National Pecan Month: Celebrating the History and Health Benefits

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pecans

April is National Pecan Month!! Many of us remember picking pecans and shelling them. These nuts are delicious plain as a snack or prepared in culinary dishes, especially pies and desserts. The pecans that we enjoy today have a long rich history as a culinary staple. This nut’s rich and buttery flavor also packs great nutritional value.

Did you know that the origin of the pecan tree has been traced back to the 16th century? Pecan trees are the only nut trees that grow naturally in North America. According to Ilovepecans.org, pecans originated in central and eastern North America and the river valleys of Mexico. Due to their accessibility to waterways and the fact that they were easier to shell than most other nuts, pecans were a favorite of pre-colonial people living in these regions.

The name “pecan” has its origins in Native American word of the Algonquin tribe, that lived on the Ottawa and St. Lawrence rivers. This word was used to describe nuts that required a stone to crack. Many varieties of pecans that we enjoy today are known by their Native American names, such as Cheyenne, Sioux, Choctaw, Kiowa and Creek. Dr. Charlotte Glen of the NC State University Horticultural Dept. in her article Seeking the Perfect Pecan, published in Our State Magazine online, advises that varieties recommended for southeastern North Carolina include Pawnee, Sumner, Stuart, and Cape Fear.

The North Carolina Pecan Growers Association notes that approximately 3 to 5 million pounds of pecans are produced on an estimated 2000 acres of commercial orchards in North Carolina each year. North Carolina ranks in the top 10 of pecan producing states. Georgia is number one. The Association cites that the largest concentration of commercial pecan orchards in North Carolina are located east of Interstate 95.

Since 2012, pecans have been certified as heart healthy by the American Heart Association’s Heart Check Certification. To earn this certification, certain nutritional requirements for saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol, sodium and beneficial nutrients are required for nuts.

Research from the USDA confirms that pecans are still the most antioxidant-rich tree nut. According to the USDA, using a method called ORAC (Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity), researchers analyzed 277 different foods and found that pecans rank highest among all nuts in antioxidant capacity. With 17,940 ORAC units per 100 grams, pecans had the highest antioxidant capacity when compared to eight other common tree nuts. Overall, pecans rank in the top 20 in antioxidant capacity per typical serving size among the 277 foods analyzed in the study.

For pecan lovers, the health benefits from eating pecans is very exciting. Foods that contain antioxidants are shown to help fight a variety of diseases, such as, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, cancer and heart disease. USDA, clinical research has shown that eating about a handful of pecans a day may help reduce the risk of heart disease, help lower cholesterol and aid in weight loss. Additionally, pecans contain more than 19 vitamins and minerals, heart-healthy unsaturated fat, and contain no trans-fat. The vitamins A and E, as well as, zinc found in pecans support the immune system so the body can fight off infections and repair damage.

Increase the heart benefits of your meals by adding pecans to your diet. Toss chopped pecans into your oatmeal, salads, snack mix, and more. The recommended serving size of pecans is 1 ounce, which is a little less than ¼ cup or 19 pecan halves.

For more information about cooking with pecans, pecan tree health and more, please contact the N.C. Cooperative Extension- Richmond County Center at (910) 997-8255.