Celebrate the health benefits of peanuts this month

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March is National Peanut Month! It’s time to celebrate America’s most popular nut.

The peanut plant probably originated in South America. European explorers first discovered peanuts in Brazil. Tribes in central Brazil also ground peanuts with maize to make a drink.

Peanuts were growing as far north as Mexico when the Spanish began their exploration of the New World. The explorers took peanuts back to Spain, and from there traders and explorers spread them to Asia and Africa. Africans were the first people to introduce peanuts to North America beginning in the 1700s.

Peanuts were grown in Virginia in the 1800s as a commercial crop, and used mainly for oil, food and as a cocoa substitute. At this time, peanuts were regarded as a food for livestock and the poor, and were considered difficult to grow and harvest.

Peanuts became prominent after the Civil War when Union soldiers found they liked them and took them home. Both armies subsisted on this high-protein food source. Their popularity grew in the late 1800s when P.T. Barnum’s circus wagons traveled across the country and vendors called out, “Hot roasted peanuts!” to the crowds. Peanuts also became popular at baseball games.

In the early 1900s, peanuts became a significant agricultural crop when the boll weevil threatened the South’s cotton crop. Following the suggestions of noted scientist Dr. George Washington Carver, peanuts served as an effective commercial crop and, for a time, rivaled the position of cotton in the South.

There is evidence that ancient South American Inca Indians were the first to grind peanuts to make peanut butter. In the United States, Dr. John Harvey Kellogg (of cereal fame) invented a version of peanut butter in 1895. Peanut butter was first introduced at the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904. It is believed that the U.S. Army popularized the peanut butter and jelly sandwich, using them for sustenance during maneuvers in World War II.

Americans average more than six pounds of peanut products each year. Peanut butter accounts for about half that total — with $850 million in retail sales each year.

Despite the fact that peanuts are high in fat, they are still an excellent food choice because they provide a variety of important nutrients. Peanuts contain protein, fiber and healthy monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, all of which improve health and lower the risk of chronic disease.

A study of more than 15,000 peanut consumers determined that they had higher levels of vitamin A, vitamin E, folate, magnesium, zinc, iron, calcium and dietary fiber than people who did not eat peanuts. These nutrients are needed by the body to function properly.

Peanuts play a role in lowering blood pressure and cholesterol, and improving longevity and performance. Peanuts help prevent chronic diseases such as heart disease, diabetes and cancer. Studies have shown they can decrease lipid levels and may reduce inflammation, a cause of chronic disease. Researchers also have found that mortality decreases as the frequency of eating nuts, such as peanuts, increases.

In addition to all of these wonderful benefits, peanuts are affordable and easy to find, making them a great addition to a nutritious diet. This recipe for Spicy Peanut-Crusted Chicken adds a healthy crunch to boneless, skinless chicken breasts or thighs.

Spicy Peanut-Crusted Chicken

½-cup flour

1-tablespoon poultry seasoning

1-tablespoon garlic powder

1-teaspoon cayenne pepper

1-teaspoon salt

1-teaspoon black pepper

½-cup prepared mustard

2-tablespoons honey

2-cups dry roasted peanuts, finely chopped

4 boneless skinless chicken breasts or thighs, or a combination of both

2-tablespoons butter

2-tablespoons olive oil

  1. In a pie pan or shallow bowl, combine flour, 1/2 tablespoon poultry seasoning, and a 1/2 teaspoon each of garlic powder, cayenne pepper, salt and pepper; mix well. In a second dish, combine mustard and honey with remaining 1/2 teaspoons of garlic powder, cayenne pepper, salt and pepper.

  2. Place the chopped peanuts in a third dish. Dip each piece of chicken in the flour mixture, then in the honey-mustard mixture, and finally in the peanuts to coat.

  3. Heat butter and the olive oil in a 10- to 12-inch skillet; until butter is melted and foamy. Add the chicken and cook over medium-low heat until cooked through and golden brown, 4 to 5 minutes per side. Makes four servings.

(*Additional information provided by Christeena Haynes, MS, RD, LD, Nutrition and Health Education Specialist, Dallas County, University of Missouri Extension.)

Angela Shelf Medearis is an award-winning children’s author, culinary historian and the author of seven cookbooks. Her new cookbook is “The Kitchen Diva’s Diabetic Cookbook.” Her website is divapro.com. To see how-to videos, recipes and much, much more, ‘like’ Angela Shelf Medearis, The Kitchen Diva!, on Facebook and go to Hulu.com. Recipes may not be reprinted without permission from Angela Shelf Medearis.