Peanuts aren’t nuts, but are paleo dieters better off cutting peanuts out?

Today I learned that peanuts aren’t in fact nuts, but legumes. Despite avid research to prove this wrong, the Mayo Clinic kicked my last straw of disbelief, by noting, “Even peanuts — which are technically not a nut, but a legume, like beans — seem to be relatively healthy.”

I originally heard about this from a colleague that is all about the CrossFit craze. A common dietary trend that couples well with this method of exercise is the “Paleolithic Diet,” which is also known as the “Stone Age Diet,” or, “Cave Man Diet.”

After picking her brain on what this caveman-inspired diet is all about, she said the protein-driven diet would be challenging for vegetarians because grains, diary and beans are forbidden. No whole wheat? More importantly, NO PEANUT BUTTER? Founder of the diet, Dr. Ben Balzer notes,


Grains, beans and potatoes are full of energy but all are inedible in the raw state as they contain many toxins.

Like many, my “Strawberry Shortcake” lunchbox was routinely equipped with a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Since becoming vegetarian, I have utilized peanut butter as a go-to protein source. So upon hearing this news, I had to find more information on the toxins Balzer refers to. Able to shed some light, Dallas Hartwig over at Whole9 wrote a fantastic post, “Peanut Manifesto”, on the down and dirty details of peanuts.

Specifically, he noted two main reasons why peanuts are harmful:

When peanuts grow, they can harbor carcinogenic mold called an “aflatoxin“. This goes for conventional and organic peanuts. They longer they sit (during shipping, for example), especially in warm temperatures and high humidity, the more mold grows. And as it’s nearly impossible to buy peanuts “local”, as they are only grown in a few Southern locations, more likely than not that even your organic peanuts are suspect.

The far bigger concern, however, is that peanuts contain lectins which are believed to have inflammatory and atherogenic potential. Most plants contain lectins, some of which are toxic, inflammatory, or both. Many of these lectins are resistant to cooking and to digestive enzymes, and some have been scientifically shown to have significant GI toxicity in humans. Lectins from grains (especially wheat) and legumes (including peanuts and soybeans) are most commonly associated with aggravation of inflammatory and digestive diseases in the body. (As an aside, dairy from cows fed grain-based diets can also contain these grain-derived lectins.)

So it looks like no matter whether you prefer organic or ordinary peanuts, consuming peanuts ups the ante of contracting disease.

On the same site that Hartwig cited to explain aflatoxins, it notes that aflatoxins are found in a variety of foods, but most commonly in corn, peanuts and cottonseed. After some research, it seems that cottonseed can be found in a variety of items, such as processed foods and cattle feed (California Animal Health & Food Safety – Feeding Cottonseed to Dairy Cattle .PDF). Interesting.

Color me skeptical, but in a recent article in the NYTimes, “The New Age Cavemen and the City” Joseph Goldstein wrote about a few New York-based gents on the paleo diet and quoted one imbecile’s behavior:

Mr. Averbukh is a pre-Promethean sort of caveman. Much of his nourishment comes from grass-fed ground beef, which he eats raw. In a bow to the times, he sometimes uses a fork.

The other cavemen in New York find Mr. Averbukh’s preference for raw beef a little strange.

I recognize that not all folks on the paleo diet are as extreme as Averbukh, in fact that same colleague mentioned above said the gents were ridiculous and douchey. So this isn’t a testament to how all paleo dieters are; however, the fundamental question at hand is how is eating raw meat, or cooked meat for that matter, anymore harmful than eating peanut butter? Especially if my research proves accurate and cottonseed is also in cattlefeed — isn’t that a roundabout way of getting the same aflatoxins?

All nit-picking aside, I find this information about peanuts helpful for vegetarians. We can opt for even better health by swapping out our beloved peanut butter to something that Hartwig suggests, sunflower seed butter or almond butter.