Found in several parts of South America, Brazil nuts form a staple part of many traditional Amazonian diets. They are also very popular around the world, and they’re gaining even more traction of late as research into their health giving properties shows more and more what they can do for us.
Brazil nuts are becoming famous for their ability to reduce inflammation, improve heart health, boost weight loss, regulate thyroid function, reduce the signs of aging, aid in skin care, and relieve anxiety.
They help a great deal in strengthening the immune system, improving the digestive process, and boosting male fertility, as I will go through in greater detail as we go through my Brazil nuts 101.
What are Brazil nuts?
Native to the Guianas, Venezuela, parts of Columbia, Peru and Bolivia, and of course Brazil, the Brazil nut tree is the only species in the monotypic genus Bertholletia (named after the French chemist Claude Louis Berthollet.)
They grow in scattered formations in the large forests of the banks of several main rivers, including but not limited to the Amazon, Rio Negro, Orinoco and Tapajós. Brazil nut trees are amongst the largest trees in the Amazon rainforests, growing up to 50m in height with a trunk diameter of 1- 2m. They have great longevity as well, typically living to between 500- 1000 years.
Truly, these magnificent trees are not to be taken lightly.
The Brazil nuts themselves are not actual nuts: they are the edible seeds of Brazil nut trees. They grow inside a round shell, much like a coconut. Each shell will usually contain between 12- 20 Brazil nuts, nested in segments like an orange. They can be eaten raw or blanched, and contain some powerful, health giving properties which I will go into later in this article.
Only around 40% of the world’s production of Brazil nuts actually come from Brazil, with half coming from Bolivia and the remaining mostly coming from Peru.
Quick facts about Brazil nuts
A few fast facts for you!
They are deadly…
Don’t worry, this isn’t from consumption. It’s from falling pods which are the size of coconuts, typically weighing up to 5 pounds. These pods can reach speeds of up to 50mph (80kph), delivering the same power as a cannonball!
Of course, if you’re hit with something the size of a coconut, with the power of a cannonball, it can easily kill you! Such fatalities amongst Brazil nuts harvesters are pretty common. To avoid this, many harvesters wait until most of the fruit has already fallen to the ground (and avoid work on particularly windy days.)
… but they cheer you up
Low dietary selenium levels can have a drastic effect on our moods. It is linked with feelings of fatigue, heightened stress, depression and anxiety. High levels of dietary selenium has been proven to quite radically lift moods and improve peoples’ sense of well-being.
Good news: Brazil nuts boast a great deal of selenium, as I will go into in more detail later; incorporating them into your diet will give you plenty, keeping you cheerful.
Alongside this, Brazil nuts aid thyroid function, a key component of mood regulation as it controls your metabolic rate, and hence your energy levels. Brazil nuts play a hefty role in maintaining proper thyroid function- the thyroid will contain more concentrated selenium than anywhere else in the human body.
They are great for limiting deforestation
I’ll go into this in more detail later on, in a special section devoted to sustainability. However, as a quick overview, Brazil nuts are being touted as a great way to curb deforestation. They are an economically viable alternative to logging and forest destruction amongst local communities.
Brazil nuts are almost exclusively harvested from wild trees by locals, as attempts at Brazil nut tree plantations have been unsuccessful, yielding very small quantities of fruit. The trees only produce good yields in unspoiled forestland, giving people an incentive to care for their environment.
This harvesting has very low impact on the forests’ ecology.
In such unspoiled conditions, they have a very high yield
The fruit pod’s woody exterior contains anything up to 24 seeds (the nuts.) Trees in pristine, wild conditions can produce anything from about 60 to over 200 pods, meaning that they deliver over 100kg (about 250lbs) of nuts.
They exist in harmony and mutual dependence with some very particular plants and animals
There is only one animal able to crack through the hard outer shell of the Brazil nut tree’s fruit pod: the agouti, a large rodent with incredibly sharp teeth. Agoutis chew through the shell, eating some of the nuts whilst hoarding the others in a stash for a later time.
Many of these hoarded nuts are forgotten about. They lay dormant until the right conditions are met, at which time they germinate and begin to grow into new Brazil nut trees.
As well as only having one animal able to break their shells, the Brazil nut tree can only be pollinated by one type of bee: the large bodied, or orchid, bee, so called because the males rely on the fragrance of a particular orchid species found only in the rainforest in order to attract mates.
The Brazil nut tree’s flowers are uniquely shaped with a large hood. Only the larger orchid bee has the strength to open them up and gather the pollen.
It just goes to show how delicate, intricate and wonderfully interwoven such ecosystems can evolve to be.
Brazil nuts contain powerful anti-inflammatory properties
The high amounts of selenium found in Brazil nuts helps in combatting bodily inflammation. The selenium contributes to antioxidant activity that is crucial in defending against such inflammation, as well as against free radicals.
The zinc found in Brazil nuts additionally helps to reduce inflammation and to flush out toxins, whilst ellagic acid stimulates the body’s own anti-inflammatory and neuroprotective properties.
Nutritional profile of Brazil nuts
In terms of macronutrients, Brazil nuts pack quite a punch in the healthy fats and protein department. They have a high proportion of monounsaturated (good) fat and also contain a fair amount of protein.
Aside from this, their micronutrient profile is incredibly solid. Their aforementioned high selenium content is pretty substantial: they are the richest known food source of this vital mineral.
Just five Brazil nuts daily will give you the upper bound of your recommended daily amount (RDA.)
And selenium, as I said before (and will say again!) is essential as an antioxidant for maintaining a healthy, strong immune system, as well as helping to prevent nerve and cell damage from free radicals. It is essential as a trace element for producing selenoproteins, which are enzymes that help to support your immune system and regulate thyroid gland function.
Selenium also boosts testosterone levels in men and improves both the production and motility of sperm. They are rich in the amino acid arginine, which increases vascularity to the genitals. If you’re looking to start a family any time soon, gents, or just looking for a bit of a natural testosterone boost or boost to your sex drive, a diet rich in Brazil nuts is a good bet: these nuts are good for your… well, you get the gist.
Brazil nuts’ selenium content alone should have you considering including them in your diet. If that’s not enough, though, they are also a good source of magnesium, zinc, calcium, thiamine, vitamin E and B vitamins, as the table below shows:
Health benefits of Brazil nuts
So, now we know they’re nutritious, how does this translate to our health?
Let’s find out!
Brazil nuts could help in the regulation of your thyroid function
As I mentioned above, healthy thyroid function can be quite dependant on selenium levels: a deficiency could lead to issues.
Your thyroid gland is a tiny, butterfly shaped gland in your throat, just below your Adam’s apple. Its functions include regulating appetite, sleep, body temperature and your basal metabolic rate. Adding selenium to your diet or supplement regime could help to prevent bouts of thyroid related illnesses or increase function to optimal levels. (1)
Brazil nuts are a pretty tasty and efficient way in which to get your selenium levels up.
Brazil nuts could help you to maintain healthy cholesterol levels.
Aside from improved thyroid function, however, Brazil nuts can help you to lower cholesterol because of their high fat content.
They are a calorically and nutritionally dense food, with just 100g of Brazil nuts containing 656 calories. This means every 1g of fat equates to just under 10 calories, whereas a gram each of protein or carbohydrate will amount to just 4 calories.
However, the fat content is mostly monounsaturated fatty acid (MUFA) like oleic acid and palmitoleic acid. These can help reduce low-density lipoproteins (LDL) (the ‘bad’ kind of cholesterol) at the same time as increasing high-density lipoproteins (the ‘good’ kind.) (2)
Brazil nuts could help to lower heart disease risk
Due to its inflammation fighting properties – and its ability to improve blood flow, alongside its antioxidant nature – studies suggest that low concentrations of selenium could be linked to an increased risk of coronary heart disease. (3)
In addition, studies show that populations who eat foods high in monounsaturated fats had lower rates of heart disease.
Brazil nuts may have properties that help to fight cancer
The high concentration of selenium and ellagic acid in Brazil nuts can help to reduce your risk of cancer if you eat them regularly. A recent study found that, as well as potentially aiding in fighting cancer, ellagic acid is antimutagenic. (4)
There is also an inverse relationship between serum selenium levels and oesophageal cancer, according to a study in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute. (5)
Brazil nuts may help to diminish symptoms of asthma
Studies suggest that low selenium levels may correlate with long-term asthma suffering: patients have been found to show a deficiency. When the test subjects began a course of selenium consumption, their symptoms were reduced. Those taking placebos didn’t receive such a profound benefit. (6)
More research is needed, however, and is currently being conducted.
Brazil nuts could help make your skin glow and smooth.
Moving to less weighty subjects than cancer, asthma and thyroid issues, let’s look at what Brazil nut consumption can do for your skin.
They are high in zinc, which helps to fight acne and blemishes. Studies suggest that those suffering with acne typically have lower levels of zinc than those with clearer skin. Supplementing with zinc can redress this balance, reducing acne symptoms by up to 50%. (7)
Laboratory studies suggest that zinc kills the bacteria that cause acne and act as a natural acne fighting agent. Zinc also reduces the inflammation caused by bacteria, meaning that the red pimples caused by acne will be dealt with.
Your digestive system may see benefits from Brazil nut consumption
Most of the carbohydrate makeup of Brazil nuts comes as fibre. Fibre helps to move food through the digestive system whilst extracting a greater amount of nutrients. They bulk out your stool as well, giving you healthy, solid and regular bowel movements.
Higher dietary fibre contents can also help to reduce the symptoms of, or actively prevent, several conditions. These include constipation, bloating, stomach ulcers and even colon cancer.
Most people do not eat enough fibre. As a rough rule of thumb, men should be eating around 38 grams daily, whilst women should be eating around 25 grams. If you’re not, adding healthy snacks like Brazil nuts could really help to boost your intake up to more appropriate levels.
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Brazil nut buyer’s guide
There are a few things to bear in mind when looking to purchase Brazil nuts. Although most ways of buying them will yield some pretty impressive health benefits – as well as being tasty additions to any meal plan or recipe – not all nuts are created (or presented) equally.
Read on to find out how to get the most out of your Brazil nuts by making some well-informed purchasing decisions.
Make sure that they are fresh
This can be a big deal, so make sure you get it right.
Their high fat content means that Brazil nuts can easily go rancid. The best way to tell if the nuts you are buying are fresh will be to simply taste a little of one. If they give an acrid, bitter or sour flavour then you will know that they are rancid: the batch is bad, and it will likely be best to look for a different supplier.
If they are dark and shrivelled up, they are no longer good. Remember also to look for signs that they are mouldy.
If none of the above apply – if they look and taste fresh – then relax, you’re very likely onto a winner.
Buy your nuts in bulk
Of course, it’s easier to go to your local grocery store or supermarket and pick up a 100g pack of nuts. Don’t be misled, however, into thinking that this is a good or efficient option. Buying nuts in bulk, including Brazil nuts, will always serve you well.
Bulk bought nuts are usually fresher than canned or packaged ones. In addition, as I mentioned above, you will want to taste one before you buy, which is obviously not an option when they are pre-packaged.
To both play the odds in your favour and to check that you’re getting the real McCoy, go for bulk.
It’s also a lot cheaper too, which is always nice.
Raw is always best
Whether or not you buy your Brazil nuts in bulk, you will at least want to go for fresh, raw produce.
If you get roasted Brazil nuts, you are missing out on some of their nutritional high points. The roasting process robs them of some of their most valuable enzymes and minerals.
Even if you plan to roast them yourself, get them raw: you will be getting the most out of them this way.
Different ways to buy
There are several ways in which you can buy your Brazil nuts. Obviously, whole nuts are available in most supermarkets, either raw, roasted, blanched or salted. As I mentioned above, raw will always give you the best health benefits, but the others have a range of uses in baking and snacking and so shouldn’t be entirely overlooked.
Ground and flaked Brazil nuts are also available. These are particularly good for use in cooking and baking, with Brazil flakes beefing up any cake’s or curry’s deeper flavours, and ground Brazil nuts being a good addition or substitute to regular flour. They will give a bold, rich, gluten-free taste.
Brazil nut milk is also becoming increasingly popular as nut milks as a whole gain traction. You can make your own – more on this below – or buy it from most large health stores. It makes great coffee, or is just a useful, tasty milk alternative for use on your morning cereal.
Buying organic will always serve you well. Although all Brazil nuts are harvested wild, some are treated with toxic chemicals to prevent rot. Obviously, it will always be preferable to keep these kinds of chemicals out of your diet if you can, so aim to buy certified organic produce wherever possible.
How to store your Brazil nuts
Following on from my buyer’s guide, it is of course of utmost importance when storing your Brazil nuts to recognise the possible effects of their high fat content.
All nuts have a high fat content which means that they are likely to go rancid if they aren’t properly stored. Heat, light and humidity will increase this likelihood and will likely speed up spoilage.
If you have Brazil nuts in their shells then you can keep them in a cool, dry place- room temperature will be fine- for up to four months without them going bad.
Brazil nuts should be kept in sealed packages. To keep them fresh for longer, store them in their sealed containers in the fridge or freezer. You can keep them for up to a year this way, without the flavour or texture being adversely affected.
If you are planning to use Brazil nuts in smoothies, or to make nut milk from them, you might want to soak them overnight first. This will help to break down their enzyme inhibitors (I’ll go into more detail on this in my recipe section below.)
As they soak, keep them in an airtight container in the fridge and then rinse them thoroughly before use.
Brazil nut recipes
I wouldn’t be surprised if all this talk of Brazil nuts has whetted your appetite, so I thought I’d include a few favorite recipes to help you utilize this famous South American nut:
Brazil nut milk
This dairy-free alternative to milk works the same as the real thing and tastes great.
Brazil nut milk is simply delicious. It’s creamy and smooth, perfect for stirring into your coffee or porridge in the mornings, and is pretty simple to make: it only takes three ingredients.
It’s well worth a try if you’re getting bored of plain old soya milk.
Vegan Brazil nut parmesan
Vegan cheese isn’t always the easiest to make or work with, and some types of cheese can be harder to replicate than others. Luckily, however, the deep, nutty flavours found in Brazil nuts are perfect for vegan parmesan. This recipe from Namely Marly is perfect – tasty, healthy, and simple enough to make at home with no worries.
It has a range of uses, too. Classically, parmesan makes a good topping for tomato based pasta sauce, and this recipe is no exception. However, it works well as seasoning in any dish, sweet or savoury, so it’s always handy to have some lying around.
Raw coconut and Brazil nut truffles
These coconut and Brazil nut truffles are delectable and incredibly “moreish”. The filling is sweet and creamy, underpinning the sweet chocolatey tastes very well. The shredded coconut tops it off with a slightly tropical, ripe flavour.
They are truly indulgent and I would recommend for everybody to try them out.
Sweet potato and Brazil nut curry
Now for something a bit more savoury – this sweet potato and Brazil nut curry is the perfect main dish for a warming, healthful dinner.
Inspired by East Asian flavours and spices and made with a heady mixture of coconut and Brazil nuts, this well textured dish will go down well with anybody who tries it.
The recipe is entirely vegan apart from the Greek yoghurt called upon as a serving accompaniment. Try either soya yoghurt or save a little coconut cream back as a rich, velvety, vegan substitute.
Downsides to Brazil nuts
Of course, even with the healthiest of foodstuffs, too much of anything can be a bad thing – this is particularly so with Brazil nuts.
NOTE: Though I may sound a little alarmist in the following few paragraphs, there is nothing too much to worry about. As long as you keep to a modest consumption, Brazil nuts are still one of the healthiest ingredients you can find.
Just remember that moderation will be your best friend.
Their selenium content
I keep banging on about the many health benefits of high dietary selenium intake. However, we are not looking for levels as high as you can get, we are looking for appropriate levels.
Six nuts will contain approximately 540 micrograms of selenium. The tolerable upper daily limit for regular selenium intake is 400 micrograms for the average adult. The lower bound, the average minimum you should regularly be taking in, is 55 micrograms.
I’m sure you can see the disparity here.
Ingesting too much selenium on a regular basis can lead to selenium toxicity. Brazil nuts are healthy for you – incredibly so – but moderation is key. Eat two to four per day and you will likely be golden.
For all that they can aid your digestive system, a less common side effect of Brazil nut overindulgence are digestive issues, including diarrhea.
The likelihood of this occurring is slim, though, and more commonly associated with selenium supplementation rather than whole food consumption of Brazil nuts.
Brittle nails and hair
One of the main upshots of selenium toxicity is the result it has on your nails and hair. They can become very brittle, ending eventually in possible hair and nail loss. This can come either as a result of long term consumption of smaller yet still too-large doses, or of rapid over indulgence.
As with the digestive complaints listed above, this is more commonly side effect of selenium supplements but can occur just as readily with the consumption of selenium rich foods.
They are calorically dense
Those six nuts mentioned earlier are not just too high in selenium. This little handful will also pack one hell of a caloric punch, with approximately 186 calories per half dozen.
They will also give you almost 9 grams of fat – approximately 24- 30% of your daily requirement. This is OK in moderation – this mantra will be key to Brazil nut consumption – but nutritionally dense foods like this can easily lead to overconsumption of calories and fat.
Obviously, this will aid in weight gain, which can lead to health complications in the long run.
As well as the above, some other issues may occur if you overindulge in Brazil nuts on a regular basis. These include:
- Spotty discolouration to your teeth
- A garlic smell on your breath or a metallic taste in your mouth
- Lesions and bad rashes on your skin
- Fatigue and irritability
- Increased nervousness
These symptoms often occur rapidly and are most commonly associated with taking too high a dose of selenium supplements. However, selenium rich foods like Brazil nuts can also bring these symptoms about.
The ongoing sustainability of Brazil nuts
As I mentioned before, Brazil nut trees are being lauded for their aid in rainforest conservation efforts. Many NTFPs (non-timber forest products) are being embraced by rainforest conservation initiatives as a means to provide income to locals without harming the forest.
Seeds and nuts are key in this battle, and Brazil nuts are among the best of the best.
There is a rider to this, however.
Whilst many outfits are putting a great deal of faith and money into NTFPs in general, and Brazil nut trees in particular, the sustainability of such projects is heavily reliant in the presence of key dispersing animals such as the agouti and acouchi – rainforest rodents whose place in the Brazil nut tree’s lifecycle is of major importance.
In areas in which the hunting of such animals is limited, Brazil nut trees flourish and do indeed provide the necessary means to locals, allowing them to forgo logging and other ecological harmful activities.
In places where seed extraction is accompanied by the sort of traditional subsistence hunting common to rainforest inhabitants, the ability of NTFP tree species such as the Brazil nut tree to propagate is reduced. Naturally, this puts the whole harvesting scheme at risk.
Seed dispersers are vital in sustainably managing forest areas and so need to be protected alongside the NTFPs themselves.
Brazil nuts 101…done!
Well, that’s me finished on Brazil nuts for the time being. We’ve hopefully gone through everything you need to know about this popular little seed-cum-nut.
It’s touted by many as a terrific health food, garnered in recent years in no small part due to its peerless selenium content and the healthy fats it delivers. It has earned its place as a healthy snack enjoyable by all, whilst the downsides are all very avoidable for the most part.
There are some fantastic, traditional ways of eating Brazil nuts, alongside some more modern, inventive recipes – Brazil nut milk is one of the best dairy substitutes around, for example.
However you decide to enjoy them, why don’t you let us know what Brazil nut recipes and combinations work the best for you?
Don’t forget to share in the comments down below.
About The Author:
James Dixon lives, works, and trains in Glasgow, Scotland.
He is an active freelance health and fitness writer, fully qualified personal trainer and veggie athlete. He holds several black belts and is currently training in both strength/barbell athletics and kickboxing. He has had an interest in animal welfare all his life, having been raised vegetarian, and has trained numerous athletes on plant based diets to great effect in recent years. Writing on vegetarian and vegan lifestyles and training is a passion for him.
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