Pecans are so much more than the main ingredient for pecan pie. For one, they are packed with essential nutrients that help protect us against cardiovascular disease (CVD).
Referred to as Carya illinoinensis in scientific literature, pecans are a member of the Juglandaceae family, which makes it a relative of the hickory and the walnut. Pecans are also considered native to North America; their existence has predated even the earliest human settlements. Despite being referred to as a nut, pecans are actually drupes, a type of fruit where the fleshy part surrounds the pit containing the seeds. Some examples of drupes include cherries, peaches, and plums. However, in the case of pecans, the part consumed is the seed inside the pit and not the fleshy part.
The tree is usually grown in the southern and Midwestern U.S., and it accounts for nearly 80 percent of global pecan production. In particular, the states of Georgia, New Mexico, and Texas produce at least 75 percent of all U.S. pecans, with totals reaching more than 200 million pounds in 2014. Consumption is also high, with pecans being the third most consumed nut in the U.S., behind almonds and English walnuts.
Pecans pack a lot of nutrients, despite their size. They’re known to contain essential fatty acids, at least 17 different vitamins and minerals, and various phenols and phytosterols. They’re also loaded with calories and have one of the highest fat content out of all culinary nuts, after the macadamia. Pecans are also an abundant source of monounsaturated fatty acids (MUFAs), primary oleic acid, and the polyunsaturated fatty acid (PUFA) linoleic acid which is a good source of omega-6. Studies have shown that increasing your MUFA and PUFA intake while lowering saturated and trans fats consumption, is linked to a reduced risk of CVD.
The nuts are potent sources of antioxidants, in particular, phenols, condensed tannins, hydrolyzable tannins, and tocopherol isomers which help prevent cell damage due to oxidation. Phenolic acids, especially, have been found to inhibit bacterial growth, as well as prevent cell mutation – a common precursor to cancer. At least 18 different pecan cultivars in the U.S. contain high levels of antioxidants, according to a study.
The shells are also great sources of bioactive compounds, with some reports saying that the levels are higher than that of actual pecan nutmeat. In vivo studies have shown that tea made with pecan nut shells was able to attenuate liver damage, but it has yet to be proven in human models.
Gamma-tocopherol, an isomer of vitamin E, is abundant in pecans. While other food items have alpha-tocopherol isomers, the derivative from pecans is a stronger antioxidant, according to in vivo tests. It also can clear the body of reactive nitrogen oxide species, which reduces inflammation in the body.