Foods Indigenous to the Western Hemisphere


Arachis hypogaea L.

Peanuts, also known as groundnuts, are another of the Americas' major food contributions to the world. They are an excellent source of protein and fat, inexpensive, and versatile. As a result, they are now consumed in almost every part of the world, and have become important for the treatment of malnutrition in developing nations.

Origins and History

Despite their name, peanuts are not a nut, but a legume like lentils, peas, and beans. Their shells are actually pods which grow underground to protect them from animals and drought. They are believed to have been domesticated in Bolivia about 4000 years ago. Spanish explorers brought them to Europe and the Philippines, and Portuguese explorers brought them to East Africa. They are now consumed worldwide, and grown in almost every tropical and subtropical region of the world. Currently, most peanut production goes to oil and soap.

Peanuts originally found their way back to North America from Africa via the slave trade, and were initially cultivated for livestock feed. It wasn't until after the civil war that they became a popular food item. This was largely the result of the work of George Washington Carver at the Tuskegee Institute. He spent his life developing a variety of peanut products which allowed them to become an important food and oil source in the U.S.

In 1890, peanut butter was developed as a health food for sick people. However it quickly became a popular food for general consumption as well. Peanut butter is approximately 27 percent protein, 49 percent fat and 17 percent carbohydrates. It is made by removing the skin and germ from the peanut, after which they are dry roasted and ground. Sugars, oils and other flavorings may be added as well. It has a long shelf life, lasting up to two years un-refrigerated, but it eventually becomes rancid.

Nutritional Value

Peanuts are between 22 and 33 percent protein – higher than most animal foods and beans – and they provide almost all of the essential and non-essential amino acids. They contain up to 56 percent fat, most of which is monounsaturated, and only a very small amount is saturated. They are a good source of riboflavin, thiamine, and niacin, and a fair source of many other nutrients.

Due to their high protein and fat content, peanuts have been targeted as an excellent remedy for malnutrition in developing countries. They are cheap, easy to process and palatable to almost every culture. Several organizations have implemented programs which make use of various products similar to peanut butter to help treat malnourished children. For example, the Peanut Butter Project distributes a heavily fortified peanut paste to families in developing countries.

The only drawback to Peanuts is their potential to cause allergic reactions in some people. Although the peanut allergy is no more common than milk or egg allergies, the prevalence of peanuts in common products makes it particularly dangerous.