Health benefits of chestnuts: pros and cons, tasty eating tips
Before exploring the health benefits of chestnuts I would like to ask you a question: do you think the symbol of autumn is a superfood or just a poor man’s bread?
The answer is obvious. If CHE Food Revolution is interested in a food, of course it must have functional characteristics; and it must be, or have been, traditional at least for some populations on earth: so a big yes to both questions.
Once upon a time, when wheat was only destined to the tables of the rich (or to those who lived in the cultivation areas), chestnuts were one of the few alternatives to prepare a substantial food that could imitate bread.
They have been on the culinary scene for a very long time; historical records show that chestnuts have been used since at least 4000 BC.(1).
The flour obtained from this fruit with hard and brown shells, mixed with other flours also called poor such as rye flour, for centuries has been the basic recipe for the bread of the poor, especially of those who lived in high mountains.
Today, the fact that the same bread can be found at 10 dollars or more per kilo, in specialized bakeries, should make us think and investigate about the health benefits of chestnuts.
What is the meaning of Superfood?
With the term superfood, we mean a natural food, or more often a food product, which possesses functional properties for the well-being, thanks to the high density of nutrients it contains
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Properties of chestnuts
Rich in starches and fiber, they can surely replace pasta, rice and potato dishes; and certainly desserts and snacks. But there is much more inside those shiny shells; in fact they contain:
- a large amount of vitamin C;
- high levels of vitamin B1 (thiamine), B2 (riboflavin), B6 (pyridoxine) and B9 (folate or folic acid);
- good levels of vitamin E (y-tocopherol);
- high amounts of manganese, potassium, copper (100 grams of chestnuts can cover 25% of the daily requirement of copper); phosphorus, magnesium and iron;
- small but substantial level of unsaturated fatty acids (as I explained here, they are part of the good fats);
- a good percentage of resistant starch;
- first-rate antioxidants such as gallic, ellagic and phenolic acids, flavonoids, carotenoids and tannins;
- the levels of protein are just satisfactory: around 3-5 g per 100 g of product, but with cooking they are further reduced;
Health benefits of chestnuts
The exceptional properties of chestnuts do not disappoint us even in terms of benefits:
- they have excellent cardio-protective activities, thanks to the rich content of antioxidants and minerals such as potassium and magnesium;
- they are perfect prebiotics, due to the rich content of dietary fiber (5 grams per 100) and resistant starch: which survives the small intestine and is digested only in the rectum, allowing a slow transfer of sugar to the blood, through a controlled release;
- do not contain gluten, and therefore offer wide horizons for the nutrition of celiac and gluten-sensitive people; moreover, thanks to its pasty structure, together with high levels of amylose, chestnut flour is able to form an elastic, strong and stable gel; which is why its addition provides gluten-free breads with better workability of the dough, a more appreciable texture, color and aroma, as well as the ability to improve shelf life(2).
With a bit of attention there is no contraindication that could actually create a serious health risk; however it is better to keep in mind that:
- chestnuts, although they are actually the fruits of the chestnut tree, cannot be considered as just any fruit: consuming them at the end of a rich meal, for example, would mean dietary suicide. Those who follow a particular diet for diabetes or to lose weight, should take into account the presence of about 55 g of carbohydrates on 100 g of chestnuts. Therefore I suggest to use them as a snack or instead of bread or pasta.
- they are considered among the foods with medium-high level of oxalates: those who have the tendency to form kidney stones, should consume them with moderation.
- even if it is rarer as a condition, some people allergic to latex could also be allergic to chestnuts: in this case contact your doctor first.
How to consume them
In order to obtain all the biomolecules at 100% that make chestnuts a real superfood, ingesting them raw would be the best way; however this practice is not advisable because the high levels of tannins present, can cause annoying gastrointestinal problems.
But even those who want them cooked can rest assured: certainly vitamin C, proteins and some functional compounds are significantly reduced; however they can still ensure a remarkable antioxidant activity thanks to gallic acid, which is transferred from the skins to the inside of the fruit during cooking(3).
– Roasted chestnuts
Perhaps the most loved preparation.
Before roasting them, let them soak in hot water for about 10 minutes, after having made a deep horizontal cut in the shell, better on the rounded side (on the market there are also safe tools, but I use my cutter).
Then roast them on the grill of a barbecue, a fireplace, or on the stove using the appropriate pan with perforated base: starting from the rounded side, for about 20-30 minutes, turning them upside down at least once.
You can also use the oven: 15-20 minutes at 220 degrees will be more than enough: I recommend flipping them at least once so as not to burn the base.
Finally, in ordet to not to complicate your life, never wait until the roasted chestnuts become cold to peel them: you may burn a little your hands, but it will be worth it!
Preparation should be done in the same way as for roasted chestnuts: after washing them and cutting them horizontally, soak them for about 2 hours, and then boil the chestnuts in plenty of water (salted or not) for about 50 minutes (or 25 minutes in a pressure cooker).
I personally like to include a few bay leaves; or fennel seeds are also great.
– It is said that adding 1 tablespoon of oil to the cooking water makes it easier to peel the beans, but I have never had any difficulty with soaking them.
After that consume them as they are; or go ahead and use your boiled chestnuts to prepare some other treats:
Solid Chestnut Cream
– 500 g of chestnuts
– 2 bay leaves
– 1 tablespoon coarse salt (optional)
– 1.5 l of water for cooking if in pressure cooker, for about 20-30 minutes (otherwise
2,5 liters of water for the normal pot, for at least 1 hour or 1,5 hour)
– 2 tablespoons of honey (or maple syrup or brown sugar)
Boil the chestnuts as already explained; peel and chop them together with 2 tablespoons of honey in a food processor, until you get a smooth puree (if needed, you can add a few tablespoons of water or why not some drops of cognac).
Shape them with a mold or pastry cutter and leave to cool at room temperature for about 3-4 hours.
Remove now solid cream from the mold, decorate with dark chocolate, melted in a bain-marie and serve cold.
Soft chestnut cream spread
You can get a spreadable cream for healthy snacks: believe me, you will never want to use store-bought chestnut cream again, expensive and full of added sugars.
To do this, peel and blend the boiled chestnuts: you can cook them together with 1 glass of water, stirring often for about 20 minutes.
If you want at the last you can add two tablespoons of honey (or maple syrup) or shaved dark chocolate, or a vanilla pod to make it smell like heaven.
Then store it in a glass jar in the refrigerator up to 5 days.
And now enjoy the excellent health benefits of chestnuts and good revolution to you all
1) P. Kaltenrieder, G. Procacci, B. Vannière, W. Tinner, The Holocene 20, 679 (2010).
2) Paciulli, Maria, et al. “Chestnut and breads: Nutritional, functional, and technological qualities.” Flour and breads and their fortification in health and disease prevention. Academic Press, 2019. 237-247.
3) Barros, Ana IRNA et al. “Effect of cooking on total vitamin C contents and antioxidant activity of sweet chestnuts (Castanea sativa Mill.).” Food chemistry vol. 128,1 (2011): 165-72. doi:10.1016/j.foodchem.2011.03.013