Pili nuts are produced by a tree native to the Philippines also known as the Pili (scientific name Canarium ovatum). This tree belongs to the Canarium genus and is one of the numerous species (about 600) part of the Burseraceae family. It is an important cultivation tree in the Philippines because of its edible nuts but can also be found in Northern Australia, Papua New Guinea and most islands and maritime areas of South-eastern Asia.
The pili is a beautiful tree, with an evergreen crown and a regular, symmetrical shape. It is a robust tree that can reach up to 20 m in average height and is able to withstand very powerful winds. The wood has a high resin content and the nice appearance of the tree has led to its cultivation in gardens as an ornamental plant.
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Most trees are either male or female. However, functional hermaphrodites can occur, just like in the case of other tropical fruit trees like the rambutan or papaya. Flowers grow on the leaf axils of young shoots and are located on cymose inflorescences. It produces a large number of flowers, at frequent intervals, which are pollinated with the help of insects. There are six ovules inside the ovary, grouped in three locules. However, only one ovule usually becomes a fruit, which develops very slowly despite the frequent flowering.
The fruit of the pili tree has a diameter of 2.3 to 3.8 cm and a length between 4 and 7 cm. It is a stone fruit with an outer fleshy part, or the exocarp, that is very thin and lustrous, with an interesting color somewhere between purple and black when ripe. The flesh, or mesocarp, can have a green or yellow color and is quite fibrous in consistency. In the middle there is a hard stone, or endocarp, which protects the seeds inside.
The shells are irregular in shape, with the base end being pointed while the other end is rather blunt. The inner layer of the pit produces a thin and fibrous coat for the seeds. This layer has a brown color and is able to bond strongly to the outside shell and sometimes to the seed as well.
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The seeds have a very high fat content, of about 70%. The rest is made up of proteins (between 11.5 and 13.9%) and about 8% carbohydrates. Not all seeds are edible, some trees produce kernels that have an unpleasant turpentine smell, a bitter taste or a fibrous content.
It is believed that the pili nut tree is native to the Philippines jungles. The story of its domestication is probably similar to the one of other useful plants: in ancient times human started to gather nuts from the wild for consumption, eating them after boiling. In time, they started to cultivate the trees in order to have a food source closer to their homes.
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Pili nuts are extremely valuable because of their high content of antioxidants. They have anti-inflammatory properties and provide a wide range of health benefits. The mechanism is simple: these compounds annihilate free radicals. Free radicals are very dangerous and cause tissue inflammation by triggering an oxidative reaction inside our cells. Eating pili nuts eliminates this danger and can prevent severe inflammatory diseases like gout or arthritis.
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By reducing free radical damage and oxidative stress, antioxidants stop a process that can even have fatal consequences, since it can lead to chronic diseases and sometimes even deadly forms of cancer. Free radicals are an unwanted products of the body chemistry, we need a diet rich in antioxidants to neutralize them before any harm is caused. For this reason, a diet that includes pili nuts is very helpful.
By harming healthy cells and causing them to malfunction, free radicals also weaken our immune system, which has to constantly fight the infections generated this way. As a consequence, the wide range of antioxidants found in pili nuts provides a much-needed immune system boost. The pili nuts are also a major source of vitamin E, which is another compound that has been proven to increase the immune response of the body.
Most nuts are good for digestion and the pili nut is no exception. They are an excellent choice to improve bowel transit and maintain healthy intestines. This is because of the high fiber content, which regulates digestion and adds bulk to the stool. Fibers prevent constipation and hemorrhoids and cause bowel movement to be predictable.
Pili nuts are one of the rare natural sources for all the eight essential amino acids. This makes them ideal for people who suffer from diabetes or are vulnerable to it due to family history, a sedentary life, or unhealthy diet. These amino acids boost the production of insulin and regulate its amount and moment of release into the blood stream. At the same time, they keep the glucose and sugar at a safe level. This is very important in stopping the dangerous variations in level that can be so dangerous for diabetes patients.
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The pili nuts are also rich in beneficial fatty acids, like the so-called omega-3. Omega-3 is not only good for the heart but it also improves mental health and focus by reducing neural strain and inflammation. In combination with the complex antioxidants in pili nuts, this can prevent very severe conditions like dementia and Alzheimer's by slowing the neural degeneration caused by oxidative stress. At an advanced age in particular, adding pili nuts to your daily diet can keep the mind young and clear.
Since the pili nuts have a fat content of no less than 70%, eating them might seem dangerous for people with heart problems. However, it's important to remember that not every fat is bad and not all of them contribute to a higher cholesterol level. As a matter of fact, some of the fats in the composition of pili nuts, such as omega-3 fatty acids, have the opposite effect. They are able to regulate the cholesterol levels and speed up the elimination of excess fat, like omega-6 compounds. It reduces the risk of having a heart attack or a stroke and prevents more serious conditions like atherosclerosis.
It's a great idea to include pili nuts in a healthy diet, as long as you consume them with moderation. All types of nuts have the ability to give a feeling of fullness because of their fiber content. This is extremely important especially in a vegan or vegetarian diet and prevents the sensation of hunger between two regular meals and any unplanned snack. At the same time, by balancing the level of cholesterol, pili nuts grant an overall boost to our metabolism, which results in more available energy and faster burning of fat.
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Another important mineral found in pili nuts is magnesium. It plays a major role in neural health, being required for the production of serotonin and other similar hormones. These have a calming effect on the nerves and help us have a long and refreshing sleep. People with insomnia or those who wake up suddenly in the night should consider a cure with pili nuts in order to restore their magnesium levels.
Pili nuts are also important for bone health, due to the complex of minerals that improve their structure. Bones needs these minerals to maintain their health. The pili nuts include all the essential minerals needed: calcium (the main building block of bones), phosphorous, zinc, copper, magnesium and manganese. As we age, we need to provide the body with an increased quantity of minerals every day, to prevent a decline in bone health and fractures.
The main edible part of the plant is the seed, even if other parts can be consumed as well. It can be eaten in a variety of ways. If consumed raw, it has a similar taste to a pumpkin seed. After it is roasted, it resembles a pine nut in both taste and texture.
All around Southeast Asia, pili nuts are an important ingredient in local cuisine. In its original native range in the Philippines, the pili nuts are commonly used in sweets such as candy or the confection known as brittle, along with other nuts. In Minahasa, the Moluccas and other islands of Indonesia, it is used to make a traditional cake named bobengka in Minahasan or bubengka in Maluku. However, the highest consumption of pili nuts is in China, where it is the major ingredient of "moon cake", a special desert prepared only on festive occasions. It is also exported in massive quantities to Hong Kong or Taiwan.
Other parts of the plant can also be eaten, like the fruit pulp or the juvenile shoots. Green shoots can be added to salads, along with other plants and vegetables. The pulp is not usually eaten raw but can be consumed after boiling and seasoning. Boiling gives the pulp considerable nutritional value, sometimes compared to that of an avocado fruit. It has a high content of oil, around 12%, and the texture is similar to a sweet potato. Both the shoots and the pulp can be pickled but also added as an ingredient in sauces or purees. In order to pickle the pulp, the green fruit must be used, as soon as the shell has become hard inside. Waiting too long makes the pulp fibrous and unsuitable.
As for industrial uses, the oil in the fruit pulp can be extracted and used to produce soap and food, as an alternative to cotton seed oil. Instead of discarding the shells, you can use them as a growth environment for flowers like orchids or simply burn them as fuel. A different type of oil can be produced by pressing the seeds. The result is an oil with a pale yellow color and excellent nutritional properties, some people compare it to virgin olive oil.
Most commonly, the pili nuts are consumed roasted, when they become crunchy and develop flavours also similar to the one of roasted almond seeds. However, the pili nuts can also be grounded into a powder or even boiled. As an ingredient, they can be mixed in ice cream and cakes, or in order to give a special flavour to chocolate.
The pili tree is quite rare. It can be found in many Asian countries but the Philippines are the only one that produces them on a commercial scale and exports the nuts all around the world. It can also be found for local consumption in areas of Indonesia and Malaysia.
The main cultivation area in the Philippines is in the rainforest of Mount Bulusan, part of the Bicol region. It can also be found in other areas of Bicol region like Albay, Catanduanes, Masbate, Camarines Sur, Camarines Norte and Sorsogon.
Being a tropical tree, pili requires generous amounts of rainfall during the entire year, as well as warm weather. The soil has to be fertile and well drained, with enough depth to support the tree. Pili can't survive frost at all and will even be killed by any period of cold weather. Propagation can be done wither using the seeds, which germinate in 40-50 days, or old seedlings.
The seed is rich in nutrients and can be a source for protein, fats and minerals like potassium, manganese, calcium and phosphorus. The seed oil is rich in oleic and palmitic acids, as well as glyceride compounds.