A CR tester compares the qualities of nuts for your health
Photo: Brian Finke

Sometimes you feel like a nut, and you shouldn’t feel bad about that. Nuts are nature’s perfect snack food—bite-sized, portable, tasty, nutritious, and filling, and yet with an unmistakable indulgent mouthfeel. No wonder Americans’ nut consumption increased by almost 40 percent between 2000 and 2016.

“Nuts provide protein and are a substantial source of beneficial polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats that current research suggests should be part of the daily diet,” says Roberta Holt, Ph.D., a project scientist in the department of nutrition at the University of California, Davis.

For all their appeal, however, nuts can still cause some dietary confusion. Do they cause weight gain? Which ones have more of the good fats? Are there significant health differences between different kinds of nuts? And are nuts still good for you if they come in the form of snack bars or trail mix?

CR’s nutrition experts dug into the research to answer these questions, and also rated almonds—a nut that has seen a surge in popularity in the U.S.—from 13 different brands for nutrition and taste. (Learn more about nut nutrition, below. In the photo above, technician Nicole Powell samples and documents almonds in CR’s food labs.)

Nuts and Your Waistline

It’s true that nuts are high in calories, but in several studies, eating a handful a day wasn’t linked to weight gain. In fact, snacking on them in place of chips or pretzels may even help you trim down a little.

Harvard researchers examining the effects of various foods on weight change in more than 120,000 women and men found that potato chip eaters gained more than 1½ pounds with each one-serving increase over a four-year period.

More on Nuts

Those who ate a serving of nuts per week, however, lost more than half a pound. That’s not a lot, but these findings, combined with those from other studies, show that at the very least, eating nuts could be helpful in weight control. Research has turned up a few reasons.

“Just a handful of nuts provides fiber and protein that can keep you satisfied between meals,” says a CR nutritionist, Amy Keating, R.D.

In addition, Department of Agriculture researchers have found that the body may not absorb all of the calories in nuts, which means the net effect is less than the number of calories you see on food labels. You process about 5 percent fewer calories with pistachios, 21 percent fewer with walnuts, and 32 percent fewer with almonds.

Check out CR's ratings of almonds, which were rated for nutrition and taste.

Powerful Disease Prevention

Heart disease, type 2 diabetes, colon cancer, lung cancer—multiple studies have found that nuts are associated with a reduced risk of developing those diseases and others. Eating more nuts can be one of the smartest dietary changes you can make. In a 2017 study, consuming an insufficient amount of nuts (less than ¾ ounce a day) was linked to more deaths from heart disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes than any other dietary factor, except for getting too much sodium. Overall, eating nuts is connected to a longer life, according to a 2013 study involving almost 120,000 people. Those who ate an ounce of nuts a day were 20 percent less likely to die during the study’s 24- to 30-year follow-up period than those who didn't eat nuts.

What Our Tests Found

Though the overall healthiness of nuts isn’t in dispute, how they’re processed and how you eat them can shift their profile significantly. For instance, nuts can be a solid base for trail mix, but if that mix includes, say, candy-coated chocolate or pretzel sticks, you’ve just ramped up your healthy snack’s sodium and sugar levels. Many snack bars are nut-based, but the more added sugars and processed ingredients they contain, the less healthy they are for you.

That’s why we recommend snacking on nuts themselves. In our tests, we looked at whole roasted almonds, some salted, some unsalted, and some honey-roasted. The five almonds on our list with the lowest ratings were all honey-roasted—adding 4 to 8 grams of sugars per ounce. “Even though it’s tempting to get that burst of sweetness,” says Keating, “almonds have such a rich, appealing flavor on their own that we recommend skipping the honey-roasted.”

Conversely, the five top-rated almonds in our tests were unsalted and roasted. Though roasting almonds mostly affects just their flavor, added salt was a health detractor. Some brands—Trader Joe’s and Kirkland Signature (Costco) dry-roasted, salted almonds—contain as much as 120 mg of sodium in just a 1-ounce serving.

There are two different methods of roasting—“dry” roasting doesn’t use oil, but other roasting methods do. However, the oils used in roasting haven't been proved to significantly alter nuts’ nutritional profiles. “It’s really just a matter of taste preference,” Keating says.

Overall, the distinctions between the almonds we tested were subtle. A vast majority—12 out of 16—got high enough scores to be recommended by the testing team. Price was the biggest variant, ranging from 37 cents per ounce for the most affordable (Great Value, Walmart’s brand) to $1.22 per serving on the high end (Woodstock Roasted & Unsalted).

Know Your Nut Nutrition

In addition to protein, fiber, and healthy fats, nuts also supply decent amounts of magnesium, potassium, and vitamin E in just 1 ounce (shown here). Nuts also contain phytosterols—which may be partly responsible for their cholesterol-lowering effect—and disease-fighting antioxidants. “To get the most benefit, mix up the types of nuts you eat,” says CR nutritionist Amy Keating, R.D., because each nut has its own unique medley of nutrients.

Calories: 170
Almonds are among the nuts highest in fiber, and have calcium and vitamin E.
Calories: 187
These have more selenium than any other nut—a mineral that acts like an antioxidant and is important for thyroid function and reproduction.
Calories: 163
These crowd pleasers pack a significant amount of vitamins B6 and K, as well as the antioxidant lutein, which has been linked to improved eye health.
Calories: 183
Like other nuts, hazelnuts (aka filberts) are a good source of healthy fats, as well as an abundance of phenolic compounds, a class of antioxidants linked to heart health and lower cholesterol levels.
Calories: 203
Macadamias are among the fattiest, highest-calorie nuts, but the good news is that most of the fat is monounsaturated, one of the healthy fats your body requires.
Calories: 166
These iconic nuts are botanically a legume, but they pack more protein than any nut.
Calories: 201
In addition to containing 16 different vitamins and minerals, pecans have the most antioxidant flavonoids of any nut.
Calories: 161
One ounce of pistachios contains more potassium than half a banana, not to mention a high level of vitamin B6, good for blood flow.
Calories: 180
These are one of the best plant-based sources of omega-3s, those richly beneficial fats typically associated with fish oil.

Don't Fear the Fat

A common mistake many people make when trying to lose weight is to avoid all fats. Consumer Reports' food expert, Trisha Calvo, explains to 'Consumer 101' TV show host, Jack Rico. why you need a healthy dose of the right kind of fat in your diet.

Editor’s Note: This article also appeared in the February 2019 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.