By botanical standards, peanuts aren't nuts: Because of their shell structure, the subterranean fruits are classified as legumes. But science hasn't stopped Americans from making the peanut their favorite "nut." According to The Peanut Institute, peanuts and peanut butter account for 67 percent of nuts eaten nationwide. Runner-up almonds claim a mere 13 percent of the consumption chart.
Peanuts' popularity dates back millennia. More than 3000 years ago, South Americans produced peanut-shaped pottery. And Incans living in modern-day Peru later buried peanuts with their mummies. By the time explorers were tromping around Mexico, peanuts were growing there too: The Europeans took the legumes back to Spain, from where they spread to Africa. In the 1700s, Africans brought peanuts to North America. Still, in the U.S., it took the Civil War and barnstorming circus vendors to help make peanuts a universally beloved snack.
Nowadays, Americans eat on average about six pounds of peanuts and peanut products annually. In honor of that statistic, here's one peanut fact for each pound consumed (plus a bonus seventh tidbit: Consider it the jelly on the sandwich.)
1. Although combining peanuts and Coca-Cola is a relatively recent innovation - the soda wasn't bottled until 1894 - nobody is certain how the Southern practice got its start. According to a Coke-commissioned investigation by food historian Rick McDaniel, it's possible famers and mechanics with dirty hands poured peanuts directly into glass Coca-Cola bottles rather than fuss with washing up before snacking.
2. "It's not overstating matters to say that Dr. (George Washington) Carver and the peanut helped save the economy of the South," the National Peanut Board says of the Tuskegee horticulturist who published "How to Grow the Peanut and 105 Ways of Preparing it For Human Consumption" in the wake of Alabama's cotton crisis. Carver didn't stop with his 1916 pamphlet, though: He ultimately came up with 300 peanut-based products, many of which reflected the era's fads and fashions. A complete list maintained by Tuskegee University includes emulsified oils for treating sexually transmitted diseases, hair pomade, skin lightener and shoe polish. Among his edible ideas were mock oysters, instant coffee, mayonnaise, chop suey sauce, dainties and "substitute asparagus."
3. The number of U.S. children with peanut allergies tripled between 1997 and 2008, according to a study funded by the Food Allergy Research & Education organizations. Scientists still can't explain the proliferation of cases, but recent research shows early peanut exposure may help reduce severe allergies. The New York Times this year reported on a finding that "children whose nonallergic mothers had the highest consumption of peanuts or tree nuts, or both, during pregnancy had the lowest risk of developing a nut allergy." In another study, six months of oral immunotherapy resulted in 91 percent of test subjects being able to safely eat five peanuts a day.
4. Better known for their football rivalries, Texas and Oklahoma have lately been locked in a "world's biggest peanut butter-and-jelly sandwich" showdown. Oklahoma City held the record for eight years, before being dethroned by Grand Saline, Texas' 1,342-pound sandwich. To put that sandwich's heft in perspective, the average American child eats 1,500 normal-size peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches before graduating from high school.
5. South Carolina is considered one of 10 major peanut-producing states by the National Peanut Board, despite its output being dwarfed by Georgia (originator of 41 percent of U.S.-grown peanuts) and Texas (the state from which 24 percent of U.S. peanuts hail.) But South Carolina peanuts have been on the upswing since 2002, when the U.S. Farm Bill ended the quota system that prevented the state's farmers from planting significant acreage. The 2012 peanut crop was valued at $120 million.
6. If Snickers, one of many peanut-centered candy bars released between the two World Wars, "really satisfies," as the 35-year-old slogan goes, it's largely because of the whole peanuts in the mix. A one-ounce serving of peanuts provides 10 percent of the recommended daily intake of protein. Peanuts are also high in niacin, antioxidants, fiber and vitamin E.
7. It's not clear how enslaved Africans in the Colonial South ate peanuts, but Fred Fussell, writing in the Foodways volume of "The New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture," suggests the most common cooking methods included boiling and roasting. In the 18th century, roasted peanuts were ground into a paste that was used to thicken stews and mixed with hot water and cinnamon for drinking.
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