Whether roasting over an open fire or warming cold hands on a wintry walk, chestnuts capture the spirit and tradition of the season.
Grown as early as 2,000 B.C. in North America, Europe, and Asia, the chestnut is ingrained in the traditions of cultures around the world. The chestnut was not only a culinary staple to ancient peoples, it was used to treat ailments like whooping cough, to help women conceive, and they are eaten on New Year’s Day in Japan to bring success and strength in the coming year. Filled with vitamins, minerals, and nutrients, chestnuts are a gift of good health.
The four main species of chestnuts are European, Chinese, Japanese, and American. Due to blight in the early 1900s, the American chestnuts were almost wiped out, so the U.S. imports mostly European chestnuts (Castanea sativa). The fruit of the chestnut tree are spiky burrs that contain several brown, smooth-skinned nuts each. Inside is the cream-colored sweet flesh that has a potato-like texture. Compared to most nuts, chestnuts are lower in protein, fat, and calories. Yet, one serving (about ten nuts) contains 36% DV (Daily Value, based on 2,000 calories per day) of antioxidant vitamin C, 17% DV of satiating dietary fiber, and a full 50% DV of manganese for healthy bones.
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Chestnuts are unique among nuts and seeds due to their high moisture content, high levels of starch, and lower fat content. The fats they contain are healthy, unsaturated fatty acids, including linoleic and oleic. They are also a good source of antioxidants, including carotenoids and plant compounds that help fight free radicals in the body associated with aging, disease and inflammation (Journal of Advanced Research, 2017). Emerging research suggests chestnuts may be helpful in the treatment of high cholesterol and reducing risk of coronary heart diseases (Biomedicines, 2020).
The finer points
This cool season crop arrives in markets in October and is available through the holiday months and sometimes into March. Fresh chestnuts should be smooth, have no cracks or mold, and should feel heavy for their size. Unlike most nuts, chestnuts store best in the refrigerator, unpeeled and whole, where they will stay fresh for several months. Chestnuts are also available canned, jarred, dried, and as flour. Raw, baked, boiled, or roasted, chestnuts add a distinct sweetness and texture to winter cuisines, like soup and stuffing, they make a tasty partner for Brussels sprouts or green beans, and roasted chestnuts are unforgettable on a chilly night.
(Environmental Nutrition is the award-winning independent newsletter written by nutrition experts dedicated to providing readers up-to-date, accurate information about health and nutrition in clear, concise English. For more information, visit www.environmentalnutrition.com.)