The Wide World of the Humble Peanut
Do you like peanuts? If so, you have a lot of company. Peanuts, also called groundnuts, are enjoyed by a huge portion of the human family. The two most populous nations on earth—China and India—together produce over 50 percent of the total world crop.
The United States harvests billions of pounds [more than a billion kilograms] of peanuts annually, producing almost 10 percent of the world total. Argentina, Brazil, Malawi, Nigeria, Senegal, South Africa, and Sudan are also major peanut-growing countries. How did the peanut become so popular? Is it ever wise to avoid eating peanuts?
A Long History
The peanut is thought to have originated in South America. One of the earliest known artifacts showing man’s appreciation of peanuts is a pre-Columbian vase discovered in Peru. The vase is shaped like a peanut and is also decorated with peanut-shaped designs. Spanish explorers, who first encountered peanuts in South America, found them to be an excellent source of nutrition for their voyages. They then brought some back to Europe. The Europeans put the peanut to additional uses, even as a substitute for coffee beans.
Later the Portuguese introduced peanuts to Africa. There peanuts were quickly recognized as a valuable food source that would grow in soil too barren to sustain other crops. In fact, the peanut plants actually enriched the poor soil with much-needed nitrogen. The peanut eventually made its way from Africa to North America during the time of the slave trade.
In the 1530’s, the peanut traveled to India and Macao with the Portuguese and to the Philippines with the Spanish. Traders then introduced peanuts from these lands into China. There the peanut was seen as a crop that could help the nation to cope with the burden of famine.
Botanists of the 1700’s studied peanuts, which they called ground peas, and decided that they would make an excellent food for pigs. By the early 1800’s, peanuts were being grown commercially in South Carolina in the United States. During the American Civil War, which began in 1861, peanuts served as food for soldiers on both sides of the conflict.
At the time, however, many people thought of peanuts as food for the poor. This perception partly explains why American farmers of the day did not cultivate peanuts extensively for human consumption. Moreover, before the invention of mechanized equipment about the year 1900, cultivating peanuts was very labor-intensive.
But by 1903 pioneering American agricultural chemist George Washington Carver had begun research into new uses for the peanut plant. He eventually developed more than 300 products from it, including beverages, cosmetics, dyes, medicines, laundry soap, insecticide, and printer’s ink. Carver also encouraged local farmers to break with their practice of cultivating only cotton, which was depleting the soil, and to alternate with crops of peanuts. At the time, the boll weevil was devastating cotton crops, prompting many farmers to follow Carver’s advice. The result? Peanuts were so successful that they became a major cash crop in the southern United States. Today a monument to Carver stands in Dothan, Alabama. And the town of Enterprise, Alabama, has even erected a monument to the boll weevil, since that insect’s ravages helped to motivate farmers to cultivate peanuts.
Peanuts are not actually nuts but are really the seeds of the peanut plant. As the plant grows, it puts forth yellow flowers that pollinate themselves.
In the tip of a stalklike structure called a peg, the fertilized plant ovary, which contains the embryo, begins to penetrate the soil. In the soil the embryo runs parallel to the surface and begins to mature underground, taking on the well-known form of a peanut. Up to 40 peanuts may grow on a single plant.
Peanuts like warm, sunny climes with moderate rainfall. The time from planting to harvesting may vary from 120 to 160 days, depending on the variety of peanut and the weather conditions. To harvest peanuts, growers must dig up the plants, vine and all, turn them upside down, and allow them to dry so that they can be stored without spoiling. Today many growers use modern farm equipment that enables them to dig up the vines, shake the dirt from them, and invert them, all in one operation.
The Many Uses of the Peanut
The food value of peanuts is impressive. Peanuts are high in fiber, and they contain 13 vitamins and 26 minerals, many of which are lacking in modern diets. “Pound for pound, peanuts have more protein, minerals, and vitamins than beef liver,” says The Encyclopædia Britannica. But beware, weight watchers! Peanuts also have “more fat than heavy cream” and “more food energy (calories) than sugar.”
Peanuts feature in a wide array of national cuisines. And their unique taste is hard to miss. “The flavor of the peanut is so rich and unmistakable that any dish flavored with ground peanuts will have a similar flavor,” notes culinary author Anya von Bremzen. “Therefore, there will be a continuity in taste between an Indonesian peanut sauce, a West African soup, Chinese noodles, Peruvian stew, and a peanut butter sandwich.”
Peanuts are also a favorite snack item around the world. In India, for instance, peanuts are mixed with other dried legumes and sold as a street snack. Interestingly, peanut butter, a sandwich spread popular in some countries, was reportedly “invented by a physician in St. Louis [U.S.A.] about 1890 as a health food for [the] elderly,” according to the publication The Great American Peanut.
But peanuts have found many other uses besides serving directly as food. Throughout Asia, peanuts are an important source of cooking oil. Peanut oil can be used for cooking at very high temperatures, and it does not pick up the flavor of the items being cooked.
In Brazil, peanut meal, a by-product of peanut-oil production, is used as animal feed. And peanut products also find their way into many everyday commodities.—See above.
Peanuts can be stored for long periods without refrigeration. However, caution is in order. Peanuts that have become moldy contain aflatoxin, a potent cancer-causing agent. In addition, some people are allergic to peanuts. The allergic reaction “can produce symptoms ranging from runny noses and rashes to life-threatening anaphylactic shock,” states the magazine Prevention. Several studies have indicated that it is becoming more common for young children to develop an allergy to peanuts.
If both of a child’s parents have asthma, allergic rhinitis, or eczema, the child has an increased risk of developing a peanut allergy, reports Prevention.
The same is true of babies whose mothers have a history of allergies and babies who develop an allergy to milk during their first year. “It’s a good idea for these families to keep peanut butter off the highchair and skip it until at least the third birthday,” says Dr. Hugh Sampson, professor of pediatrics at Johns Hopkins University Medical Center, U.S.A.
Whether you are a peanut lover or not, perhaps this consideration of its many uses has given you greater appreciation for this humble yet widely popular seed.
[Box/Picture on page 24]
Peanut By-Products May Be Found in Many Everyday Goods
• Fireplace logs
• Cat litter
• Metal polish
• Axle grease
• Shaving cream
• Face cream
Source: The Great American Peanut
[Diagram/Picture on page 22]
(For fully formatted text, see publication)
Ground level |
The Peanut Farmer magazine
[Picture on page 22]
A monument to George Washington Carver
[Picture on page 23]
[Picture on page 23]
[Picture on page 23]
FAO photo/R. Faidutti
[Picture on page 23]
Some varieties of peanut snacks
[Picture on page 24]
Peanut butter is a popular food in some lands