The health benefits of pistachio nuts (low in calories and high in protein) make them the top choice for a healthy snack. Here are some pistachio nutrition facts, advantages and side effects
Pistachio or Pistacia vera, known as pista in short, is a crunchy and delicious tree nut belonging to the cashew family. A bushy, deciduous tree with large, gray leaves, the pistachio plant is native to Western Asia, specifically Iran and Turkey.
Believed to have originated in Syria, pistachio cultivation spread to the United States (US) only in the 19th century. But now, the US is the world's largest producer of this tree nut.
Pistachio offers numerous health benefits as it is rich in fiber, unsaturated fats, key amino acids and minerals. Rising awareness about the nutritional value and health benefits of pista has turned it into a tasty, healthy alternative to sugary/oily snacks. This has led to a huge increase in its demand.
Pista is now used as an ingredient in many dishes and for flavoring some types of dessert, ice cream and milkshake. Pista badam burfi is a popular sweet in India with pista as the main ingredient.
The pistachio nut is actually the seed of the tree. It has a tan shell with a yellowish to greenish kernel inside. According to experts, once the shell splits and exposes the kernel, the nut can be considered mature. The nuts with unsplit shells are considered immature.
Why are pistachios sold in shells?
Unlike most nuts, pistachios are sold with their shells. Leaving the shells on while salting and roasting the nuts cuts down one step in their industrial processing and helps save costs.
However, if you prefer pista nuts without shells, you will have to pay more - nearly double the price of the ones with shells.
Why are pistachios so expensive?
- Pistachio is cultivated in only 3 countries - the United States, Turkey and Iran. This is because of the pistachio tree's specific weather requirements - cool winters to release buds from dormancy and hot humid summers for ripening.
- A pistachio tree takes around 5 to 7 years to bear fruit and 15 to 20 years to become fully mature and attain peak production.
- The tree bears fruit only once in two years (biennial bearing). This means that a year of good crop is followed by a year of lower yield.
- Also, since the pistachio nuts have to be sorted manually, the cost of labor is high.
Pistachio nutrition facts
Most of us know that pistachio is a highly nutritious nut. But, there are quite a few other reasons to eat pista as well, such as:
- It is rich in antioxidants.
- It is low in calories, yet high in protein.
- It is high in fiber.
- It helps lower blood sugar.
- It helps in weight loss.
- It promotes healthy gut bacteria.
- It lowers cholesterol and blood pressure.
Health benefits of eating pista
- Controls diabetes: Pistachios are known to improve glucose metabolism and lipid profile. So, they are recommended as healthy snacks for diabetic patients. Nuts, in general, are rich in dietary fiber, contain healthy fats, and possess antioxidants and anti-inflammatory properties. But, only pista nuts have a low glycemic index. Pista causes a slow rise in blood glucose level as it takes time to get digested, absorbed and metabolized. The beneficial role of pistachio nuts in the management of type 2 diabetes mellitus is detailed in a study by Parham et al titled, 'Effects of pistachio nut supplementation on blood glucose in patients with type 2 diabetes: a randomized crossover trial', published in the journal Review of Diabetic Studies (2014).
- Helps lose weight: Pistachio nuts are energy-dense, containing fiber, protein and unsaturated fatty acids. Therefore, intermittent snacking on pistachio can help prevent hunger pangs, reducing food intake. Contrary to the belief that nuts can cause weight gain, a study titled, 'Pistachio nuts reduce triglycerides and body weight by comparison to refined carbohydrate snack in obese subjects on a 12-week weight loss program', by Song et al published in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition (2010), proved that pistachio nuts actually aid in weight loss.
- Prevents anemia: Haemoglobin, a protein present in red blood cells contains iron as an essential component. It aids in transferring oxygen from the lungs to the heart and other tissues of the body. According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), pista nuts are a good source of nonheme iron. In general, pistachio nuts are recommended for those who are at risk of developing an iron deficiency or anemia.
- Improves heart health: Studies have consistently confirmed a relationship between regular consumption of nuts and decreased levels of LDL or bad cholesterol in the blood. The World Health Organization (WHO) website lists two such studies which prove the lipid-lowering effect of pistachios. Lippi et al, in their review titled, 'More pistachio nuts for improving the blood lipid profile. Systematic review of epidemiological evidence', published in Acta Biomed (2016), provides further evidence regarding intake of pistachio nuts being associated with decreased cardiovascular risk. Pista nuts are also beneficial in lowering blood pressure and improving vascular function.
- Prevents erectile dysfunction in men: Having pista nuts regularly can have a positive effect on males with sexual disorders. This is based on a study titled, 'Pistachio diet improves erectile function parameters and serum lipid profiles in patients with erectile dysfunction', by Aldemir et al, published in the International Journal of Impotence Research (2011). The study states, 'When patients with erectile dysfunction were placed on a 3-week pistachio diet, it resulted in a significant improvement in erectile function parameters with additional improvement in serum lipid parameters without any side effects.'
- Protects the skin: Eating pista has many benefits for the skin. Pista nuts are rich in antioxidants like vitamin C and E which protect the skin from premature aging and cancer. Antioxidants help in protecting the body from oxidative stress caused by unstable atoms called free radicals which can damage our body tissues, proteins and DNA.
- Improves eye health: Pista contains carotenoids and antioxidants lutein and zeaxanthin which are good for the eyes. These antioxidants are vital in preventing eye diseases like cataracts and age-related macular degeneration (AMD) which can cause blindness or visual impairment. The American Optometric Association recommends a daily intake of lutein and zeaxanthin to benefit eye health.
Is salted pista good for health?
Nutritionists usually advise avoiding or reducing salt in the diet as excess sodium can cause high blood pressure and increase the risk of cardiovascular disease and stroke. However, in healthy individuals, taking a portion of salted nuts poses no such problem as long as it remains within the recommended daily intake value.
When to introduce pista to your baby
Although the health benefits of pista and other nuts are well known, most parents wait a while before giving nuts to their babies as they feel it may not be easy to digest. Another major concern that parents often worry about is the risk of their baby developing an allergic reaction.
The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics suggests that introducing nuts as early as six months of age can actually mitigate the risk of developing an allergy to them. Even the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology (AAAAI) and the Canadian Paediatric Society revised their guidelines released in 2013 regarding the early introduction of allergenic foods.
Therefore, it is safe to assume that introducing pista nuts early in your baby's diet is not a cause for concern. However, introduce it slowly and cautiously to find out whether your baby has any allergy to pista nuts.
Nutritional benefits of pista for babies/children
- Good source of energy: Snacking on nuts, including pistachio, keeps your child energetic, active and healthy.
- High in dietary fiber: It aids in digestion and prevents constipation in babies.
- Rich in antioxidants: It helps in reducing inflammation and developing immunity against diseases.
- Good source of protein: Pistachios contain vital amino acids which aid in growth and development.
- Contains essential vitamins: It is a good source of vitamins B1, B6, C, E and folate. Vitamin B6 and C are essential to strengthen immune function. Vitamin B6 also plays a vital role in forming a healthy nervous system and aids cognitive development.
Is pista safe to eat during pregnancy?
Including nutritious foods in the diet is essential during pregnancy. In pregnant women, snacking on pistachio nuts not only helps in maintaining optimum blood pressure and blood sugar level but also boosts immunity and keeps undue weight gain in check. Pistachio nuts also contain many essential nutrients and vitamins required for the healthy development of the fetus. Also, recent studies suggest that eating nuts during pregnancy can lower the risk of the baby developing an allergy to them.
Side effects of eating pistachios
- Pistachios are generally salted and roasted before packing. Roasting pistachio at a high temperature results in the generation of acrylamide, which is a carcinogenic and neurotoxic compound. Additionally, the artificial additives used during roasting can be harmful to the body.
- Pistachios consumed in large quantities can leave you feeling bloated or full, resulting in loss of appetite. This is because these nuts have a low glycemic index and are digested slowly in the gut.
- Fructans, a carbohydrate compound present in pistachio, can cause irritation of the digestive tract for certain individuals who are sensitive to it. This condition is called fructans intolerance.
- Overconsumption of salted pista nuts increases the risk of high blood pressure, resulting in an increased risk of cardiovascular problems and stroke.
- Due to their tasty nature, pista nuts are a much-loved snack. However, it is easy to lose track of the quantity consumed, resulting in weight gain.
Signs of pistachio allergy
- Itchy skin and rash, hives and worsening of eczema.
- Itching sensation in the mouth, throat, eyes or other areas.
- Nasal congestion and difficulty in breathing.
- Abdominal pain, cramps, nausea and vomiting.
- Difficulty in swallowing and a feeling of tightness in the throat.
- Anaphylaxis, a life-threatening allergic condition presenting with symptoms of itchy rash, tongue swelling, vomiting and low blood pressure; however, this is less common.
How to choose the best pistachio and how to store them
As mentioned earlier, the mature, best pistachio nuts have their shell open or partially cracked. During the sorting process, the nuts that are not partially open are usually discarded.
While buying pistachios, look for nuts with shells that are ivory colored and unblemished. The nuts with greenish kernels have the best taste and are considered to be of high quality. At home, pistachios should be refrigerated to keep them fresh.