New Peanuts A Hearty Alternative

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Two new kinds of peanuts that can help keep hearts in good shape offer new food for thought for the health-conscious.

The peanuts are high in oleic acid, a type of unsaturated fat that raises levels of good cholesterol to prevent arteries from clogging. They also lower the bad cholesterol that damages the heart.

Seeds of these strains are commercially available, and some farmers planted them this year. Officials expect the new peanuts, developed by researchers at the Agriculture Department and Texas A&M University, to start showing up in products on grocery shelves next year.

Hassan Melouk, a scientist for the department's laboratory, said Wednesday that the new peanuts look like any others.

One of the new varieties, the Olin, is a type of Spanish peanut a small round nut covered with reddish-brown skin. They often are used in candy and peanut butter, as well as salted nuts.

The other type, the Tamrun OL 01, is a runner peanut. Those generally are used to make peanut butter.

Most peanuts have oleic acid. A handful, 10 grams, of conventional roasted peanuts can contain 5 grams of fat — 55 percent of which is oleic acid. Conventional peanuts also contain as much as 20 percent saturated fat — an artery clogger that can raise a person's risk for heart disease.

The new peanuts are packed with more oleic acid than the conventional peanuts. As much as 75 percent of the 5 grams of fat in a 10-gram handful is oleic acid. The peanuts still contain 20 percent saturated fat.

Scientists developed the peanuts through plant breeding. Melouk said that to get the Olin, breeders at the Texas school crossed a peanut called the Tamspan 90 with an unnamed high oleic line. For the Tamrun OL 01, they crossed the runner peanut, Tamrun 96, with the high oleic line. The entire effort took 10 years.

In addition to being healthier for consumers, the new peanuts are resistant to Sclerotinia, a soil fungus that attacks the stems and pegs of the plant, causing them to rot.

The disease is prevalent in Oklahoma and Texas where it affects runner peanuts. And while some diseases die out when cold weather hits, Sclerotinia does not. It can reappear as soon as the next crop is planted.

Farmers have had to rely on fungus-fighting chemicals such as Rovral and fluazinam, but Melouk said the new peanuts could save farmers in Texas and Oklahoma $10 million a year in pesticide costs.

The Olin and Tamrun OL are the latest developments in peanut research by the department's Agricultural Research Service. The agency recently began trying to help the 1.5 million people who are allergic to peanuts by breeding a hypoallergenic variety.

For those that have an allergy, it can be deadly. But for everyone else, peanuts offer some healthy benefits. The Food and Drug Administration now allows companies to tout that a handful a day can help reduce the risk of heart disease because of their polyunsaturated or monounsaturated fat.

Besides containing oleic acid, a monounsaturated fat, many peanuts also have linoleic acid, a polyunsaturated fat.

Alice Lichtenstein, a Tufts University nutritionist, said that researchers have tended to believe that the monounsaturated fat was better than polyunsaturated, but attitudes are changing. They now are beginning to think that both are good for the heart, she said.