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A Brief History of Peanuts

By Philip McIntosh
Published: March 26, 2021 | Last updated: April 7, 2021
Key Takeaways

There are a variety of uses that can be applied to the peanut, but none are better than popping these tasty, nutritious snacks into your mouth.

There are not many things you can eat that can also be made into paint, lubricating grease, medicines, glue, pesticides, soap, and a host of other products. Of course, we are talking about the amazingly versatile peanut. It is true than George Washington Carver discovered or invented more than 300 uses for the peanut, but the idea of using peanuts to make lubricants, pesticides, and the like never really caught on. Today, the peanut is pretty much exclusively a food product. The major uses of peanuts are for oil, roasted nuts, peanut butter, and candy.

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The peanut, Arachis hypogaea, is similar in many ways to its ancient cousins, but has been developed into its current high-yielding form over many years through both natural and selective breeding. The name Arachis is related to the Greek word arachne (spider), perhaps due to the way the flowers arch down into the ground, and hypogea means underground.

Although now grown all over the world, the peanut originated in South America (likely in the region encompassing Brazil, Peru, Ecuador, Paraguay, and Uruguay) with evidence of human use going back at least 10,000 years. Although they are called nuts, the edible parts of the peanut plant are actually the underground-developing seeds of a legume. Peanuts are in the pea family (Fabaceae, formerly known as the Leguminosae), and although they are sometimes called ground nuts they are not really nuts at all.

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Peanuts are an important crop in the southern and southeastern U.S., but they arrived there by a somewhat circuitous and unseemly route. After being brought back to Europe by early Spanish and Portuguese explorers, the peanut was ex-ported to both Asia and Africa. The plant turned out to be well suited to the conditions in west Africa. From Africa, the peanut came to America as a result of the slave trade, which also explains, along with the favorable climate, why the peanut is primarily a southern crop in the U.S. Global peanut production has been on the rise since 2005 with China being the world’s top producer, followed by India, Nigeria, Sudan, and the United States. (Read: Peas, Beans, and Peanuts: How to Grow Legumes Hydroponically)

Not all peanuts are the same, and different varieties are suited to specific uses. Runner peanuts like warm weather and sandy, well-drained soil. They are grown commercially for their excellent roasted flavor which also works well for making peanut butter.

The Virginia peanut is grown in Texas as well as in the southeast. Sometimes called cocktail nuts, these peanuts are quite large, making them good candidates for either processing into peanut derivatives or for in-shell roasting.

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If you have eaten peanuts that have a notable red skin, you have seen Valencia peanuts. These are often a bit smaller and sweeter than the other varieties.

Finally, there is the Spanish peanut. Spanish peanuts are another small variety, mostly used for confectionary products. Their high oil content makes them useful for oil extraction and for making creamy peanut butters.

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They also grow well using hydroponics.

Peanuts are a good source of protein, containing about seven grams per ounce. Add to that a couple grams of fiber, 14 grams of mostly unsaturated fat, plus trace amounts of many vitamins and minerals, and the peanut checks in as a nutritious and healthy food. They are available unsalted if that is a concern.

Since the majority the peanuts grown around the world are put into oil extraction, we end up with a lot of fibrous peanut waste. Peanut shell waste can be pelletized for burning as a fuel, turned into animal feed, or made into engineered wood products. It seems like Carver’s 300-plus uses for peanuts just scratched the surface of what is possible with the peanut.

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Written by Philip McIntosh | Science & Technology Writer, Teacher

Profile Picture of Philip McIntosh
Philip McIntosh is a science and technology writer with a bachelor’s degree in botany and chemistry and a master’s degree in biological science. During his graduate research, he used hydroponic techniques to grow axenic plants. He lives in Colorado Springs, Colorado, where he teaches mathematics.

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