These little guys are nutrition powerhouses.

By Molly Congdon
May 05, 2019
marekuliasz/Getty Images

Move over, matcha. Hit the bricks, blueberries. Acai-ya later acai bowls. There's another superfood in town.

Out of the volcanic soil of the Philippine peninsula rises the pili nut, flexing its muscles. These tear-drop-shaped studs are small—ranging in size from an inch to 3 inches—but they're a powerful source of nutrients.

What Are Pili Nuts, Exactly?

A pili (pronounced "peeley") nut looks like a miniature avocado. They start off a shade of dark green and then turn black, which is how you know when they're ready to be harvested. This fruit (also edible) is then peeled off, and then you have the nut itself, which can really only be opened by hand with a machete.

"Imagine an avocado and instead of a pit inside there's a nut that gets cracked open," says Jason Thomas, founder of Pili Hunters, a group that harvests and sells pili nuts. "They're all hand-harvested and hand-shucked. It's an incredible amount of labor."

Thomas—an endurance athlete, rock climber, kite-surfer, commercial fisherman, and world traveler—played an instrumental part in bringing pili nuts to the United States. While he was kite-surfing in the Philippines, he tried a pili nut for the first time and was blown away. His new mission in life became introducing U.S. consumers to the "nutritious, delicious, and sustainable Filipino pili nut."

No one had heard of pili nuts in the U.S., so Thomas bought ten pounds of pilis, snuck them through customs, and flew to Los Angeles. He headed to the ~hippest~ local health food stores in search of some "handshake deals." Thus, in 2015, Pili Hunters (originally named Hunter Gatherer Foods) was born. Since then, the market for these nutritious nuts has grown slightly but, according to Thomas, it's soon going to explode.

The Health Benefits of Pili Nuts

This superfood has a ton of health benefits. Half of the fat found in one nut comes from heart-healthy monounsaturated fat, says Thomas. FYI, these healthy fats aid in lowering bad cholesterol levels and, in the long run, reduces your risk for heart disease, according to the American Heart Association. Pili nuts are also a complete protein, meaning they provide all the essential amino acids that your body needs to get from food—something that's rare for plant-based protein sources.

On top of all of that, these little buggers are also a magnificent source of phosphorus (a key mineral for good bone health) and contain a ton of magnesium—an important mineral for energy metabolism and mood—which many people are deficient in.

"This nutrient-rich nut is a nice addition to a balanced diet," says registered dietitian nutritionist, Maya Feller, M.S., R.D., C.D.N. of Maya Feller Nutrition. "Pili nuts seem to have high polyphenol and antioxidant content due to their vitamin E and mineral content coming from manganese and copper." So, like other antioxidant foods, they can help your body fight free radical damage and protect against disease. (Related: Why You Need More Polyphenols In Your Diet)

Part of the pili nut's success can be credited to healthy fat's new(ish) spot at the cool kid's table. "The beauty of the pili nut is that it's that high fat, low carb… another option that people are walking around the grocery store looking for," says Thomas. (Hi, keto diet.)

What Do Pili Nuts Taste Like?

"The texture is soft, buttery, and melt-in-your-mouth," says Thomas. "The pili nut is considered a drupe (a fleshy fruit with thin skin and a central stone containing the seed). It's kind of a mix between all nuts: a hint of pistachio, rich like macadamia nut, etc." (Related: The 10 Healthiest Nuts and Seeds to Eat)

They can be served raw, roasted, sprouted, sprinkled, stir-fried, purred, baked, blended into butter, as well as coated in delectable dark chocolate or other flavors. Pili nuts can even be found in a creamy, dairy-free/vegan yogurt alternative called Lavva. You can also utilize them in your skin-care routine for anti-aging properties. Skincare brand Pili Ani, crafted by Rosalina Tan, consists of a line full of creams, serums, and oils derived from pili tree oil to moisturize skin.

You can find them nestled in the aisles of health food stores and larger corporations such as Whole Foods. Of course, you can also buy them online. (Thanks, internet!) Generally, they cost about $2 to $4 per ounce. Pili nuts are more expensive than most other nuts because of all the preparation prior to reaching consumers.

One Catch to Keep In Mind

However, the pili nuts industry isn't all rainbows and sunshine:

"Similar to cashews, pili nuts are labor intensive, so they're expensive," says Thomas. "If they aren't, you're either not getting the best product or someone is getting screwed in the supply chain and, generally, it's the poor people. It's a small industry that you're going to see blow up and, unfortunately, get commoditized."

So look for companies that are transparent about their processes, and splurge for those so you can enjoy pili nuts as an ethical treat. From there, "the pili nut is going to be huge over the next decade; it's a cool-ass plant and the sky's the limit," says Thomas.

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