (meaning they grow fresh from seed every year, and that the plants only last one season), usually growing less than 4 feet tall; the peanut plant does not bear any resemblance to a tree. Peanuts are not even nuts; heralding from the Fabaceae (bean) family, peanuts are a type of fruit called a legume. Garden peas that are commonly grown in our area are also legumes, and accordingly the peanut plant looks remarkably similar to a pea plant. As with garden peas and any other legume, one of the very notable things about peanut plants is their ability to absorb nitrogen from the atmosphere, transport it to their roots, and “fix” it in the soil. Peanut plants are wonderful revitalizers of the soil.
Myth #2: Many people know that peanuts grow underground and, as a result, reason that the brown edible morsels must be part of the root system.
The Facts: While it is true that peanuts are harvested from the soil, peanuts are not part of the root system of the peanut plant; they are the fruit that result from it’s reproductive processes. The botanical name of peanuts – Arachis hypogaea – describes the nature of the plant perfectly; “Arachis” refers to plants with yellow pea flowers and pods that ripen below the surface of the soil, and “hypogaea” further enforces the interesting way that peanut fruits ripen: “underground.” Peanut plants begin growing just like most other legumes: they sprout from a seed, grow a leafy top, and, when mature enough, produce flowers. Having the ability to reproduce without a partner, self-fertile peanuts pollinate themselves. Once the peanut flower has been fertilized, the peanut plant forces the flower stalk to grow quickly. It elongates to the point that the fertilized ovary (or “pod”) touches and is driven into the ground. Aided by hot weather, ample rains, and adequate nutrition, ripe peanut fruit are ready to be pulled from the ground approximately 100 days after flowering.
Myth #3: Peanuts are bad for you; that’s why people are becoming allergic to them.
The Facts: Peanuts are one of the most nutrition-packed foods for their size and weight. High in unsaturated fat, full of antioxidants, a good source of fiber and minerals, loaded with protein, and replete with over 30 essential nutrients, peanuts are one of the most inexpensive, healthiest foods on the world market. The unfortunate fact that allergies are rising, in Canada and other developed countries, has been a source of intense study for the scientific and medical communities. Along with focus on issues of air quality and peanut crop over-regulation (peanuts are one of the most regulated – meaning treated with pesticides – crops in the world), there has been a real interest in the North American tendency to over-protect our children from dirt and pathogens. The current leading theory in regards to peanut allergies (as with many other allergies) is that we as a society have insulated our young children so much from bacteria, fungi, and viruses that the immune systems of our youngsters have not been allowed to develop properly and as a result mistakenly detect harmless substances as dangerous; allergic reactions therefore develop. Researchers have coined this explanation to the rising trend of allergies as the “hygiene hypothesis.”
Myth #4: Hundreds of people in Canada die from peanut allergies each year.
The Facts: Approximately 100 people do die from allergies in a given year in Canada, but not uniquely from peanuts; rather, the statistic represents the mortality rate for all food allergies combined. Where there is an estimated 54% of the population that suffers from one allergen or another, only 1.1% suffer from peanut allergies (the number is slightly higher in children at 1.2%, and 20% of these children outgrow the allergy by age 6.) Concern over the rising number of peanut allergies is also somewhat over-reported: the fact of the matter is that all allergies are on the rise in developed nations. The increased percentages relative to peanut allergies may well be attributed to the fact that peanut consumption has also risen significantly over the past decade.
Peanuts are a wonderful food for those that can tolerate them. Amazing nutritional attributes and inexpensive cultivation make these legumes invaluable the world around. Although developed countries are experiencing rising food allergy rates, including peanut sensitivities, there is much research underway that aims to unlock the inner workings of the immune system so that we can develop adequate and effective antidotes and immunizations to allergens. Along with being delicious and healthy, peanuts are fun and rewarding to grow. Start raw peanut seed indoors in April and transplant into a large outdoor pot in May; you will enjoy fresh peanuts come August!