In the eyes of botanists, peanuts are not true nuts. Scientifically known as Arachis hypogaea, the plants which produce them are legumes, like beans or peas. Curiously, after flowering and pollination, they spread their flower stems into the ground, so that the fruit pods develop underground. This helps to explain the other names peanuts go by such as groundnuts and, in southern states of the USA, by goober—derived from n-guba, a word from the Bantu language meaning peanut.
Peanuts were first cultivated in pre-Inca times in ancient Peru. From South America they traveled quickly to the four corners of the world, first to Africa taken by the Portuguese, to East Asia across the Pacific from Mexico and to North America from Africa. Like potato, cocoa and tomato, groundnuts stand as one of the most important New World foods adopted by the Old World. Today, they are grown both for use in foods and for oil. According to the National Peanut Board, China is the largest producer, followed by India and the US, which accounts for nearly 10 percent of the world’s crop.
Groundnuts, which thrive in both tropical and subtropical climates, are rich in protein (about 30%) and oil (up to 50%), and their nutritional importance (see Nutrition Facts) is vital to the diet of some populations and to the economy of some countries.