You might know that pecans are good for you, but did you know they are an authentic American superfood? Did you know all the work that goes into harvesting a single nut?
I didn’t until recently. I thought little of these tasty nuts, other than that I liked to make granola with them. My experience was with a 2 lb. bag from Costco, from which I’d shake handfuls into my granola, yogurt or salads.
Everything changed when my family moved to Texas eight years ago and my husband and I realized our new house was in a small corner of a former pecan orchard. Every autumn now, our lot is over-run with crows and squirrels stealing nuts from the 100-year-old trees. We wake to the “Caw, Caw, Caw!” of crows dropping pecans on our roof and driveway trying to open them. Evening brings out the doves and foxes who dine on the nut fragments left behind.
How pecans are harvested
I’ve learned how to gather as many nuts as I can. In a good year, I harvest 300 lbs. I dry them if necessary, and then store them in brown paper bags for a month or two. Then in mid-January, I haul them to the garden center where they are weighed and then poured into an industrial nut cracking machine. Each pecan rides up a little conveyor belt and is cracked with just the right amount of pressure to open its paper shell skin without pulverizing it.
Then the tedious work starts. Hours and hours of shelling with a metal pick is necessary to separate the pecan from its shell. I bag them and immediately store them in the deep freeze. Because of their high fat content, pecans go rancid if left at room temperature for too long. So, it’s best to store them in a sealed container, refrigerated or frozen as soon as possible.
But in the end, all the work is worth it! Why? Because I can now taste the difference between freshly harvested pecans and store-bought. Read on to learn more about pecans.
Five things you probably didn’t know about pecans
They are not real nuts
While the culinary world calls pecans “tree nuts” along with almonds and walnuts, botanically they are all drupes. What’s a drupe? Drupes are fruit in the same family as peaches, cherries or plums. With a peach, you eat the fleshy outside and leave the pit. But with pecans we discard the fleshy husks and then crack the pit to eat the seed inside. Coconuts are also considered a one-seeded drupe, or dry drupe. Hazelnuts, acorns and chestnuts are true nuts.
Highest Antioxidant Content
Pecans rank with the highest antioxidant content of any tree nut. They are among the top 20 antioxidant-rich foods, according to the U.S. Pecan Growers Council. That’s a pretty exclusive group with foods like salmon, olive oil and avocados. Pecans contain phytonutrients, flavonoids in particular, which studies show consuming is linked to reduced inflammation, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, cancer, and cognitive diseases like Alzheimer’s and dementia.
Pecans can Lower your LDLs
Studies show that eating 2 handfuls of pecans (about 1.5 oz.) can indeed lower your low-density lipoprotein), or LDL cholesterol, also called referred to “bad” cholesterol. Pecans are packed with protein, healthy, unsaturated fat, and fiber that can give you a mid-day energy pick-me-up. Just try to eat them raw, as adding sodium and sugar to them detracts from their goodness.
Aside from rare black walnuts, which are from North America, pecan trees are the only major tree that produces edible nuts that is 100 percent American. Some 80 percent of all pecans available in the world are grown in the United States. All varieties of pecans come from native U.S. pecan trees, according to the U.S. Pecan Growers Council. These tree have grown wild in North America for millions of years. Pecans are now grown commercially in 15 states in the southern U.S., including including Alabama, Arkansas, Arizona, California, Florida, Georgia, Kansas, Louisiana, Missouri, Mississippi, North Carolina, New Mexico, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Texas.
There are more than 1,000 varieties
Yes, you got that. There are more than 1,000 varieties of pecans, many named for Native American Indian tribes. Only about 20 are in commercial use. U.S. pecan growers have developed new cultivars with natural non-GMO methods to ensure consistent superior quality. Native pecans have a harder shell and tend to be smaller. Developed cultivars (often nicknamed paper shell) are what you think when you buy pecans in the grocery store baking aisle. The word pecan comes from the word Algonquin (a Native American language and tribe) origin pacan that translates to “nuts requiring a stone to crack.”
As a quasi-pecan orchardist, I often get asked what my favorite pecan pie recipe is. I don’t really have one, as I love the fresh taste of plain, raw nuts. We sprinkle them on salads or throw them into cookies, on a Mexican Chocolate Cake or just eat them for a snack solo. Once you taste fresh nuts, you, too, will lose the desire to add sugary toppings or add extra salt or savory flavorings. I know up to 1 percent of the population is allergic to tree nuts. But if you don’t have an allergy, I encourage you to also seek out fresh pecans. Most orchards sell them online and some even allow U-Pick. Check out Sunnyland Farms for Georgia Pecans or any pecan orchards near you. It’s a perfect gift for the holidays!
Patty Yeager is the managing editor of Smart Lifebites. Her other stories include: Are you tea savvy? Health benefits are just the start and a No Excuses Guide for Starting a Vegetable Garden.