Peanuts aren't nuts, but are paleo dieters better off cutting peanuts out?

Today I learned that peanuts aren't in fact nuts, but legumes. Despite avid research to prove this wrong, the Mayo Clinic kicked my last straw of disbelief, by noting, "Even peanuts — which are technically not a nut, but a legume, like beans — seem to be relatively healthy."

I originally heard about this from a colleague that is all about the CrossFit craze. A common dietary trend that couples well with this method of exercise is the "Paleolithic Diet," which is also known as the "Stone Age Diet," or, "Cave Man Diet."

After picking her brain on what this caveman-inspired diet is all about, she said the protein-driven diet would be challenging for vegetarians because grains, diary and beans are forbidden. No whole wheat? More importantly, NO PEANUT BUTTER? Founder of the diet, Dr. Ben Balzer notes,
 

Close-up of a handful of peanuts

 

Grains, beans and potatoes are full of energy but all are inedible in the raw state as they contain many toxins.

Like many, my "Strawberry Shortcake" lunchbox was routinely equipped with a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Since becoming vegetarian, I have utilized peanut butter as a go-to protein source. So upon hearing this news, I had to find more information on the toxins Balzer refers to. Able to shed some light, Dallas Hartwig over at Whole9 wrote a fantastic post, "Peanut Manifesto", on the down and dirty details of peanuts.

Specifically, he noted two main reasons why peanuts are harmful:

When peanuts grow, they can harbor carcinogenic mold called an “aflatoxin“. This goes for conventional and organic peanuts. They longer they sit (during shipping, for example), especially in warm temperatures and high humidity, the more mold grows. And as it’s nearly impossible to buy peanuts “local”, as they are only grown in a few Southern locations, more likely than not that even your organic peanuts are suspect.

The far bigger concern, however, is that peanuts contain lectins which are believed to have inflammatory and atherogenic potential. Most plants contain lectins, some of which are toxic, inflammatory, or both. Many of these lectins are resistant to cooking and to digestive enzymes, and some have been scientifically shown to have significant GI toxicity in humans. Lectins from grains (especially wheat) and legumes (including peanuts and soybeans) are most commonly associated with aggravation of inflammatory and digestive diseases in the body. (As an aside, dairy from cows fed grain-based diets can also contain these grain-derived lectins.)

So it looks like no matter whether you prefer organic or ordinary peanuts, consuming peanuts ups the ante of contracting disease.

On the same site that Hartwig cited to explain aflatoxins, it notes that aflatoxins are found in a variety of foods, but most commonly in corn, peanuts and cottonseed. After some research, it seems that cottonseed can be found in a variety of items, such as processed foods and cattle feed (California Animal Health & Food Safety - Feeding Cottonseed to Dairy Cattle .PDF). Interesting.

Color me skeptical, but in a recent article in the NYTimes, "The New Age Cavemen and the City" Joseph Goldstein wrote about a few New York-based gents on the paleo diet and quoted one imbecile's behavior:

Mr. Averbukh is a pre-Promethean sort of caveman. Much of his nourishment comes from grass-fed ground beef, which he eats raw. In a bow to the times, he sometimes uses a fork.

The other cavemen in New York find Mr. Averbukh’s preference for raw beef a little strange.

I recognize that not all folks on the paleo diet are as extreme as Averbukh, in fact that same colleague mentioned above said the gents were ridiculous and douchey. So this isn't a testament to how all paleo dieters are; however, the fundamental question at hand is how is eating raw meat, or cooked meat for that matter, anymore harmful than eating peanut butter? Especially if my research proves accurate and cottonseed is also in cattlefeed -- isn't that a roundabout way of getting the same aflatoxins?

All nit-picking aside, I find this information about peanuts helpful for vegetarians. We can opt for even better health by swapping out our beloved peanut butter to something that Hartwig suggests, sunflower seed butter or almond butter.

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Comments (10) Read through and enter the discussion with the form at the end
Bekka - January 26, 2010 1:50 PM

Ashley -
I love your new blog, it's very fresh, the design is a great fit for the title.

Also, I gave up peanuts, but have to say that almond butter is no substitute for the great taste of peanut butter. I was hugely disappointed in almond butter and have given up the nut-butters altogether now.

Ashley - January 26, 2010 3:39 PM

Bekka--

Thank you, that's a major prop considering you're a designer yourself!

I haven't had almond butter yet, but am looking forward to giving it a whirl. The same colleague I talked about in the post above, she brought in some sunflower seed butter and it was delicious!

I know sunflower seeds are pretty affordable, so I'm looking forward to whipping up my own and seeing how it goes (or caving to Trader Joes and buying a jar).

Keep me in the know of any other alternatives you come across because cutting out nut-butters...I can't even imagine!

Copperboom - May 10, 2010 10:51 PM

There is a misconception about the Paleo diet. It is not only heavy protein, it is also heavy on vegetables, and good fat source (avocado, seeds, nuts). The fundamentals idea of the Paleo diet aren't based on eating lots on protein, it is based on this: Eat meat and vegetables, nuts and seeds, some fruit, little starch and no sugar. Keep intake to levels that will support exercise but not body fat.

I am a crossfitter and I don't eat meat more than 10-12 meals a week.

Paleo diet is a life style. When I eat chocolate, I eat raw cocoa, raw coconut, palm sugar, etc.

knowledgebomb - September 18, 2010 6:02 AM

Ashley,

The key point is grass fed beef. The lectins in cottonseed/corn/peanuts aren't an issue as long as the cow only eats grass :)

Chris - February 27, 2011 10:59 AM

This article states that peanuts clog arteries - "peanut oil was found to be so atherogenic that it continues to be routinely fed to rabbits to stimulate atherosclerosis to study the disease itself"
http://www.thepaleodiet.com/nutritional_tools/fatsnuts.shtml

I find that almost butter tastes much better when you sprinkle a little salt on top.

adam synnott - June 9, 2011 2:37 PM

Ummm, there is no difference between the "contents" of peanut butter and some other nuts like almonds.
Almond butter here in Australia is a lot more expensive than peanut butter, probably because we have a large local peanut industry.
I just can't see any reason not to eat peanut butter on the paleo diet. The whole basis of the paleo diet is to eat foods "found" rather than "processed".
Peanuts have been around for thousands of years, in their natural state.
Wheat and rice are developed to give us bigger grains, peanuts are not. They are the same now as they were in Paleolithic times. The would have been eaten by Paleolithic people.
It's not my business to tell you your business, but I'm certainly not going to stop eating peanut butter because of A report about "possible" carcinogens in a mould on some peanuts that were left on a ship too long.
Peanuts in vast quantities will clog arteries, so will most other nuts. So, I will continue to eat peanut butter in a normal diet. I hope you all do the same, and don't cowtow to the info nazis.
Cheers, adam . x x x x

C$ - December 10, 2011 7:27 AM

Adam, it's a good rule of thumb to read an article before commenting on it.

Peanuts are not nuts, and they are rarely unprocessed. Your ignorance of the paleo diet does nothing to help your postulation of its basis, as nobody would ever claim that everything found in nature is edible.

Chris - February 8, 2012 7:41 AM

Thank your for putting this information about peanuts together.

I was also in disbelief about the detrimental health effects of peanut products when I read up on the paleo diet. Despite reading this article, I'm gonna stick with my mashed up peanut-salt mixture until other comparable nut butters becomes more affordable or when death/illness by peanut consumption exceeds that of meat. It took enough will power to get off the dairy train after a 20 years of love for milk/cheese/yogurt/ice cream!

Regarding the paleolithic diet, I think it would gain a lot more popularity if it was more forgiving and accommodating when directed towards general audiences. The gold standard guidelines should be made known, but without scolding the food groups that are not included. I have encountered a few people that follow the paleo lifestyle (mainly crossfitters) that seem to look upon carbohydrates as the spawn of satan. As carbohydrates, grains, and legumes do contain toxins, anti-nutrients, lectins, and enzyme blockers, they also provide for a massive food source for most of the world's population, especially for the large number of people that live at or below the poverty line. These people are obviously unable to afford such a diet. I support the idea of the paleo diet, but not the way some of its followers share it with others. This is not directed against anyone on this forum.

Again, thanks for the article Ashley!

Chris - February 29, 2012 6:02 AM

Ashley,

I'm hoping that almond butter becomes less expensive sometime. It's such a great substitute for peanut butter, and so yummy! Unfortunately, this article from a year ago says differently:

http://www.almondboard.com/outlook/2011/march/eNewsletter-march2011.asp

The best substitution I've found is for milk, I now go to almond milk (almond breeze or silk). Although I'm not able to drink almond milk in massive amounts (more $$) like I used to with skim milk, it does make a really nice substitute for tea, coffee, cereal, oatmeal, etc. One thing it can't do is complement a classic oreo like a good ol' glass of skim milk.

I have heard there is soy yogurt, but haven't tried it. I tried soy cheese (daiya brand), but I had a problem with all of the ingredient required to make it. It has just come down to pure willpower when offered dairy. My friends and family have helped accommodate very much too (avoiding cheesy recipes, etc).
I recently learned about coconut ice cream and am psyched to try it!! I'll let you know how I like it.

Take care

Elcy - March 13, 2012 10:05 AM

Regarding this comment:

"Regarding the paleolithic diet, I think it would gain a lot more popularity if it was more forgiving and accommodating when directed towards general audiences. The gold standard guidelines should be made known, but without scolding the food groups that are not included. I have encountered a few people that follow the paleo lifestyle (mainly crossfitters) that seem to look upon carbohydrates as the spawn of satan. As carbohydrates, grains, and legumes do contain toxins, anti-nutrients, lectins, and enzyme blockers, they also provide for a massive food source for most of the world's population, especially for the large number of people that live at or below the poverty line. "

I'm pretty sure they have that diet, it's just called something else. How do you expect to change a diet that was eaten thousands to millions of years ago? I don't even understand your suggestion, that's like saying "more vegetarians would eat meat if it just came from something other than animals."

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