It’s difficult to imagine the culinary landscape of America without peanuts. Yet this is the reality for the nearly 15 million Americans who live with peanut allergies and for people who choose to avoid eating legumes. As we get ready to release the Nima Peanut Sensor, we decided to track the peanut’s prevalence through history and learn about current food trends surrounding one of the United States’ most commonly consumed legumes.
A Brief History
According to the National Peanut Board, peanuts were first introduced into America from Africa during the slave trade. It wasn’t until the early 1800s that peanuts first began to be commercially grown in the United States as food for livestock and people who belonged to the lowest social classes. Although a few cookbooks from this time used peanuts as an ingredient for dessert items, peanuts were typically eaten in simple preparations—raw, boiled, or roasted.
The Civil War
The Civil War changed the peanut’s fate in American cuisine. As many food sources were limited during the war, people realized they could substitute peanuts for items that were no longer available. In place of coffee, peanuts were often ground into a paste and blended with milk and sugar. Armies consumed peanuts on the battlefield, relying on their nutrients for sustenance.
PT Barnum’s traveling circus helped the peanut gain even more newfound popularity after the war as vendors at circus shows sold hot roasted peanuts to hungry crowds. This culinary tradition was soon adopted by baseball stadiums across the country.
By the early 1900s, labor-saving equipment had been invented to expedite peanut planting, harvesting, picking, and shelling processes. Peanuts, which were once difficult to grow and time-consuming to harvest by hand were now in high demand, especially products such as oil, roasted and salted nuts, peanut butter, and candy. Not long after, George Washington Carver—known as “the father of the peanut industry”—realized bug-ridden cotton fields could be easily turned into peanut fields. Once he figured out how to separate the peanut’s fats, oils, and sugars, he developed more than three hundred products from the peanut, including mayonnaise, buttermilk, and caramel.
The peanut has become a common ingredient in modern American cuisine because of its high levels of protein and healthy fat as well as its versatility. According to Pat Kearney, Med, R.D., and program director of The Peanut Institute, a non-profit organization focused on nutrition research and education, “peanuts are unique because they are perfectly suited to treat both malnutrition and over-nutrition.” Americans eat more than six pounds of peanut products each year and just about 85 percent of home kitchens in the United States have a jar of peanut butter stashed inside their pantries.
However, the peanut is off-limits to many American eaters, whether for serious medical reasons or by dietary choice. The peanut allergy is one of the most common food allergies, as reported by the Food Allergy Research & Education organization. Many schools have responded to this by adopting nut-free policies. However, even people without an allergy choose to avoid eating peanuts due to the high levels of phytic acid and toxic lectins in legumes, which can cause digestive and autoimmune problems. Popular food programs, such as the Paleo diet and Whole30 regimen, discourage eating legumes of any variety for these reasons.
Luckily, there are creative replacements for the peanut in today’s American cooking. Seeds, including pumpkin seeds (pepitas) and sunflower seeds, are an easy swap for nuts and pack a hearty punch of protein to salads or homemade granola bars. In addition, folks have found sunflower seed butter, almond butter, tahini, flax seed butter, hemp seed butter, and soynut butter all taste convincingly like peanut butter when spread between a thin layer of jelly and two slices of bread. Some people also use pretzels (gluten-free varieties included) to provide a salty peanut-like crunch to chicken coatings, desserts, and ice cream.
Of course, knowing exactly what’s in your plate when you aren’t making it yourself can be tough. Eating out while peanut-free can be a difficult (and sometimes nerve-wracking) experience, which is why there are many great tools that aim to help. To name a few:
- Food Allergy Research & Education (FARE) has an extensive resource page on peanut allergies.
- Snack Safely has a wonderful list of peanut-free snacks that they continually update with new products.
- Cooking blogs like Nut Free Wok, have an endless supply of delicious peanut-free (and nut-free) recipes you can cook at home.
- Nima will soon be launching the Nima Peanut Sensor – a quick and easy way to double check that your meal really is peanut-free.
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