March is National Peanut Month, a time to celebrate one of America’s favorite foods! Roasted in the shell for a ballpark snack, ground into peanut butter or tossed in a salad or stir fry, peanuts find their way into everything from breakfast to dessert.
National Peanut Month had its beginnings as National Peanut Week in 1941. It was expanded to a month-long celebration in 1974.
Coincidentally, March is National Nutrition Month and a great time to recognize the nutritional value of peanuts. One serving of peanuts is a good source of protein, vitamin E, niacin, folate, phosphorus and magnesium. Peanuts are naturally cholesterol-free and low in saturated fat.
The peanut, or groundnut (Arachis hypogaea), is a species in the legume, or bean, family native to Mexico, South America and Central America. It is an annual herbaceous plant.
Peanuts are known by many local names, including earthnuts, ground nuts, goober peas, monkey nuts, pygmy nuts and pig nuts. The term “Monkey nut” is often used to mean the entire pod.
Evidence shows that peanuts were domesticated in prehistoric times in Peru. Archeologists have dated the oldest specimens to about 7,600 years ago. The legume gained Western popularity when it came to the United States from Africa. It had become popular in Africa after being brought there from Brazil by the Portuguese around 1800.
Although peanuts come in many varieties, there are four basic market types: Runner, Virginia, Spanish and Valencia. Each of the peanut types is distinctive in size, flavor and nutritional composition.
Runners have become the dominant type due to the introduction in the early 1970s of a new runner variety, the Florunner, which was responsible for an increase in peanut yields. Runners have an attractive, uniform kernel size. Fifty-four percent of the runners grown are used for peanut butter. Runners are grown mainly in Georgia, Alabama, Florida, Texas and Oklahoma.
Virginias have the largest kernels and account for most of the peanuts roasted and processed in the shell. When shelled, many of the larger kernels are sold as gourmet snack peanuts. Virginias are grown mainly in southeastern Virginia, northeastern North Carolina and South Carolina.
Spanish-type peanuts have smaller kernels covered with a reddish-brown skin. They are used predominantly in peanut candies, with most used for snack nuts and peanut butter. They have a higher oil content than the other types of peanuts, which is advantageous when crushing for oil. They are primarily grown in Oklahoma and Texas.
Valencias usually have three or more small kernels to a pod and are covered in a bright-red skin. They are very sweet peanuts and are usually roasted and sold in the shell. They are used fresh as boiled peanuts. New Mexico is the primary producer of Valencia peanuts.
The various types are distinguished by branching habit and branch length. Within each of the four basic types there are several “varieties” for seed and production purposes, allowing producers to select the peanut that best suits their region and market. Each year new cultivars of peanuts are bred and introduced.
Peanuts grow best in light, sandy soil. They require five months of warm weather, and an annual rainfall of 20 to 39 inches or the equivalent in irrigation water.
Unlike other nuts, peanuts do not grow on trees. The peanut is unusual because it grows on a plant which flowers above the soil but fruits below it. Peanuts are usually planted in April or May. Once planted, peanut seeds grow into a green, oval-shaped leaf plant that reaches about 18 inches tall when fully mature. Small, yellow flowers appear in the lower part of the plant as it begins to grow. These flowers pollinate themselves and then lose their petals as the fertilized ovary begins to enlarge. The enlarged ovary, called the peg, grows down and away from the plant. forming a small stem that extends to the soil. The peanut embryo is the tip of the peg, which penetrates the soil. The embryo begins to develop once underground, growing into a peanut. Pods ripen 120 to 150 days after the seeds are planted. If the crop is harvested too early, the pods will be unripe. If they are harvested to late, the pods will snap off at the stalk and will remain in the soil.
Peanuts are widely used in many cultures around the world in a wide variety of ways. In the U.S., peanuts are used in candies, cakes, cookies, and other sweets. They are also enjoyed roasted and salted. Peanut butter is one of the most popular peanut-based foods in the U.S.
Boiled peanuts are a popular snack in the southern U.S., as well as in India and China. Peanuts are also used in the Mali meat stew maafe, and in many sauces for South American meat dishes.
Peanuts are used to help fight malnutrition. Pumpy Nut and Medika Mamba are a high protein, high energy and high nutrient peanut-based paste developed to be used as a therapeutic food to aid in famine relief. Organizations like the World Health Organization, UNICEF, Project Peanut Butter and Doctors Without Borders have used these products to help save malnourished children in developing countries.
Peanut plant tops are used for hay. Low-grade or culled peanuts not suitable for the edible market are used in the production of peanut oil. The protein cake residue from oil processing is used as an animal feed and as a soil fertilizer. Low-grade peanuts are also widely sold as a garden bird feed.
Peanuts have a variety of industrial end uses. Paint, varnish, lubricating oil, leather dressings, furniture polish, insecticides and nitroglycerin are made from peanut oil. Soap is made from saponified oil and many cosmetics contain peanut oil and its derivatives. The protein portion of the oil is used in the manufacture of some textile fibers. Peanut shells are used in the manufacture of plastic, wallboard, abrasives, fuel, cellulose (used in rayon and paper) and mucilage (glue). Rudolf Diesel ran some of the first engines that bear his name on peanut oil.
Peanuts are nutrient-rich, providing more than 30 essential nutrients and phytonutrients. Peanuts are a good source of niacin, folate, fiber, magnesium, vitamin E, manganese and phosphorus. They are naturally free of trans fats and sodium, and contain about 25 percent protein (a higher proportion than any true nut).
George Washington Carver is credited with inventing 300 different uses for peanuts (which did not include peanut butter). Carver was one of many U.S.Department of Agriculture researchers who encouraged cotton farmers in the South to grow peanuts instead of, or in addition to cotton, because cotton had depleted so much nitrogen from the soil and one of the peanut’s properties as a legume is to put nitrogen back into the soil as part of a process known as nitrogen fixation.
China and India are the world’s largest producers of peanuts but they only export about 4 percent because most of their production is consumed domestically as peanut oil. Major producer/exporters of peanuts are the United States, Argentina, Sudan, Senegal, and Brazil, accounting for 71 percent of total world exports.
Peanut butter was invented by Dr. John Harvey Kellogg (of cereal fame), who applied for the first patent in 1895. Peanut butter was first introduced at the Universal Exposition (World’s Fair of 1904) in St. Louis.