What are Peanuts?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

The peanut is a product of a trailing bush formally known as Arachis hypogaea. Despite their name, peanuts are not actually nuts, they are legumes. In most culinary uses, peanuts are classified as nuts because they behave more like nuts in the kitchen than other legumes, such as lentils and beans. For people with nut allergies, the distinction is particularly important, since many individuals with nut allergies can eat peanuts safely. Conversely, people who are allergic to peanuts can often eat nuts.

Peanut oil.
Peanut oil.

The peanut plant is native to South America, and was brought to Europe by early explorers. Peanuts are still cultivated widely in South America, as well as Africa and warmer temperate countries in Europe, such as Spain. The plant is classified as an annual, producing peanuts once before dying back. It has simple green leaves and small yellow flowers on long stalks. Here is where things start to get peculiar for the peanut plant.

A jar of peanut butter.
A jar of peanut butter.

As the stalks grow, they start to droop to the ground. When the pods begin to form, they slowly force their way underground, ultimately maturing under the soil, forcing the farmer to dig the netted, tan colored pods up. It is possible that peanuts developed this growth habit as a method of protection from hot tropical sun, since they have thin pods. Once the peanut pods are harvested, the plant is removed, and typically used for animal fodder.

Peanut oil has a high smoking point and is widely used in many countries to fry foods.
Peanut oil has a high smoking point and is widely used in many countries to fry foods.

In many parts of Africa, peanuts are more commonly known as groundnuts, a reference to the underground location favored by the pods. Peanuts play a vital nutritional role in many parts of Africa, since they are high in protein and healthy fats. In some parts of Africa, peanuts represent a substantial percentage of the protein available for consumption. In the American South, peanuts are called “goobers,” a probable corruption of a Kikongo word, nguba.

Peanuts play a vital nutritional role in many parts of Africa.
Peanuts play a vital nutritional role in many parts of Africa.

There are several important roles for peanuts in many areas of the world. A large percentage of the annual peanut harvest is pressed to yield peanut oil, a pale yellow, neutrally flavored oil with a very high smoking point. Peanut oil is ideal for frying, and is widely used in many countries for this purpose. The nuts are also ground into peanut butter, a creamy spread which is popular with people of all ages. Peanuts can be found for sale whole as well, to be eaten plain, sprinkled onto food, or included in various dishes.

Even the slightest contact with peanut butter can trigger an allergic reaction in those with a peanut allergy.
Even the slightest contact with peanut butter can trigger an allergic reaction in those with a peanut allergy.
Despite their name, peanuts are actually classified as legumes, not nuts.
Despite their name, peanuts are actually classified as legumes, not nuts.
Native to South America, peanut plants are still widely cultivated there, especially in Brazil, Bolivia and Paraguay.
Native to South America, peanut plants are still widely cultivated there, especially in Brazil, Bolivia and Paraguay.
Peanuts are cultivated in warmer temperate countries in Europe, such as Spain.
Peanuts are cultivated in warmer temperate countries in Europe, such as Spain.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments

screenwriter

In my humble opinion, this world is grander and more joyful place because there are peanuts in it!

obsessedwithloopy

Peanuts are high in riboflavin, folate and niacin. They are high in protein without the unhealthy fat; a good deal.

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