History of the Peanut
The peanut plant probably originated in Brazil or Peru, although no fossil records exist to prove this. But for as long as people have been making pottery in South America (3,500 years or so) they have been making jars shaped like peanuts and decorated with peanuts. Graves of ancient Incas found along the dry western coast of South America often contain jars filled with peanuts and left with the dead to provide food in the afterlife.
Peanuts were grown as far north as Mexico by the time the Spanish began their exploration of the New World. The explorers took peanuts back to Spain, where they are still grown. From Spain, traders and explorers took peanuts to Africa and Asia. In Africa the plant became common in the western tropical region. The peanut was regarded by many Africans as one of several plants possessing a soul.
When Africans were brought to North America as slaves, peanuts came with them. Slaves planted peanuts throughout the southern United States (the word goober comes from the Congo name for peanuts – nguba). In the 1700’s, peanuts, then called groundnuts or ground peas, were studied by botanists and regarded as an excellent food for pigs. Records show that peanuts were grown commercially in South Carolina around 1800 and used for oil, food and a substitute for cocoa. However, until 1900 peanuts were not extensively grown, partially because they were regarded as food for the poor, and because growing and harvesting were slow and difficult until labor-saving equipment was invented around the turn of the century.
The first notable increase in U.S. peanut consumption came in 1860 with the outbreak of the Civil War. Northern soldiers, as well as Southern, used the peanut as a food. During the last half of the 19th century, peanuts were eaten as a snack, sold freshly roasted by street vendors and at baseball games and circuses. While peanut production rose during this time, peanuts were harvested by hand which left stems and trash in the peanuts. Thus, poor quality and lack of uniformity kept down the demand for peanuts.
Around 1900, equipment was invented for planting, cultivating, harvesting and picking peanuts from the plants, and for shelling and cleaning the kernels. With these mechanical aids, peanuts rapidly came into demand for oil, roasted and salted nuts, peanut butter and candy. George Washington Carver began his research into peanuts in 1903 at the Tuskeegee Institute. Research that would lead him to discover improvements in horticulture and the development of more than 300 uses for peanuts (including shoe polish and shaving cream).
The talented botanist recognized the value of the peanut as a cash crop and proposed that peanuts be planted as a rotation crop in the Southeast cotton-growing areas where the boll weevil insect threatened the regions’ agricultural base. Farmers listened and the face of southern farming was changed forever. For his work in promoting its cultivation and consumption, Carver is considered the father of the peanut industry.
Peanut production rose rapidly during and after World Wars I and II as a result of the peanut’s popularity with Allied forces, and as a result of the post-war baby boom.
Today, peanuts contribute over four billion dollars to the U.S. economy each year.
How The Peanut Plant Grows
The peanut is unusual because it flowers above the ground, but fruits below the ground. Typical misconceptions of how peanuts grow place them on trees (like walnuts or pecans) or growing as a part of a root, like potatoes. Peanut seeds (kernels) grow into a green oval-leafed plant about 18 inches tall which develop delicate flowers around the lower portion of the plant. The flowers pollinate themselves and then lose their petals as the fertilized ovary begins to enlarge. The budding ovary or “peg” grows down away from the plant, forming a small stem, which extends to the soil. The Peanut embryo is in the tip of the peg, which penetrates the soil. The embryo turns horizontal to the soil surface and begins to mature taking the form of peanut. The plant continues to grow and flower, eventually producing some 40 or more mature pods. From planting to harvesting, the growing cycle takes about four to five months, depending on the type or variety. The peanut is a nitrogen-fixing plant; its roots form modules which absorb nitrogen from the air and provides enrichment and nutrition to the plant and soils.
Types of Peanuts
Although peanuts come in many varieties, there are four basic market types: Runner, Virginia, Spanish and Valencia. Each of the peanut types is distinctive in size, flavor, and nutritional composition. Within each four basic types of peanuts, there are several “varieties” for seed and production purposes. Each variety contains distinct characteristics which allows a producer to select the peanut that is best suited for its region and market.
Runners have become the dominant type due to the introduction in the early 1970’s of a new runner variety, the Florunner, which was responsible for a spectacular increase in peanut yields. Runners have rapidly gained wide acceptance because of the attractive, uniform kernel size. Fifty-four percent of the runners grown are used for peanut butter. Runners are grown mainly in Georgia, Alabama, Florida, Texas and Oklahoma.
Virginias have the largest kernels and account for most of the peanuts roasted and processed in-the-shell. When shelled, the larger kernels are sold as snack peanuts. Virginias are grown mainly in southeastern Virginia and northeastern North Carolina.
Spanish-type peanuts have smaller kernels covered with a reddish-brown skin. They are used predominantly in peanut candies, with significant quantities used for snack nuts and peanut butter. They have a higher oil content than the other types of peanuts which is advantageous when crushing for oil. They are primarily grown in Oklahoma and Texas.
Valencias usually have three or more small kernels to a pod and are covered in a bright-red skin. They are very sweet peanuts and are usually roasted and sold in-the-shell. They are also excellent for fresh use as boiled peanuts. New Mexico is the primary producer of Valencia peanuts.
Where Peanuts Grow
Peanuts are grown in the warm climates of Asia, Africa, Australia, and North and South America. India and China together account for more than half of the world’s production. The United States has about 3% of the world acreage of peanuts, but grows nearly 10% of the world’s crop because of higher yields per acre. Other major peanut growing countries include Senegal, Sudan, Brazil, Argentina, South Africa, Malawi, and Nigeria.
In the United States, nine states grow 99% of the U. S. peanut crop: Georgia (which grows about 39% of all U. S. peanuts), followed by Texas, Alabama, North Carolina, Florida, Oklahoma, Virginia, South Carolina and New Mexico. These states are grouped into three regions. The Georgia-Florida-Alabama region (Southeast) grows mostly the medium-kernel Runner peanuts. The Southwest region (Texas-Oklahoma-New Mexico) grows Spanish and Runner. The Virginia-Carolinas area grows mostly the large-kernel Virginia type peanut. About 55% of all U. S. peanuts are grown in the Southeast, with the Virginia/Carolina area accounting for 14% and the Southwest, about 30%.
How Peanuts Are Planted And Harvested
Peanuts are planted and harvested with specialized machinery. Peanut seeds are planted about two inches deep, one every three or four inches, in rows about three feet apart. The seeds do best in sandy soil, especially soil rich in calcium. When the soil temperature is warm (65-70 F.) given enough water the seeds will sprout. In about two weeks, the first “square” of four leaflets will unfold above the peanut field. Thirty to forty days after emergence the plants bloom, “pegs” form and enter the soil. The peanut shells and kernels develop and mature during the next 60 to 70 day period. Depending on the variety, 120 to 160 frost free days are required for a good crop.
When the plant has matured and the peanuts are ready to be harvested, the farmer waits until the soil is neither too wet or too dry before digging. When conditions are right, the farmer drives his digger up and down the green rows of peanuts plants. The digger has long blades that run four to six inches under the ground. It loosens the plant and cuts the tap root. Just behind the blade, a shaker lifts the plant from the soil, gently shakes the dirt from the peanuts, rotates the plant, and lays the plant back down in a “windrow,” peanuts up and leaves down. When dug, peanuts contain 25 to50% moisture, which must be dried to 10% or less for storage. Peanuts are generally left in the windrows to dry for 2 or more days in the field, then threshed or combined.
The farmer drives his combine over the windrows. The combine lifts the plants, separates the peanuts from the vine, blows them into a hopper on the top of the machine, and lays the vine back down in the field. The peanuts are then dumped into wagons and cured to 10% moisture with warm air forced up through the floors of the wagons. The peanuts are then taken to be sold at nearby peanut buying stations.
Peanut Grading, Shelling and Blanching
At the shelling company buying station, peanuts are sampled and graded by the Federal-State Inspection Service to determine their value. The inspectors establish the meat content, size of pods, kernel size, moisture content, damaged kernels and foreign material. The results of the inspection determine the overall quality and value of each load
After the peanuts are purchased by the sheller, they are placed in dry storage for eventual sale to processors and manufacturers. At the shelling plant, peanuts are taken from storage and cleaned; dirt, rocks, bits of vines and other debris are removed. If they are to be sold in their shells, the peanuts may also pass through a machine that cuts off any remaining stems on the shells. (About 10% of the peanut crop is sold as in-shell peanuts – usually the Virginia and Valencia types.) To sort for size, the peanuts travel over sizing screens that permit the smaller pods to fall through.
Peanuts to be shelled are placed in slotted drums containing screens of different sizes. Rotating peanuts rub against each other until the shells are opened and the kernels fall out. The kernels are sized on screens that permit the smaller kernels to fall through. The shelled peanuts are cleaned again to remove foreign materials. This is done with density separators, electronic color sorters and by visual inspection to ensure that only the best peanuts reach the market. The peanut kernels are then sized, graded and bagged for market.
From the sheller, peanuts are cleaned again and “blanched” before they are used in most peanut foods. Blanching is simply the removal of the reddish skin covering the kernels. In whole-nut or split-nut dry blanching, the kernels travel through warm air for a period of time to loosen the skins. Then the kernels go through a blanching machine where large rollers rub the surfaces of the kernels until the skins fall off. These kernels are checked with electronic color sorters to ensure that blanching is complete.
The Market for Peanuts
Peanuts are sold in various ways. Roughly three-quarters of the peanuts grown in the U. S. are used domestically, predominantly as edible products. About one-fourth of all U.S. grown peanuts are exported to other countries. Exported peanuts are usually shipped raw, both shelled and in the shell. The major buyers of U. S. peanuts are found in Western Europe, Canada and Japan.
Peanut Butter/Peanut Spread
Peanut Butter is one of the healthiest foods you can eat, especially when it’s produced with just peanuts and no additives like the peanut butter at The Good Earth Peanut Company. Approximately 50% of the peanut crop is the United States is used for the production of peanut butter.
Roasted Peanuts/Snack Peanuts
To be roasted in the shell, peanuts are cooked at medium heat for about 15 minutes. They may be plain roasted or seasoned roasted-in-the-shell. The most popular are salted in-the-shell, however the new flavors – cajun and jalapeno are getting accolades from consumers as well. To season peanuts in the shell – prior to roasting- the peanuts are washed and then the seasonings, which are dissolved in water, are forced through the shells by a pressure process. When dried during roasting, the seasonings remain inside the shells. Most often, snack peanuts are shelled, roasted, blanched and salted, (although Spanish peanuts are usually roasted with their skins on.) Peanuts may be roasted in oil or by a dry-roasting process. Peanuts are oil-roasted in continuous cookers that take a steady stream of peanuts through hot oil for about five minutes. After draining, the kernels are salted evenly. Dry-roasted peanuts are cooked in a large oven by dry, hot forced air after which spicy seasonings are applied. The roasted peanuts are then packed in containers ranging in size from bags holding a handful, to large cans and jars. Frequently, peanuts are mixed with other nuts and dried fruits for “health-food” snacks.
Peanuts are used in candy-making in a seemingly infinite number of ways. A large variety of candy bars combine peanuts (whole, chopped or as butter) with such treats as chocolate, nougat, marshmallow, caramel, other nuts and dried fruits. Peanut brittle and chocolate-covered peanuts are always popular. The high protein content of peanuts make them ideal for high energy snacks. Six of the top ten candy bars sold in the U.S. contain peanuts and/or peanut butter.
Oil and Other Peanut Products
Applying pressure to peanuts squeezes out their oil. This oil is excellent for cooking because it is tasteless and can be heated to very high temperatures before it smokes. (450 degrees F, which is hotter than most other cooking oils). With hotter cooking temperatures, food will cook faster and absorb less oil. Peanut oil does not absorb or transfer flavors, so the same oil can be used repeatedly to cook different foods. Specially processed, defatted peanuts are available as roasted snack peanuts; may be ground into a flour, which can be used to make such foods as high protein drinks and snacks. Or, the defatted nuts may be granulated and added to breakfast or diet bars to raise their protein level. Partially defatted peanuts can also be flavored to taste and to look (when chopped) like other nuts, such as pecans, almonds and walnuts for use in cooking. Peanuts can be made into imitation milk, cheese and ice cream. In fact, “cheese” made from peanut milk is nutritionally superior to dairy products in everything except calcium. Peanut meal (made from the by-product of peanuts pressed for oil) is an important high protein animal feed.
Non-Food Uses for Peanuts
The shells, skins and kernels of peanuts may be used to make a vast variety of non-food products. For example, the shells may be used in wallboard, fireplace logs, fiber roughage for livestock feed and kitty litter; and, the skins may be used for paper making. Peanuts are often used as an ingredient in other products such as detergent, salves, metal polish, bleach, ink, axle grease, shaving cream, face creams, soap, linoleum, rubber, cosmetics, paint, explosives, shampoo, and medicine.