Brazil nuts could very well be one of the world’s greatest superfoods. If you’ve ever tried to crack one open, then you can definitely attest to the super strength of their hulls. As it turns out, however, the fight to crack that shell is totally worth it. Science has proved that Brazil nuts come with a few amazing health benefits. Not only that, but you’ll be surprised to learn about the weird way these nuts grow and how they’re harvested. If you’re curious, here’s the whole story — health benefits and all — behind Brazil nuts.
The Strange Way Brazil Nuts Grow
One of the strangest things about Brazil nuts, Bertholletia excelsa, is the way that they grow. Rather than producing singular nuts like many nut trees, Brazil nut trees produce large, woody capsules that look a lot like a coconut. Once you break though that tough shell (which is even harder than cracking open the nuts themselves!), then you’ll find anywhere between 8 and 24 Brazil nuts inside.
If you think the coconut-style pods are odd, the requirements that Brazil nut trees need to survive and reproduce are even stranger. These trees have incredibly specific ecological requirements that involve orchids, bees, and a small mammal called the agouti.
The Brazil nut tree needs orchid bees to pollinate its flowers so that it can produce the nuts. Those orchid bees need to be near fragrant orchids so that they can attract mates and reproduce. The final piece of the puzzle is the agouti, a small animal similar to a guinea pig; the only animal around with teeth sharp enough and jaws strong enough to crack open the woody husk and get to the nuts inside. Agoutis will eat a few of the nuts and then bury the rest for later, effectively planting the Brazil nut seeds.
Scientists have found that if you remove even one of these pieces of the puzzle — agoutis, orchids or orchid bees — then Brazil nut trees simply can’t survive or reproduce.
Harvesting Brazil Nuts
It sounds odd, but most of the world’s Brazil nuts don’t come from Brazil. In fact, only 40% come from Brazil, while 50% come from Bolivia and another 10% come from Peru. A small portion of these nuts are grown on plantations, but for the reasons listed above, plantations simply aren’t capable of producing many nuts. Instead, Brazil nuts are harvested by castanheiros, migrant workers willing to brave the Amazonian forest — and the dangers of falling brazil nut pods — to collect Brazil nuts.
The Amazing Health Benefits of Brazil Nuts
One of the most surprising things about these delectable nuts is that they come with a variety of health benefits. For instance, a study published in the Journal of Nutrition and Metabolism showed that one serving (4-6 nuts) per month not only drastically lowered cholesterol levels but also kept them down.
- They are great for the heart. These nuts are packed with calcium, potassium, and magnesium, which helps keep blood pressure under control. They’re also loaded with monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats (good fats), which are known to lower risks for cardiovascular disease.
- Brazil nuts are an excellent source of selenium, which is a disease-preventing antioxidant. They also contain lots of thiamine, a vitamin that supports the nervous system, and copper, which is essential for cell energy and tissue growth.
- They are one of the few non-meat foods that contain all nine amino acids that humans need, making them a complete protein source.
- Even though Brazil nuts are a healthy source of fat, it’s important to remember that too much of a good thing can be bad. A serving of six Brazil nuts contains 185 calories and about 29% of your daily requirement for fat — approximately 4.3 grams of saturated fat, 6.9 grams of monounsaturated fat and 5.8 grams of polyunsaturated fat. All of these fats are good for you as long as you stay within daily limits. A serving of six Brazil nuts also has 5.1 milligrams of Omega-3 fatty acids and 5,809 milligrams of Omega-6 fatty acids, both of which are linked to a reduced risk for heart disease, lowered blood pressure, and reduced inflammation.
If Brazil nuts are so great, why don’t more people cook with them? Actually, these days, some people are cooking with them. Look around online and you’ll find recipes for Brazil nut milk, fruit cakes with Brazil nuts, and much more. But prior to modern day use, there were several things that made Brazil nuts uncommon, not the least of which is the difficulty in harvesting them.
In addition, Brazil nuts, because of their high oil content, tend to go rancid if kept for too long. To maximize their shelf life, store shelled Brazil nuts in a cool dry place in a sealed container. They can even be stored in the refrigerator or freezer to further preserve them.
Amber Kanuckel is a freelance writer from rural Ohio who loves all things outdoors. She specializes in home, garden, environmental, and green living topics.