Garden to Table
December 20, 2009
After facing a rocky period in the marketplace following a recall that sent peanut product sales plummeting back in January 2009, peanuts – and peanut butters – are back with a vengeance. Up 18.6% in August 2009 volume sales over the same period in 2008, consumer confidence in peanuts has returned.
And for good reason. Peanuts and peanut butter provide 12% of the Recommended Daily Allowance per serving of protein, are good sources of fiber, low in cholesterol and saturated fat, and chock full of vitamins and minerals. Peanuts are also rich in monounsaturated fatty acids, which have been shown to help lower “bad” LDL cholesterol levels.
Peanuts likely originated in South America, where for over 3,000 years, people have been using peanuts in their pottery and crafts – though no fossil records exist. Eventually, as the Spanish explored the New World, peanuts found their way into Mexico, Africa and Asia, and ultimately, into North America, where they were later grown commercially. Civil War troops consumed peanuts as a diet staple, and by 1870, New York street vendors were selling the tasty treats on every corner. Peanut butter was patented in 1895.
Although “nut” is part of the name “peanut,” peanuts are actually not nuts, but legumes that grow underground. The four basic varieties are Virginia-type (usually roasted and processed in the shell), Runner (used in peanut butters and snacks), Spanish-type (used in peanut butters, snacks and candies) and Valencia (usually roasted in the shell or boiled). Ten U.S. states grow peanuts, with Georgia growing about 42% of the domestic crop. The U.S. grows about 10% of the world’s peanuts; other growers include Senegal, Sudan, Brazil, Argentina, South Africa and Nigeria.
Peanuts start as a flower above ground but eventually grow under the soil’s surface, like a root. Peanut kernels are planted in late spring, and the crop is cultivated one to three times a season to control weeds. A good peanut crop requires approximately 120 to 160 frost-free days of growth with adequate moisture. Once mature, the crop is harvested, left in the sun for a few days to dry, and then separated from the vines of the plant for processing. Each brown shell, or pod, contains two or three peanut kernels.
Shelled peanuts should be stored in a sealed container in the refrigerator or freezer to avoid rancidity, and can keep for up to three to six months in the fridge or freezer, respectively. Peanuts in their shells can last a little longer.
Peanut allergies affect a small percentage of children, and should be taken seriously. The U.S. peanut industry is funding research to develop a peanut allergy vaccine but the only way to currently avoid a dangerous reaction is to avoid exposure. In fact, many schools have declared themselves “peanut free” for this reason.
With a hard year behind them, U.S. peanut farmers continue to face challenges as persistent rains and flooding throughout the Southeast have made this year’s harvest tough. News about the recovering industry is promising, however, with increases in peanut butter sales recorded each month since March 2009.