6 Reasons to Fall in Love with California Walnuts for Optimal Aging

Has this ever happened to you? You are about to make a much-loved recipe only to find you are missing one ingredient. One very important ingredient for which there is no substitution. It happened to me recently and it led to a discovery. I was all set to make the absolute best banana bread, Old Soul’s Walnut Banana Bread, (click here for the recipe) using California walnuts. I’ve been making this recipe for ten years, ever since I got the opportunity to go on a walnut harvest tour in 2011.

Photo credit: Old Soul’s Walnut Banana Bread @cawalnuts

English walnuts versus Black Walnuts

I asked my husband to stop at the store pick up walnuts and he bought black walnuts. I didn’t know the difference, but my taste buds did! Black walnuts are bitter and sharp tasting compared to English walnuts and my favorite banana bread just didn’t taste the same.

I reached out to walnut guru, Carol Berg Sloan, a registered dietitian, and health research director for California Walnuts to ask her to explain the difference. “Black walnuts are indeed different from English walnuts …which the California Walnut Commission and Board represent. Black walnuts are indigenous to the United States and before there were hybrid rootstocks, English walnuts were grafted onto black walnut rootstock to produce the walnuts we are most familiar with. California walnuts are called English walnuts because English traders brought them over to the US from Persia centuries ago. Black walnuts are much more bitter than English …as you noticed. They are usually used in confectionaries and ice cream. Lots of people like the flavor, but I’m with you, they are too tannic for my taste.” There are many reasons for older adults to embrace English or California walnuts and here are my top 6 reasons, although you can find even more reasons by clicking here.

Photo credit: California Walnuts @cawalnuts

Unique Nutrient Profile

All nuts are healthful but English walnuts have a unique nutrient profile. Carol Berg Sloan explains, “California walnuts tout the omega-3 content as our claim to fame; it is the only nut with significant amounts of the essential omega-3 fatty acid, alpha linolenic acid or ALA.” In nutrition terms, the word “essential” means that the nutrient must be obtained from foods because the body cannot make it or make it in sufficient amounts. Research on the role of ALA is strongest in reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease. California walnuts contain three times the amount of ALA as black walnuts.

Plant-based

Interest in plant-based eating is high and 1 in 4 adults say they are eating more protein from plant sources than they did a year ago, according to the 2021 IFIC Food & Health Survey. A serving of walnuts (1-ounce or ¼ cup or 12-14 halves or about a handful) provides over 2.5 grams of protein which is more than an 8-ounce serving of almond milk. When added to salads, used in pesto, or simply eaten as a snack, walnuts can boost plant-based protein consumption.

Heart Health

High blood pressure and high cholesterol…. both major risk factors for heart disease…are the top chronic conditions of older adults. Since 80% of adults 65 and older have at least one chronic condition, while 68% have two or more, eating to help control chronic disease is a positive strategy that everyone can adopt. A handful of walnuts improves the elasticity of blood vessels and lowers LDL or the “bad” cholesterol. Both benefits lower the risk for cardiovascular disease.

Toasted walnuts, black bean, corn & tomato salsa
Photo credit: California Walnuts and Cape Cod Kitchen @cawalnuts

Cognitive health

It is well known that what is good for the heart is good for the brain! In addition to the essential fatty acid, ALA, walnuts are rich in plant-nutrients, called polyphenols, as well as vitamin E. Those nutrients are related to healthy aging and research suggests that walnut consumption improves cognitive function as measured by tests of reaction time and recall.

Gut health

Emerging research suggests walnuts have dietary fibers that act like prebiotic fibers. (For more on prebiotics, click here.) In recent studies, consuming a little more than a handful (about 1.5 ounces) each day led to changes in the gut microbiome; improving the diversity of “good” bacteria and supporting digestive health.

Great taste and versatility

Good nutrition isn’t good unless it is eaten! Taste rules and walnuts taste great. I like them as an afternoon snack for their nutrition and for satiety value, keeping me feeling full until dinner. But, they are also highly versatile as an ingredient….from walnut crusted chicken or fish to a filler for meatballs to pesto. Of course, they are the star in my banana bread! For hundreds of recipes check out this link from California Walnuts.

Thai walnut BBQ chicken bowl
Photo credit: California Walnuts and Cape Fear Nutrition @cawalnuts

If you need another reason to consume walnuts, recently published research in the Journal of Aging Research found that women consuming nuts at midlife have a greater likelihood of overall health and well-being at older ages. “Nut consumption may represent a simple intervention to explore and promote healthy aging,” suggest the researchers.

Chris Rosenbloom is a registered dietitian and nutrition professor emerita at Georgia State University. She is the co-author of Food & Fitness After 50 and you can follow her blog by clicking here.