The pistachio is potentially the most longstanding nut in the human diet.
Alongside almonds, the pistachio is the most biblical nut, being mentioned in the new testament repeatedly. They were thus eaten 2000 years ago, and one archaeological discovery of preserved pistachios dates back to the 6th millennium BC.
This site was discovered near where the pistachio (Pistacia vera L) is believed to have originated, Afghanistan and south-east Iraq. Other discoveries have unearthed even older pistachio trees from 7000BC in Turkey. The Romans brought the crop from Asia to Europe in 1st century AD, with Emperor Tiberius introducing them to Italy.
Despite their history, pistachios have never once been a favoured food for acne, but that’s about to change today. Or is it? The truth is that pistachios are another version of almonds.
They have multiple downsides, which can afflict all acne patients or just the sensitive, but also powerful and secret benefits. Like most nuts, the dense nutrition of pistachios comes with both dangers and opportunities.
How the dangers compare
For some classic nut dangers, almonds and pistachios perform similarly. They’re both moderately rich in plant defensive toxins called lectins, while almonds contain more oxalates.
However, the main risk to consider in any nut is its fat profile. The specific types of fat rather than the total amount. Too many omega 6s leads to an overactive immune system and inflamed acne, while too many polyunsaturated fats lead to free radical overload in the skin. That’s why despite their huge vitamin E content, acne patients should restrict almonds.
The almond’s fat profile per 100 grams is: 4 grams of saturated fat, 33.7 grams of monounsaturated fat and 12.7 grams of polyunsaturated fat. The pistachio contains 5.6 grams, 24.2 grams and 13.9 grams.
Pistachios contain slightly more polyunsaturated fat, but a bigger advantage is almonds’ far higher vitamin E content (keep reading). Vitamin E is a natural defence against polyunsaturated fat’s dangers for acne, since it prevents its oxidation. That’s why vegetable oil companies take no care whatsoever with their product, blasting their sunflower oil with hexane and deodorisers, but do add some synthetic vitamin E at the last minute: they don’t wish to sell a rancid product.
Almonds cannot escape forever; the polyunsaturated fat breaks down into a near equal 12.7 grams of omega 6s compared to 13.6 grams with pistachios. Vitamin E offers no defence against omega 6s. But the overall fat profile of pistachios is inferior to almonds, which have one of the better nut fat profiles.
Remember that you do NOT have to avoid pistachios; you can still enjoy their benefits for acne. Let’s move on…
Almonds beat pistachios for basic nutrition
For the top acne nutrients, pistachios and almonds compare like this per 100 grams:
Vitamin E, unclogger of skin pores – 10% vs 130%.
Vitamin A, enemy of oily skin – 5% vs 0%.
Vitamin C, king of strong and young skin – 4% vs 0%.
Magnesium, secret of sleep and stress – 30% vs 72%.
Zinc, the anti-inflammatory mineral – 15% vs 24%.
Selenium, master of antioxidants – 13% vs 4%.
Almonds are much more nutritious for acne. There’s little point in eating pistachios for vitamin E, almonds have a landslide victory. Vitamin C and vitamin A are unworthy of discussion.
The minerals, however, are where pistachios succeeds, even if it fails to win. The magnesium is inferior, but in this day and age where fields are magnesium-depleted and so are the crops, it’s still an excellent source. Selenium and zinc are also strong, given that only 100% is necessary rather than huge doses like with vitamin C. Pistachios become better if they’re the only nut you enjoy, or if you particularly hate almonds.
You also cannot ignore phytic acid. The natural, crystalline form of phosphorus storage in plants, which inhibits mineral absorption in humans.
Pistachios are moderately high in phytic acid, but significantly lower than almonds. Therefore, the minerals that do exist will be significantly more bioavailable. You could say that almonds have an effective magnesium content of 50% compared to 25% for pistachios. This important fact helps pistachios, but almonds still cross the line with ease, like the hare that read all the fairy tales and finally outsmarted the dratted tortoise…
…but for amino acids, almonds merely stumble across the finish line. Almonds contain 1525mg, 624mg, and 1006mg for glycine, lysine and proline respectively, versus 991mg, 1196mg, and 844mg for pistachios. All three contribute to collagen formation and thus create strong skin, while glycine constructs the master antioxidant glutathione as well.
The key is that vegans, or people who can’t afford high quality meat, need to obtain these amino acids from plant foods somehow. Nuts and seeds reign supreme, and pistachios clearly lose for glycine, but still perform well, while winning resoundingly for lysine. Pistachios are thus a great amino acid source to remember…
Do pistachios prevent oily skin?
…and pistachio nuts also have an interesting effect on insulin. There’s a bunch of conflicting studies on insulin, which produce a conflicting but promising picture.
For example, this study fed 48 patients 25 grams of pistachio nuts daily, a dose you might eat for fun. After 12 weeks, there was a significant fall in fasting blood sugar, yet no effect on insulin sensitivity. High insulin causes oily skin, whereas high blood sugar increases clogged pores by increasing skin cell turnover and also generates AGE free radicals.
This study was nearly identical, while this study examined only glucose levels and observed a big decrease, while as a bonus, detected a big reduction in inflammation from pistachios. Finally, we have a 4 month study where 54 humans ate pistachios daily. Insulin, insulin resistance and glucose all fell, making this study perfect for acne.
The pistachio/insulin connection is shrouded in darkness, but some sort of power exists. Time will tell what. The fasting blood sugar reduction is most consistent.
Pistachios – great for gut bacteria
So far, we’ve been comparing almonds and pistachios ourselves, but this study actually compared the two, investigating a drastically overlooked topic for acne – gut bacteria. The balance between friendly strains of bacteria and malicious ones, and the precise composition of the friendly bacteria. Gut bacteria can affect inflammation, nutrient absorption, and even your happiness.
The study fed 18 volunteers almonds and 16 pistachio nuts. After 18 days, both nuts increased the beneficial gut bacteria of the volunteers. But pistachios caused a “much stronger” increase. Pistachios had no effect on bifidobacterium, a common subset of healthy bacteria (the one found in yoghurt), but caused a surge in butyrate-producing bacteria.
Butyrate is a short-chain fatty acid which has strong anti-inflammatory effects, and also occurs naturally in some foods like butter. It’s linked to weight loss via suppressing appetite and has proven mood-boosting properties. Butyrate is also proven to increase insulin sensitivity of cells, which could explain the mixed results on pistachios and insulin; maybe butyrate was responsible and the butyrate-producing bacteria hadn’t multiplied enough yet.
If you do eat pistachios and supercharge your butyrate output, you can also achieve an exponential improvement in gut health. This study found that butyrate improved tight junction function of the gut lining, meaning that nutrient absorption became more efficient. Butyrate strongly inhibits candida yeasts, one of the main “bad” microorganisms in gut flora, which can crowd out the good strains once they start getting cocky and overconfident.
What will all this achieve? Increased nutrient absorption, a fall in inflammation, and many subtle changes which strongly affect acne.
In an interesting twist, fiber is one the single most ubiquitous prebiotics, or fuels for healthy gut bacteria. Yet almonds contain 11.8 grams of fiber, while pistachios contain 10.3 grams.
Both totals are excellent for gut bacteria, but some other compound must account for the differences. One candidate is raffinose, a short chain carbohydrate, but any minor compound could play a role.
For example, the polyphenol antioxidants from grapes are increase levels of a bacterial strain called Akkermansia muciniphila in the gut, simply because it loves to feed on them (study). This strain is being hyped for weight loss and like butyrate, has anti-inflammatory properties. Who knows what pistachios contain, and which other strains among millions they increase?
With gut bacteria, pistachios cannot be denied a smug victory over almonds.
In certain circumstances though, this strong power has a downside, as raffinose is also one of the strongest FODMAPs. FODMAPs are types of short chain plant carbohydrates which are poorly digested in those with weak gut bacteria or in rarer cases, genetic intolerances This poor digestion commonly causes acne and is a big danger in seemingly healthy and wholesome foods.
The FODMAP raffinose consists of fructose, galactose, and glucose. It’s commonly found in cabbage, onions and asparagus, but pistachios are another strong source. Raffinose is a form of carbohydrate storage in such plants, and even a cryogenic defence in frost resistant species. Humans lack the enzyme α-galactosidase for digesting raffinose, unlike cows, so our gut bacteria takes over…
…but when this gut bacteria is impoverished, gas, bloating, allergic reactions, and acne are unleashed. For example, raffinose is known to damage the permeability of the gut lining, interfering with acne nutrient absorption. If you’re intolerant to raffinose, it can even increase bloodstream levels of a leukotoxin called 9,10-DiHOME, a villain which increases inflammation levels while depleting antioxidants.
The connection between FODMAPs and acne remains slightly mysterious, but among the sensitive they’re just as bad as dairy or sugar, and pistachios are full of them.
There’s already evidence that pistachios aren’t such a glorious food. This study was either the most fun or hellish of all time depending on your viewpoint: the cyclists underwent 75km of mountainous cycling until they reached the presumably waving scientists in hammocks at the finish line. The scientists theorised that feeding 3 daily ounces of pistachio nuts to 20 endurance athletes would enhance their performance.
They were later dumbfounded, as performance decreased. The pistachio cyclists were 4.8% slower than the controls, with reduced power output, despite consuming extra calories too. The raffinose was deemed to be one of the culprits.
A probiotic rich food isn’t a guaranteed double edged sword, because not all of them trigger sensitivities, but in this case it is. Almonds are moderately high in FODMAPs but pistachios, along with cashew nuts, contain the most.
If you have weak digestion, irritable bowel syndrome, or are educated about FODMAP sensitivity and trying to fix yours, avoid pistachios until you improve. Your one chance is if you clearly observe that you can tolerate them. You might have a specific composition of gut bacteria which allows you to digest the raffinose in pistachios despite struggling with other FODMAPs.
While the almond simply pours nutrition into your body, the pistachio exists in the realm of gut health, for better or worse. The minerals and amino acids are excellent for acne, if inferior to almonds.
So what’s your approach? Similar to almonds – restrict your intake moderately, particularly if you eat high amounts of omega 6 rich foods elsewhere. Actively eliminate the worthless sources of omega 6s like sunflower oil and preserve the acne-friendly ones, including pistachios.
Almonds are superior for acne overall, but pistachios are more complex. If have an established FODMAP sensitivity, avoid pistachios and work hard to correct your gut health in the meantime. One day, a switch will flip: your gut bacteria will pass a crest of diversity and concentration that suddenly allows you to eat them again.
Pistachios will transform from a food that ruins your skin to one that subtly helps it, beneath the surface.
Thanks for reading!