Chestnuts: Health Benefits And Are They Coming Back?

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“Under a spreading chestnut-tree
The village smithy stands;
The smith, a mighty man is he,
With large and sinewy hands;
And the muscles of his brawny arms
Are strong as iron bands.”

This verse from a Longfellow poem underscores the importance of the chestnut tree in American culture. In this article, I’ll describe the health benefits of chestnuts, that old holiday favorite, but I’m doing it for a special reason that you might approve of, or might not. Bear with me.

Chestnuts are a good source of antioxidants and, unlike most other foods, they not only remain after cooking, but two of them, gallic acid and ellagic acid, actually increase. Antioxidants are thought to be protective against substances which play a role in heart disease, cancer, and many other diseases.

Chestnuts can also help improve your digestion. These nuts are a good source of fiber, which helps keep you regular and supports the growth of healthy bacteria in your gut. Chestnuts are also gluten-free, which makes them a healthy choice for people with celiac disease.

The fiber in chestnuts can also help your blood sugar, avoiding spikes that can be dangerous for diabetics. Plus, chestnuts have a low glycemic index. Foods rated lower on the glycemic index won’t cause major changes to blood sugar levels when eaten.

Chestnuts are lower in calories than many other types of nuts and are a good source of amino acids, monounsaturated fatty acids, phenols, and vitamin C, but also contain E, A, B-complex, calcium, magnesium, zinc, iron, copper, and manganese.

So why aren’t we eating chestnuts all the time? And not just the nuts, the tree itself has valuable properties. Its root system guards against erosion better than some other trees, plus chestnut wood is relatively rot-resistant and was used widely in fences, telephone poles, railroad ties and even musical instruments. Now you’re lucky if you see a live tree in North America.

American Chestnut Tree, early 20th century

Although very small numbers still exist, American chestnut trees are scarce in North America. Once, whole forests in the east and Midwest were comprised of 100 feet tall chestnut trees. No more, due to a horrendous blight that wiped out billions of them in the first half of the 20th century. If you manage to find chestnuts in the store during the holidays, it’s because they’re from somewhere else. I found some that were imported from Italy.

In the 21st century, however, there are those who believe American trees can return utilizing genetic engineering. In fact, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has released an environmental impact statement and plant pest risk assessment that would allow the unrestricted planting of newly-engineered blight-tolerant chestnut trees on public and private lands. If approved, it’s thought the tree would be the first genetically engineered plant released with the specific purpose of spreading freely into wild forests.

If the plan works, the tree would improve forest health, increase biodiversity, and be an economic boon to nearby communities.  A controversy is arising, however: Our history is filled with examples of introducing plants and animals into areas where they either aren’t native or haven’t been for many years. Sometimes, it’s successful, as when elk were reintroduced into the Great Smokies National Park. Other times, like when the Burmese python was let loose by snake owners into Everglades National Park, resulted in irreversible damage. Indeed, there have been 90 percent population collapses of just about every small mammal in the Everglades since the python became established there.

So where do you come down on introducing the genetically-modified American chestnut into your area? In survival, they say, “Want food security? Plant a nut tree.” But studies have shown that the genetic structure of plants can mutate and might exhibit unexpected traits after reproducing. No, they’re not going to start walking around, but how will they affect the local ecology?

It’s also possible that these new chestnuts, as they grow older and larger, won’t be able to repel the blight, particularly if the enzyme produced by the wheat gene scientists inserted into chestnut DNA decides to shut off in more mature trees. There aren’t 50-year-old genetically engineered trees to study.

There’s no proof any of that will happen, however, and the chestnut tree has been an important part of the development of both natural and human communities in North America. Could some test areas be chosen, perhaps places cleared by wildfire, for some stands to be planted and observe their impact?

Worth a shot? Too risky? Let me know your thoughts at or on our FB, MeWe, or PrepperNet groups.

Joe Alton MD


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