“A Handful of Pecans A Day Keeps the Doctor Away” Could Be Just Around the Corner!

For the second time this year, there’s even more good news about pecans. Plant sterols, widely researched and touted for their cholesterol-lowering ability, are found naturally in pecans in concentrated amounts, say University of Georgia (UGA) food science researchers. Their scientific findings were presented at the June Institute of Food Technologists’ (IFT) annual meeting in Dallas.

According to new research conducted by UGA’s Dr. Ron Eitenmiller et al, pecans contain as much as 95 milligrams of plant sterols per 100 grams, 90 percent of which is in the form of beta-sitosterol. Beta-sitosterol has been cited in multitudes of animal and human research studies as a food component that competes with the absorption of cholesterol in the body, and thus has the ability to lower blood cholesterol levels. The most recent review of the literature by Ling and Jones (1995) concluded that over the past 40 years, “moderate levels of plant sterols offer advantages as safe and inexpensive primary cholesterol lowering agents in humans.”

Thus, a standard one-ounce serving of pecans would contain up to 27 milligrams of plant sterols (and possibly as much as 24 milligrams of the well-studied beta-sitosterol.) Both pecans and peanuts (which also were part of the UGA analysis) are concentrated food sources of plant sterols and by increasing consumption of these nuts, a person could easily raise the plant sterol levels in the diet to the point where health effects have been proven, say the researchers. Man-made derivatives of plant sterols, as opposed to the plant sterols found naturally in pecans, are currently being used as added ingredients in several new so-called “functional” foods – foods that provide health benefits in addition to their nutritional content.

This pecan research adds to the growing evidence that pecans not only taste good, they’re also good for you. New Mexico State University (NMSU) research, published in the March Journal of the American Dietetic Association, revealed that consumption of ¾ cup of pecans daily significantly lowered total and LDL (“bad”) cholesterol levels. Study participants did not gain weight during the NMSU research – a phenomenon that also was reported in research presented at a June 6 American Heart Association conference on dietary fats. At the AHA conference, researchers from the Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston reported that dieters who followed a moderate fat diet (with 35 percent of calories from unsaturated fats such as nuts) lost equal amounts of weight as those on a low-fat diet. Participants on the higher fat diet also kept their weight off longer than those who followed a low-fat regimen.

In addition to their cholesterol-lowering components, pecans contain vitamin A, vitamin E, folic acid, calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, zinc and several B vitamins. Pecans are naturally cholesterol-free and sodium-free, and one serving provides about 10 percent of the Daily Value for zinc and fiber. Pecans are a particularly good source of unsaturated fats, including the monounsaturated fat known as oleic acid. Oleic acid, also found in olive oil, is a staple of the heart-healthy “Mediterranean diet.” A serving of pecans (about one ounce or 30 grams) actually has about 25-30 percent more oleic acid than a serving of olive oil (one tablespoon). The government’s newly released Dietary Guidelines for Americans acknowledge that as part of a balanced diet, consumers can eat moderate amounts of fat as long as it is predominantly monounsaturated and polyunsaturated — the heart-healthy, unsaturated fats.

Now, with all of these new research findings on pecans, there are more reasons than ever for consumers to make pecans part of a healthy, well-balanced diet.

Pecan Grape Chicken Salad

  • 2 lbs. boneless, skinless, cooked chicken breasts
  • 1 cup light mayonnaise
  • 1/2 cup light sour cream
  • 1 cup green grapes, halved
  • 1 1/4 cups toasted pecans
  • White pepper and salt to taste

Cut cooked chicken breasts into ½ inch cubes and set aside. Combine light mayonnaise and light sour cream in a bowl. Season with salt and white pepper to taste. Add cut chicken, grapes and toasted pecans. Mix lightly, coating chicken and stir until blended. Refrigerate for approximately one hour. Serve with lettuce or on toasted bread.