Botanically peanuts are legumes, however for culinary, research and nutritional purposes peanuts are considered a nut. Peanuts grow underground, as opposed to nuts like walnuts, almonds, etc. that grow on trees and these are botanically considered drupes.
Peanuts, along with beans and peas, belong to the single plant family, Leguminosae. Legumes are edible seeds enclosed in pods. As a group, they provide the best source of concentrated protein in the plant kingdom. While their physical structure and nutritional benefits more closely resemble that of other legumes, their use in diets and cuisines more closely resembles that of nuts.
Peanut seeds (kernels) grow into a green oval-leafed plant about 18 inches tall, which develop delicate yellow flowers around the lower portion of the plant. The flowers pollinate themselves and then lose their petals as the fertilized ovary begins to enlarge. The budding ovary or 'peg' grows down away from the plant, extending to the soil. The peanut embryo turns horizontal to the soil surface and begins to mature, taking the form of the peanut. From planting to harvesting, the growing cycle takes four to five months, depending on the type or variety.
In the U.S., peanuts and peanut butter are the most popular nut choice and comprise 67% of all nut consumption.
History of Peanuts, Consumption, and Affordability
The peanut plant is generally thought to have originated in South America. Spread by European explorers, the plant eventually reached Asian, Africa, and North America. The current top three producers of peanuts are China, India, and the U.S.
The production of peanuts in the U.S. started to rise around the earlier 1900s. This can be credited to the growing popularity of peanut butter, peanut-based candies, and other peanut products, a need for more plant oils during World War I, and the research of Dr. George Washington Carver.
Carver is considered by many to be the father of the peanut industry. He began his peanut research in 1903. He suggested to farmers that they rotate their cotton plants and cultivate peanuts. While cotton depletes nitrogen from the soil, peanuts as legumes have the property of putting nitrogen back into the soil.
For centuries through today, peanuts have been enjoyed in many culinary applications from Chinese to African to Western cooking. Used in stews, sauces, porridge, mixed dishes, boiled, or eaten out of hand; peanuts have continually nourished different populations providing an enjoyable flavor. Millions of peanuts are grown and consumed around the world. According to the USDA Foreign Agricultural Service, China, India, the U.S., and parts of Africa grow the most peanuts. In the U.S., peanuts and peanut butter comprise over two-thirds of all nut consumption and they are considered an all-American favorite. Plus, peanuts and peanut butter are an affordable and readily available grocery option.