Kirsten Nunez is a writer and author who covers food, health, DIY, design, and lifestyle. She’s been a freelance journalist for more than seven years, with her work appearing in digital outlets like Shape, Real Simple, Martha Stewart, MyRecipes, Healthline, VegNews, eHow, Mindbodygreen, Hunker, and POPSUGAR. Kirsten has also created original recipes for multiple food brands, which have appeared on products in stores. She holds a B.S. in Dietetics from the State University of New York (SUNY) College at Oneonta and an M.S. in Nutrition from Texas Women’s University. Kirsten is based in the Hudson Valley region of New York, where you can find her gardening, crafting, cooking, or buying books she doesn’t have space for.
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If you love crunchy, savory snacks, you might want to add Brazil nuts (aka butter or cream nuts) to your rotation. Brazil nuts are starting to become more popular in the United States, probably because they’re earthy, buttery, and chock-full of nutrients. Read on to learn about the health benefits of Brazil nuts, plus the best ways to try them.
Brazil nuts are the seeds of the Brazil nut tree, a tropical tree that is found in the Amazonian rainforest in South American countries such as Bolivia, Peru, and — you guessed it — Brazil. The tree grows round, brown fruits that look like coconuts, each containing 10 to 25 seeds, according to an article in Scientific Reports. When the wrinkly, brown, woody casing surrounding the seeds is opened, you’ll find an edible kernel called a Brazil nut.
In addition to offering protein, fiber, niacin, and vitamin B6, brazil nuts boast a myriad of minerals, including (but not limited to!) magnesium, potassium, and zinc, according to a 2020 article. The Brazil nut’s claim to fame, however, is its sky-high content of the mineral selenium — so much so that, according to a 2017 article, the nut’s “the most potent food source of selenium.” In fact, just one Brazil nut contains enough selenium to meet your daily needs, says registered dietitian nutritionist Sarah Skovran, R.D.N, L.D. (For context, adult men and women need 55 micrograms of selenium a day, according to the National Institutes of Health.) More specifically, one Brazil nut contains a whopping 96 micrograms, which is almost double the recommended amount. So why is this noteworthy? Because selenium is involved in a range of functions, such as thyroid hormone production and DNA synthesis, according to the NIH.
Here’s the nutritional profile of two nuts (~10 grams) according to the United States Department of Agriculture:
Okay, so Brazil nuts are packed with essential nutrients — but what does this mean for you? Read on to learn about the health benefits of Brazil nuts, according to registered dietitians.
Selenium (which, again, Brazil nuts are exceptionally rich in) is an antioxidant. This means the mineral can combat free radicals and oxidative stress, thereby, minimizing the risk of chronic disease. Need a quick refresher:? Here you go: Free radicals are molecules that, in excess, can damage cells and cause oxidative stress, which can lead to conditions such as cancer, heart disease, and type 2 diabetes. However, “antioxidants work by altering free radicals in such a way that they become harmless,” explains Skovran. What’s more, as antioxidants thwart oxidative stress, they also reduce inflammation. (That’s because oxidative stress can fuel inflammation and vice versa, according to a 2018 scientific review). This is key because inflammation’s also involved in the development of the aforementioned chronic conditions.
But the selenium in Brazil nuts doesn’t work alone. “Brazil nuts contain vitamin E and substances called phenols, which are antioxidants,” shares Skovran. Vitamin E also supports immune function, according to the NIH, further enhancing the disease-busting benefits of Brazil nuts.
The selenium in Brazil nuts can also promote healthy thyroid gland function. ICYDK, the thyroid gland produces thyroid hormones, which regulate bodily functions such as metabolism and menstruation. With that in mind, thyroid health is crucial for overall wellness, and the selenium in Brazil nuts can help. “Hormone production in the thyroid gland is dependent on selenium, so deficiency can significantly impact metabolism,” explains Kelsey Lorencz, R.D.N., registered dietitian nutritionist and founder of Graciously Nourished. Specifically, according to Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, selenium helps change thyroid hormone into its active form, ensuring the body can properly use it. “Selenium also [protects] the thyroid gland from oxidative stress,” adds Lorencz. This is key since oxidative stress is linked to thyroid issues, including hypothyroidism (underactive thyroid) or hyperthyroidism (overactive thyroid), according to an article in the journal Mediators of Inflammation.
Brazil nuts can support the heart, which is due in part to (surprise!) their selenium. As mentioned above, oxidative stress can contribute to heart disease, but the antioxidant properties of selenium can help reduce the risk. Brazil nuts also offer nutrients that reduce high blood cholesterol and blood pressure, two major risk factors for heart disease, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Here’s the deal: Brazil nuts contain monounsaturated (“good”) fats, which can help lower blood levels of LDL (“bad”) cholesterol, says Lorencz. This is key because, when present in high amounts, LDL cholesterol can increase the risk of heart attack and stroke, notes Lorencz. In fact, in a 2015 study, a daily intake of 13 grams of Brazil nuts (about two nuts) improved cholesterol and blood pressure in people with high levels of both.
But wait, there’s more: Brazil nuts also contain soluble fiber, a type of fiber that also reduces LDL cholesterol, says Skovran. Soluble fiber isn’t absorbed in the GI tract, so it binds to cholesterol instead, according to a 2019 article. Then, when the fiber leaves your body via poop, it brings along the bad stuff ultimately preventing cholesterol from accumulating in the blood. (And this isn’t just a benefit of Brazil nuts, in particular. You can also lower your LDL by noshing on avocado, strawberries, and these other foods that reduce cholesterol.)
Brazil nuts contain some calcium, which is necessary for healthy bones, as well as magnesium, according to Skovran, is “an unsung hero of bone health, [as it contributes] to bone density.” Moreover, “the selenium in Brazil nuts activates enzymes that protect bone-building cells known as osteoblasts,” shares Megan Wong, R.D., a registered dietitian at AlgaeCal, a supplement company. “Selenium also helps to reduce to the activity of osteoclasts,” which are cells that dissolve the bone.
The Brazil nut’s benefits extend to your brain, too. The antioxidant effects of selenium can protect brain cells from oxidative damage, according to Wong. This is important because oxidative stress can contribute to age-related cognitive decline, according to a 2020 article in the Frontiers in Molecular Neuroscience. It can also play a role in neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer’s disease, according to a 2019 review article. In fact, according to said review, Alzheimer’s disease is associated with low brain levels of selenium, suggesting a link between the antioxidant properties of selenium and oxidative stress in Alzheimer’s disease.
Since Brazil nuts are so high in selenium, you’ll want to avoid eating them regularly, recommends Lorencz. Doing so could cause excess selenium to build up in the body, resulting in selenium toxicity. Early signs of this include a metallic taste in the mouth, bad breath, nausea, diarrhea, hair loss, nail brittleness, skin rash, and fatigue, according to Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. So, how much is too much? The NIH posits that the max amount you can consume in a day sans negative side effects is 400 micrograms for adult men and women. This equals about four Brazil nuts, which together contain about 384 micrograms of selenium, according to the USDA. Meanwhile, research suggests selenium toxicity occurs at about 1,200 micrograms — the equivalent of eating 13 Brazil nuts (~1,248 micrograms of selenium). In light of all that, Wong recommends eating no more than two Brazil nuts a day to stay within the safe limits while reaping the benefits of selenium.
It’s also possible to be allergic to Brazil nuts, which, BTW, are a type of tree nut just like almonds and cashews. Tree nuts are some of the most common food allergens, according to the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology — and Brazil nuts are no exception. So, if you’re new to Brazil nuts and have a history of nut allergies, check with your doc before adding the crescent-shaped snack to your diet. Granted, having an allergy to one tree nut doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ll be allergic to all tree nuts, according to the AAAAI — but it’s better to be safe than sorry. (See also: What You Need to Know About Allergy Testing)
Brazil nuts are available at supermarkets, specialty health food stores, and online retailers, where “you can find [them] raw, roasted, covered in chocolate, or as a spread,” says Lorencz. Try Sunfood Superfoods Raw Organic Brazil Nuts (Buy It, $18, vitaminshoppe.com). They’re also commonly found in nut mixes, such as Food to Live Nuts Mix (Buy It, $10, amazon.com), adds Lorencz.
When shopping for Brazil nuts, there are a few things to consider. Skovran recommends looking out for trans fats, which are fats that increase LDL cholesterol levels. “It’s not always enough to check that there are 0 trans fats listed in the nutrition facts, [so] read the label and avoid items that contain the words ‘hydrogenated’ or ‘partially hydrogenated,'” she explains. (Hydrogenation is the process of transforming oil from a liquid to a solid, and it can destroy the nutritional benefits of the fat. Nuts are often roasted in oil.) It’s also a good idea to check the label for added sugars and salts, especially if you have a medical condition that requires limiting these ingredients (e.g. type 2 diabetes or hypertension, respectively). And if you’re allergic to some (but not all) tree nuts, be extra conscientious when shopping for nut mixes, as each blend can be different.
Brazil nuts, like other tree nuts, are super versatile. You can eat them as is — in moderation! — or add them to main dishes, snacks, and more. Here’s some inspo to get you started:
In pesto. Pine nuts shouldn’t get to have all the fun. Switch up your usual pesto sauce by adding Brazil nuts to the mix. Try this Creamy Brazil Nut Pesto Pasta by food blog Cupful of Kale.