Though often typecast as a mere Thanksgiving pie ingredient, pecans are more than deserving of a spot in your pantry (or freezer) all year long. That’s because beyond their delicious taste, these crunchy favorites are also packed to the brim with nutrition. Read on to find out just what makes pecans such a healthy addition to your lifestyle as well as some tasty pecan recipes to get started.
The History of Pecans
A national treasure, pecans are the only tree nut indigenous to America. With evidence dating all the way back to 1600 BC along the banks of the Rio Grande river, pecans have been part of the American landscape long before any of the constructs making up our country have. Before and after colonization, Native Americans relied on the pecans as a food source while also utilizing pecan tree leaves and bark for medicinal purposes. In fact, the word pecan is Algonquin in origin, meaning “requiring a stone to crack.”
These nut trees were first cultivated in northern Mexico in the 1600s and 1700s by Spanish colonists and soon after that, the first American pecan tree was planted in Long Island, New York. The pecan industry has been booming ever since, and the nut has even been a favorite amongst many U.S. presidents along the way, including Thomas Jefferson and George Washington.
Even today, 80% of the world’s pecans are produced in America. There are more than 1,000 varieties of this tasty nut, and a staggering 275 million pounds of it were produced in 2022, up 8% from the previous year.1 It may come as no shock that Georgia produces the most pecans, followed by New Mexico, Texas, Arkansas, and Alabama.
Nutritional Benefits of Pecans
These often underrated nuts can be an incredible addition to a healthy lifestyle, thanks to their robust nutrition profile. Here are some of the ways these nutrients add up to benefit us:
Pecans are absolutely chock-full of heart healthy, monounsaturated fats. These fats have been linked with improved cholesterol levels, reduced inflammation throughout the body, and even lower risk of heart disease. In fact, one review found that tree nut intake (including pecans) was associated with lower total cholesterol (including the bad kind, low-density lipoprotein or LDL) and triglyceride levels. The fiber these nuts contain also help to lower cholesterol levels through binding to dietary cholesterol in the small intestine, moving it through the digestive tract instead of being absorbed by the body. Plus, you’ll find loads of manganese and copper in these tree nuts, both of which are linked to maintaining healthy blood pressure levels. All of the factors mentioned here—inflammation, cholesterol, triglycerides, and blood pressure—are key players in the development of heart disease, illustrating why pecans are the ultimate heart health champion.
Speaking of pecan’s fiber content, these tree nuts also help to boost our gut health. While the soluble fiber they contain helps to address heart health concerns, as discussed above, it also acts as a prebiotic—or food for our healthy gut bacteria in the gut microbiome. The microbiome supports healthy digestion, plus immune health and brain health, amongst many other benefits. The insoluble fiber found in pecans further aids digestive health through assisting in the movement of food through the gastrointestinal tract, promoting overall regularity and preventing issues like constipation.
These pie favorites even support our metabolic health. Pecans are a great source of protein, helping to boost our energy levels and rev our metabolism. Plus, all three healthy macronutrients found in this tree nut—fat, complex carbohydrate in the way of fiber, and protein—work to slow down digestion, dulling the blood sugar response. This means that when pecans are included in your meal or snack, you’re much less likely to experience a spike and subsequent crash in energy levels.
Finally, pecans also shine when it comes to maintaining a healthy immune system, thanks to its plant compound, zinc, thiamin, and vitamin E content. In these crunchy nuts you’ll not only find the plant compound beta carotene, Bolling, Bradley W. et al. “The phytochemical composition and antioxidant actions of tree nuts.” Asia Pacific journal of clinical nutrition vol. 19,1: 117-23.
but pecans impressively contain the highest amount of flavonoids of all the nuts! These phytonutrients, alongside zinc and vitamin E, are powerful antioxidants, helping to combat inflammation and disease-causing free radicals throughout the body. They can even help to ward off neurodegenerative disorders. Meanwhile, thiamin is a B vitamin often lovingly nicknamed the “anti-stress” vitamin, as it helps to bolster the immune response and increase the body’s resilience to stress.
Ways to Add More Pecans to Your Favorite Dishes
Before discussing all the delicious ways to include pecans in your day-to-day life, there are a few more things to note about these popular tree nuts, one of which is that they are super energy-dense in the way of calories, and thus best enjoyed in moderation—especially if you are working toward a weight loss goal. Also, though it likely goes without saying, those with tree nut allergies should absolutely steer clear of pecans.
These nuts are readily available at nearly any grocery store you’d walk into across the country. Once you have your hands on them, however, it’s important to store them properly. While many people store nuts, including pecans, in their pantry, the best place for them is actually the fridge or freezer. You’ll get the longest shelf life out of your nuts by doing this because the healthy oils they contain will go rancid if left out at room temperature for too long. Consider storing all of your nuts in the freezer, where they will be perfectly delicious for at least six months (if you don’t eat them all before that).
There are so many tasty options when it comes to featuring pecans in some of your favorite recipes. On the breakfast front, crushed pecans are an excellent addition to smoothies, oatmeal, chia seed pudding, cold cereal, pancakes, waffles … name a dish, and pecans are probably perfect for it. When it comes to lunch and dinner, pecans add an irresistible crunch to salads, glazes, marinades, protein breading, crackers, chicken salad, breads, dips, and more. They are also super tasty in trail mixes, candied nut recipes, and almost any baked good you can think of (including pie, of course).
It’s no wonder people are going nuts over pecans, given how delicious and nutritious they are. No matter how picky your loved ones are, there’s bound to be at least a recipe or two featuring pecans that they will just adore.