photoIf you frequent the supermarket organic aisle in search of healthy food high in antioxidants, perhaps you should wander on over to the baking aisle and stock up on walnuts.

A report released at the American Chemical Society’s national meeting positions walnuts in the No. 1 slot among a family of foods that lay claim to being among Mother Nature’s most nearly perfect packaged foods -- nuts.

“Walnuts rank above peanuts, almonds, pecans, pistachios and other nuts,” said Joe Vinson, Ph.D., who did the analysis. “A handful of walnuts contains almost twice as much antioxidants as an equivalent amount of any other commonly consumed nut. But unfortunately, people don’t eat a lot of them. This study suggests that consumers should eat more walnuts as part of a healthy diet.”

Not the most popular snack

Unlike peanuts, people don’t tend to snack on walnuts. However, they add texture and nicely spice up yogurt and oatmeal. They are especially good in brownies, though that might negate some of their health effects. But if you were going to make brownies anyway, adding walnuts might, in fact, make them a tad healthier.

Vinson notes that nuts in general have an unusual combination of nutritional benefits -- in addition those antioxidants -- wrapped into a convenient and inexpensive package.

Nuts, for instance, contain plenty of high-quality protein that can substitute for meat; vitamins and minerals; dietary fiber; and are dairy- and gluten-free. Years of research by scientists around the world link regular consumption of small amounts of nuts or peanut butter with decreased risk of heart disease, certain kinds of cancer, gallstones, Type 2 diabetes, and other health problems.

Number one nut

Despite all the previous research, scientists until now had not compared both the amount and quality of antioxidants found in different nuts, Vinson said. He filled that knowledge gap by analyzing antioxidants in nine different types of nuts: walnuts, almonds, peanuts, pistachios, hazelnuts, Brazil nuts, cashews, macadamias, and pecans. Walnuts had the highest levels of antioxidants.

According to the research, walnuts also have he best and most potent antioxidants. Vinson says antioxidants contained in walnuts were up to 15 times as potent as vitamin E, renowned for its powerful antioxidant effects that protect the body against damaging natural chemicals involved in causing disease.

“There’s another advantage in choosing walnuts as a source of antioxidants,” said Vinson, who is with the University of Scranton in Pennsylvania. “The heat from roasting nuts generally reduces the quality of the antioxidants. People usually eat walnuts raw or unroasted, and get the full effectiveness of those antioxidants.”

Despite all this, the walnut appears both under appreciated and under consumed. Nuts, in general, he says, account for barely eight percent of the daily antioxidants in the average person’s diet.

Aren’t nuts, in general, loaded with fat and calories? Vinson says that nuts contain healthful polyunsaturated and monosaturated fats rather than artery-clogging saturated fat. As for the calories, eating nuts does not appear to cause weight gain and even makes people feel full and less likely to overeat.