Are Pecans Good for You? Here’s What Nutritionists Say
Pecans are healthy nuts rich in antioxidants. Here's what you need to know about pecans nutrition, health benefits, and how to eat them.
Pecans: A healthy nut
The rich and buttery goodness of pecans makes for an indulgent ingredient in sweet treats, or as a garnish. At least that’s where pecans traditionally land—in pecan pie and on sticky buns. But maybe that’s why we’ve overlooked pecans as a healthy nut, thinking they should be eaten sparingly or only as a special treat. It’s time to give pecans a second look because they actually contain many good things that are healthy for us.
“According to the USDA, pecans rank as one of the top 15 foods with the highest levels of antioxidants. They are also loaded with vitamins and minerals like manganese, potassium, calcium, iron, magnesium, zinc, and selenium,” says New York City-based registered dietitian Deborah Malkoff-Cohen.
Here’s everything you need to know about pecan nutrition facts, health benefits, and how to eat them.
Where do pecans grow?
The pecan is the only tree nut native to North America. The word “pecan” comes from a Native American name of Algonquian origin that means “a nut too hard to crack by hand.” Pecans are mainly grown in primarily grown in 15 U.S. states: Alabama, Arkansas, Arizona, California, Florida, Georgia, Kansas, Louisiana, Missouri, Mississippi, North Carolina, New Mexico, Oklahoma, South Carolina, and Texas.
And an impressive 80 percent of U.S. grown pecans supplies the whole world. Another tree nut, the cashew, grows on trees too. Yet once you see how cashews grow, you’ll never see them the same way again.
How do pecans grow?
Pecans are grown in trees and harvested in the U.S. Their usually in groves or orchards. Groves are what you might see in the wild, while orchards are commercial operations. You can’t rush nature when it comes time to growing pecans.
It takes between seven to 10 years before a tree yields a full crop. But once a tree starts, it can produce pecans for up to 100 years or more.
Pecans are sold in the shell, shelled, raw, and roasted in various sizes from whole “mammoth” size all the way down to tiny pieces of pecan meal. (They’re also the perfect topping for this creamy vegan sweet potato recipe.)
Uncracked: The pecans best-kept secret
When it comes to the tree nut family of walnuts, pistachio, Brazil nuts, macadamia nuts, cashews, almonds, and hazelnuts, the pecan shines in one category—antioxidants. “Pecans have the highest levels of a form of vitamin E called gamma-tocopherols,” says Malkoff-Cohen. Vitamin E is a powerful antioxidant, which provides cell protection, is crucial for a functioning immune system, helps cells fight off infection, and helps to mitigate oxidative stress, which is implicated in cardiovascular disease.” (Try the best antioxidant-rich foods.)
Pecans cram in a lot of vital nutrition in just one serving. “Pecans are rich in many key nutrients, especially fiber, copper, thiamine, and zinc,” says Chicago-based registered dietitian Nichole Dandrea-Russert. “Copper and zinc support immune function, and thiamine is essential for energy metabolism.”
Pecans also have more than half of the daily value (DV) you need for manganese, a mineral that’s essential for bone development, the metabolism of carbohydrates, cholesterol, and amino acids, and reducing inflammation. And pecans have the edge over other nuts in that they are one of the lowest in carbs and highest in dietary fiber, Malkoff-Cohen says.
Here are the nutrition facts for one ounce (19 halves) of pecans.
Pecan nutrition facts
Protein: 2.6 g (5% DV)
Carbs: 3.9 g (1% DV)
Fiber: 2.7 g (10% DV)
Fat: 20 g (30% DV)
Sugar: 1.1 g
Sodium: 0 mg
Chris Clor/Getty Images
Pecan potential health benefits
Blood sugar, or blood glucose, transports sugar throughout our body to carries glucose to the cells to use for energy. Sometimes, the blood sugar levels get too high from the food we eat— like in the case of diabetes and significantly affect the heart and other major organs’ health.
A 2018 study in the journal Nutrients shows pecans may help with blood sugar.
“Similar to other tree nuts, pecans may help to prevent diabetes and control blood sugar. One study showed that after four weeks on a pecan-rich diet, changes in serum insulin, insulin resistance, and beta-cell function were significantly greater than after the control diet,” says Dandrea-Russert.
Bonus finding—eating pecans also lowered the risk of cardiovascular disease in this study.
A boost for heart health
“One study looked at 204 people with coronary artery disease and found that eating one ounce of pecans daily for 12 weeks improved the ratio of total cholesterol to HDL cholesterol in the blood,” says Dandrea-Russert, about a 2019 study in the Journal of Human Nutrition and Dietetics.
Another study, albeit a small one, published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics was encouraging too.
“A study in 19 people with normal cholesterol levels found that those eating 2.5 ounces of pecans each day had significantly lower levels of LDL cholesterol after eight weeks, compared with those in a control group who didn’t eat any nuts,” adds Dandrea-Russert.
Prolonged inflammation can ignite a host of health issues, including diabetes, cancer, arthritis, heart disease, asthma, just to name a few. One way to keep inflammation in check is to eat foods that help reduce inflammation, and pecans are one of them.
“The phytonutrients in tree nuts, including pecans, have been associated with reduced inflammation,” says Dandrea-Russert.
“In fact, pecans rank alongside blueberries, red beans, and artichokes as the top foods highest in beta carotene, vitamin C, and vitamin E, all of which have been shown to reduce inflammation and protect your body from oxidative stress.” (Watch for these signs of hidden inflammation in your body.)
Good for your brain
A number of the minerals found in pecans support brain health too.
“Thiamine is vital for the proper functioning of neurotransmitters—which are chemical messengers in the brain and help protect brain cells from injury. Copper stops free radical damage to the brain and is beneficial for degenerative diseases like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s,” says Malkoff-Cohen.
She adds: “Manganese is beneficial for those individuals suffering from learning disabilities (concentration), mental illness, mood illness, and epilepsy.”
And the healthy fats in pecans help with learning and memory also. (These are the worst foods for your brain.)
What’s a good amount of pecans to eat?
Though the healthy fats in pecans are a wiser choice over saturated fats, like in potato chips, all fats—no matter the type of fat, have nine calories in each gram.
“For weight management, nut consumption should be limited to one to two ounces a day,” advises Dandrea-Cohen.
Simple and tasty ways to eat pecans
Popping a handful of pecans from the fridge into your mouth is great for an on-the-go snack, but why stop there when you upgrade your meals to a healthier level? Here are some ways Dandrea-Russert eats pecans.
- Pecans are especially delicious in the fall when paired with pumpkin parfaits, baked goods, and pies.
- Add crunch and a nutty sweetness to salads. One of Dandrea-Russert’s favorite ways to enjoy them is in a kale salad with cranberries and red onion.
- Add them to morning oatmeal for crunch and nutrition.
- They also work well in trail mix or chopped up in breakfast baked goods like muffins, pancakes, or banana bread. (These are the healthiest snacks at Walmart.)
Storing pecans for optimal nutrition
For optimal nutrition, don’t store shelled pecans at room temperature, advises the U.S. Pecan Growers Council. The nuts’ healthy oil content degrades quickly when stored at room temperature. Instead, store shelled pecans in airtight containers, like sealed plastic bags in the refrigerator or freezer.
If you’re using frozen pecans for cooking, no thawing is necessary. Pecans in the shell can be stored in a cool, dry place for up six to twelve months. Pecans that are moldy, smell bad, or have a rubbery texture should be tossed.
Next, to keep your food as fresh as possible, read these food storage tips.
- Deborah Malkoff-Cohen, RD and founder of City Kids Nutrition, New York City
- Nichole Dandrea-Russert, RD, Atlanta
- United States Department of Agriculture: "Pecans, Unroasted"
- USDA FoodData Central: "Nuts, pecans"
- American Pecan Council: "Curious about pecans (FAQs)"
- National Pecan Shellers Association: "Tips or storing pecans"
- U.S. Pecan Growers Council: "How pecans are grown"
- Arizona Cooperative Extension: "Pecan production guidelines for small orchards and home yards"
- Nutrients: "A Pecan-Rich Diet Improves Cardiometabolic Risk Factors in Overweight and Obese Adults: A Randomized Controlled Trial"
- Journal of Human Nutrition and Dietetics: "Effects of a healthy diet enriched or not with pecan nuts or extra‐virgin olive oil on the lipid profile of patients with stable coronary artery disease: a randomised clinical trial"
- Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: "Pecans Lower Low Density Lipoprotein Cholesterol in People with Normal Lipid Levels"
- Ohio State University: "Boost your brain power with the right nutrition"
- U.S. Pecan Growers Council: "Pecan handling and storage"