As Thrive Market’s Food Editor, Merce Muse has experimented with her fair share of vegan, Paleo, and gluten free recipes. But of all the exotic ingredients out there that cater to special diets, one of her favorite kitchen must-haves is the humble cashew. “They’re creamy, so they make a perfect dairy replacement,” says Merce. “And since they have a more neutral flavor than other nuts, they’re ideal for making vegan milks, creamers, cheeses, and of course, nut butters."
Funny enough, despite their appearance in nearly every jar of “mixed nuts,” cashews are actually seeds; because of this technicality, many people with tree-nut allergies often find they can nosh on cashews without an allergic reaction. (Of course, if you have a nut allergy, check with your doctor first!) The crescent moon–shaped seed grows out of the cashew apple, a delicate and sweet fruit native to Brazil. Cashew apples are so fragile that they often don’t even make it to market, but it’s really the seed that’s prized to farmers and consumers.
Despite their buttery, creamy consistency cashews actually have a lower fat content than most nuts—the small amount of fat they do contain comes from oleic acid, the same type of fatty acid found in heart-healthy olive oil. That monounsaturated fat could be beneficial to those trying to lose weight. A recent study from Loma Linda University suggests adding nuts like cashews into a healthy diet promotes lower levels of body fat.
What’s really impressive, though, is the antioxidant and nutrient density of cashews. A quarter cup proves 98 percent of your daily copper intake and nearly a third of the daily recommended values of phosphorous, magnesium, manganese, and zinc. Most often found in animal sources, copper is necessary for iron utilization and fighting free-radical damage. (Excessive free radicals are linked to a host of chronic illnesses like cancer, neurological disease, and cardiovascular disease.) Copper also plays an essential role as a component of many enzymatic processes in the body like energy production and building collagen. Research shows that cashews actually increase antioxidant activity over time, meaning that eating them can improve the body’s ability to retain and utilize antioxidants.
The impressive amount of magnesium in cashews is reason enough to add them into your diet. The mineral is necessary for nearly 300 enzymatic processes, but nearly 80 percent of people in the United States are magnesium deficient. Not getting enough of this important nutrient can cause heart issues, impair metabolic function, mess with digestion, and affect the body’s ability to absorb calcium, and just a handful of cashews gives you 32 percent of the daily recommended value.
So yes, cashews might be one of the most important “nuts” to eat for a healthy metabolism and disease prevention, but they also taste pretty dang good. Toast them and add to your favorite stir-fry dish or popcorn mix for extra crunch or experiment by throwing a few in the food processor for a peanut butter alternative. You can also soak them in water for a few hours, and then blend for a “nut” milk that rivals full-fat dairy milk in creaminess. Better yet, go vegan for a day with this cashew ranch dressing recipe—you’ll never miss the buttermilk!
Photo credit: Alicia Cho