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Pantry Primer: Nuts

Next time you're hungry, reach for a nut. Bite for bite they're one of the most nutrient-dense foods you can eat. An excellent alternative to meat as a source of protein, most nuts are low in saturated fat yet high in good-for-you mono- and polyunsaturated fats. They also don't contain cholesterol, unlike meat; instead, they have phytosterols, which research has shown to be heart-healthy. You'll get plenty of antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals, too -- all of which help your body stave off disease.

That said, all nuts are not created equal. Some do a better job at helping your heart while others protect your memory. And many, botanically speaking, aren't even nuts, but rather seeds and legumes. So how do you tell one from another? We broke down a handful and highlighted what makes them stand apart nutritionally. Now there's nothing left to do but get cracking.

Tip: Stored in an airtight container in the fridge, shelled nuts will last for about six months -- or about a year in the freezer.

Pistachios
What
When pistachios first came to U.S. markets, they were dyed red to hide stains and add distinction. These days, you're more likely to find this delicately sweet, buttery nut showing off its true green color.
Why
Pistachios are a good source of phytosterols, which help lower cholesterol levels and may offer protection from breast and prostate cancer.
How
Amp up breakfast by adding whole pistachios to a spinach, tomato, and Gruyere cheese frittata. Or try this pistachio recipe: Blueberry Yogurt Fool.

Walnuts
What
The mild English variety is the most popular in the United States. Picked straight from the tree, a walnut will open readily without a nutcracker; it's the commercial washing and drying process that makes the shell hard.
Why
They're the only nut with a significant amount of omega-3 fatty acids, which may help fight illnesses like coronary heart disease, type-2 diabetes, and even depression.
How
Layer walnuts with tomato sauce, mozzarella, and squash for a crunchy lasagna. Or try this walnut recipe: Chicken Waldorf Salad

Brazil nuts
What
Mainly harvested from wild trees in the Amazon, the Brazil nut (actually a seed) has a creamy flavor reminiscent of the coconut.
Why
One nut exceeds the DRI (dietary reference intake) for selenium, a mineral and antioxidant shown to help protect against cancer.
How
Mix chopped Brazil nuts into a berry salad -- or to satisfy a sweet craving, dip whole in dark-chocolate fondue.

Peanuts
What
Considered a nut because of its shell and dietary use, the robustly flavored peanut is really a legume, like beans and peas.
Why
The B vitamins niacin and folate, which are found in peanuts, help maintain a healthy heart and may decrease your risk for certain cancers; folate may also protect against cognitive decline.
How
Add peanuts to a cabbage and bell-pepper slaw drizzled with sesame-miso dressing. Or try this peanut recipe: Papaya, Shrimp, and Soba Salad.

Almonds
What
The dense, milky flavored almond is considered one of the world's oldest cultivated foods. An ancestor of stone fruits, the almond grows on trees similar in size and shape to peach trees.
Why
Almonds are high in vitamin E, a powerful antioxidant that helps protect cells from oxidative stress, which has been linked to heart disease and Alzheimer's.
How
Sprinkle slivered almonds on polenta with sauteed wild mushrooms. Or try this almond recipe: Whole-Wheat Couscous with Almonds

Pecans
What
The sweet pecan is the only major nut tree native to North America; about 80 percent of pecans are grown in the United States.
Why
Pecans contain more disease-fighting antioxidants than any other common nut in this country. They even hold their own among berries and cherries.
How
Crush and mix pecans with seasoned bread crumbs and Parmesan, then use to stuff artichokes. Or try this pecan recipe: Apple, Date, and Ginger Crisp.

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