Could heart-healthy pistachios be the new pomegranate?

By Caroline Scott-Thomas

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Pistachios, Nutrition

Pistachio growers in the US are hoping that as another study emerges highlighting the health benefits of pistachios, the nuts may gain the kind of consumer recognition pomegranates have achieved in recent years.

According to research carried out at Penn State University and presented this week at the American Dietetic Association Food and Nutrition conference in Chicago, pistachios significantly reduce inflammation at a cellular level – a recognised risk factor for heart disease – as well as reducing cholesterol and blood pressure.

Raising awareness

Richard Matoian, executive director of the Western Pistachio Association, which funded the study, told “We have done a lot of work with the university as to how pistachios might be beneficial. Studies like this give manufacturers a good reason to think about including pistachios in their products, to give their products a nutritional profile that they might not find anywhere else.”

He said that most US-produced pistachios are still eaten as snacks, with only around ten per cent used as a food ingredient, but he hopes that as studies highlight pistachios’ heart-health benefits, they will be sought out by consumers. He envisages bakery manufacturers using pistachios not only for flavour but perhaps also to enrich flour.

“Providing the reason and rationale makes them think about it,” ​he said. “Pomegranates are in everything now, as studies emerged about their health benefits and with increased consumer awareness. We want to raise the profile of pistachios, as has happened with pomegranates.”

Decreased cholesterol

The study, conducted by researchers at Penn State University, looked at risk factors for cardiovascular disease including cholesterol and examining changes in marker genes for inflammation. It found that including three ounces of pistachios as part of a heart-healthy diet decreased total cholesterol by 8.4 per cent and that pistachios’ high lutein content reduced levels of oxidized low-density lipoproteins (LDL) – the so-called ‘bad’ cholesterol – by 11.2 per cent.

Pistachios contain more lutein - an antioxidant also found in dark green leafy vegetables - than other nuts, and the researchers found that the higher the quantity of pistachios, the greater the reduction of oxidised LDL, a major contributor to plaque formation in arteries.

“In addition to the effect of pistachio-rich diets on markers of inflammation, we also found that diet-induced changes in gene expression may help explain changes in heart disease risk factors following consumption of pistachio-rich diets,”​ said Sarah Gebauer, one of the researchers who conducted the study.

Participants of the randomised, crossover study were fed three different controlled diets, one without pistachios, one containing 1.5 ounces – about a handful - and one containing 3 ounces. Half of the nuts were consumed as a snack and half incorporated into foods such as muesli, muffins and pesto.

Further studies are being carried out on possible benefits of pistachios for diabetics as well as their potential for improving satiety.

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