More good news about nuts

Wednesday, June 14th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

It's easy to see why nut producers are going nuts over Gene Spiller's little book, Healthy Nuts (Avery Publishing Group, $9.95).

The budget paperback elevates tree nuts - be they almonds, pecans, hazelnuts or macadamias - to the status of superfood.

The even-better news for consumers: It's not hyperbole. An expert on nuts, Dr. Spiller is among a handful of top scientists doing research on nuts and diet.

And in this information-packed, often charming volume, he writes like he's speaking to a roomful of rapt sixth-graders. Not that he's talking down. Rather, his enthusiasm jumps off the pages and he simplifies the technical information down to the basics. You can almost hear the animation in his voice and all but see him gesturing wildly to get certain points across.

A food, vitamin and pharmaceutical industry consultant, Dr. Spiller is also the founder of two research organizations: Health Research and Studies Center and the Sphera Foundation.

And he wants the world to know that nuts have unfairly been given the short shrift because of their high fat content. Nuts, he insists, are remarkably good for you - and that includes their fat. (He excludes peanuts, since technically they are legumes.)

Nowhere are their benefits more pronounced than with the cardiovascular system.

Time and again studies show nuts lowering cholesterol. But "how" remains a mystery. It may be the plant protein, or substituting this protein for animal protein. It may be the monounsaturated fats in nuts. (Macadamia nuts are loaded with monounsaturated fat.) Or the antioxidant power of vitamin E and its related compounds, or even the phytochemicals found in nuts: saponins, quercetin, kaempferol and plant sterols. Or fiber. Or a combination of these.

The amino acid arginine, so abundant in nuts, may also play a role in reducing cholesterol by "relaxing" the walls of blood vessels, Dr. Spiller writes. Nuts also appear to discourage blood clotting. And nuts contain the trace element copper, which one scientist has long believed plays a crucial role in preventing heart attacks. Nuts also add folic acid to the diet, which contributes to heart health by lowering homocysteine levels.

Many of these same compoounds also may help reduce the risk of and slow the growth of some cancers. The same is true of phytic acid, another component of nuts.

Each nut is a little different, Dr. Spiller explains. Walnuts, for instance, are rich in omega-3 fatty acids, a heart-healthy compound often lacking in Western diets. (Find them also in fatty, cold-water fish such as salmon.) Only Brazil nuts are rich in selenium, a mineral that may reduce the risk of cancer.

His enthusiasm not withstanding, Dr. Spiller is careful to explain the data that suggests or supports the benefits, delineating what scientists know, what they believe and what remains to be determined.

Curiously, there are not a lot of studies to draw on. Research specific to macadamias, for instance, is limited to a handful of Australian studies. But Dr. Spiller has done a good job of pulling together the far-flung pieces. The book is also laced with comments from other leading researchers, such as Harvard's Walter Willet, explaining what they think various studies mean.

The second part of Healthy Nuts details nuts' origins and history - an odd stretch for a scientist, but still entertaining. You learn that pistachios come from Persia (or Iran) and that pine nuts are found all over the world. Pecans are native to North America, as are black walnuts.

Dr. Spiller closes with suggestions for getting more nuts into your diet. He emphasizes that the object is to eat nuts - whole foods - rather than single-component compounds like a pill of phytochemicals or selenium.

In closing, he writes: "And now, as I set aside this manuscript, I shall make myself a glass of fresh nut milk with a little honey and enjoy all the goodness that nuts have to offer."

The man is plainly nutty about nuts.

Kim Pierce writes the nutrition column on the second Wednesday of each month. Address questions and comments to the Food Section, The Dallas Morning News, P.O. Box 655237, Dallas Texas 75265. E-mail at Fax to 214-977-8321.