Sometimes, the terms we use to describe things can be confusing. When it comes to food, we attempt to use language to describe a wide variety of different things, including nuts. However, many of the foods we describe as nuts are not actually true nuts. So what is a nut anyway? Is a peanut a nut? What about some other foods? The explanation below will attempt to clear up any confusion.
What Is a Nut?
When defining what a nut is, we have to go with botanical talk. A true nut is a pod that has a hard shell and contains both the fruit and the seed of a plant. The shell of true nuts is usually inedible, but the seed can be eaten. With a true nut, the shell does not open so that the seed can be released to the world. Some examples of botanically true nuts include acorns, chestnuts, and hazelnuts.
In addition to true nuts, there are also things called drupes. This is a type of fruit that has a fleshy outer part that surrounds a shell that contains a seed. Examples of drupes including cherries, plums, and peaches. However, walnuts, pecans, and almonds are also drupes. In the case of these drupes, though, we don’t eat the fleshy part (like we do for the other ones), we eat the seeds.
To make the nut definition even more confusing, nuts are sometimes classified as “culinary nuts,” which has a broader and looser definition. The “nuts” in this category can be botanical nuts (true nuts), seeds, or fruits (drupes)—basically any nut-like food that can be used in baking, cooking, or as a snack.
At the end of the day, however, a true nut has to be defined by its botanical definition. Everything else is not a true nut.
Is a Peanut a Nut?
When looking at the botanical definition, a peanut is not a nut, it’s a legume. It belongs to the same family as beans and peas because it is an edible seed that is enclosed in a pod. Legumes are considered to be the best source of concentrated protein that can be found in the plant kingdom.
Peanuts grow underground. There is a green leafy part that grows above ground, and these are adorned with small yellow flowers that develop around the lower part of the plant. The flowers are capable of pollinating themselves. They lose their petals after the fertilized ovary enlarges. This ovary extends down and away from the plant into the soil. This peanut embryo will turn itself horizontal to the surface of the soil and begin to mature. The growth cycle of the peanut plant takes 4 to 5 months from planting to harvesting.
If you’re defining a peanut with the culinary definition, then it is considered to be a nut. It is the most popular nut in the U.S., with 67% of all nut consumption being in the form of peanut butter or peanuts.
Other Nuts that Aren’t True Nuts
We have called a variety of other foods nuts because we can, but they aren’t considered to be true nuts. They include the following.
A Brazil nut is not a true nut because the pod that the seed is contained in splits apart.
These are drupes because there is a fleshy outer covering that encloses a hard shell with a seed. We don’t eat the outer covering of coconuts because it is coarse and hard, but we can eat the inside, which is much softer, or drink the water (not actually milk, as only animals with mammary glands have the ability to create milk).
These are also drupes. Cashews are actually covered in a skin that contains an irritant called anacardic acid. They come from plants that are members of the poison ivy family.
Language can be confusing, and the terms we give to foods might not describe their true natures. However, most of us still know what is being talked about when another person describes nuts. Love ‘em or hate ‘em, true nuts and culinary nuts are part of our diet and a great source of nutrition.
Are you nutty about nuts? Test your nut knowledge by playing a few fun nut-themed quizzes on Sporcle.