I love almonds. They’re portable, make a great snack, and can add delicious crunch to just about any dish, whether it’s sweet or savory. The thing is, I was already eating almonds regularly just because I like them, regardless of the health benefits. Could you use a little more encouragement? I was surprised by the bevy of health benefits that these nuts have to offer, and you will be, too!
But first, I have to mention my initial surprise as I began to do a bit of research for this article, when I discovered that many people (perhaps it would be appropriate to term these individuals “health nuts”?) actually exclude nuts like almonds from their diets! Seems a little backwards, no?
Does a health nut have to eat nuts? Of course not! But anyone who tries to tell you that nuts are high in fat, and are therefore unhealthy, is in fact an entirely different kind of nutty. They’re just plain wrong.
To begin, a brief botany lesson: Yes, we call them nuts. But this can actually mean many different things. There are tree nuts, like walnuts and cashews, or “nuts” that don’t really fit this category at all, such as peanuts that are actually part of the legume family. Almonds, though considered tree nuts, are actually the seeds of a stone fruit, like apricots or peaches.
We usually eat almonds after they’ve been dried and de-shelled. The tiny green fruits that encase these stones and their inner seeds are actually sometimes available fresh at markets when they’re in season.
You don’t eat the green fruit, though- it’s still the inner seed that you’d be after if you were able to locate fresh almonds. They’re said to be creamier and milkier than the dried variety. According to the Almond Board of California, fresh or “green” almonds are “herbaceous-tasting” and good in salads.
Thought to have originated in China and Central Asia, almonds were brought with traders and explorers along the Silk Road through Asia and the Middle East to the Mediterranean.
After growing happily in Italy and Spain for a while, Franciscan Padres brought almond trees from Spain to California. Since then, almonds have flourished in the Golden State, beginning in missions along the coast, and eventually being planted further inland.
A beautiful tradition
Almonds are thought to represent fertility, which is why candy-coated Jordan almonds are often given as a favor at weddings to this day. The trees themselves are beautiful, covered in pink and white blossoms towards the end of winter every year in California. Between the spring bloom and the production of fruit, pollination is an important factor.
Almond trees do not self-pollinate, so they rely on pollinators like honeybees to fertilize each flower. Without pollinators, there wouldn’t be any almonds. According to the Almond Board of California, many farmers actually bring in bees by the truckload each year to pollinate their crops.
How to grow an almond
Almonds are not exactly easy to grow, especially in light of the current drought conditions in California. Almond trees require a lot of water. Though their impact on the environment is significantly less than that of beef, a notoriously input-heavy food product, they’re still a thirsty crop.
According to Mother Jones magazine, it takes roughly 1.1 gallons of water to grow a single almond. That’s right- just one.
Multiply that by thousands of almonds harvested from every tree, and you’re starting to get an idea of the potential for environmental impact when it comes to this type of crop. Though the harvest has been smaller than normal due to the recent drought, 2.1 billion pounds of almonds were originally predicted for the 2014 harvest.
That calls for a lot of water. Fortunately, sustainability and conservation are on the minds of California almond farmers, most of whom still own and operate family farms. According to a 2014 survey, more than 70% of represented almond orchards use micro-irrigation systems to conserve water.
Special machinery is required for harvesting the fruit. Tarps are laid on the ground before the harvesting machine approaches to shake the almonds from the trees. Though this may seem indelicate, you’ve got to admit- it’s far more economical than picking the nuts one by one.
Unfortunately, this practice can occasionally be less than sanitary. Salmonella outbreaks have happened in the past, including several documented in the early 2000s. As a result, all almonds commercially sold in the US must be pasteurized before sale.
All of this background brings us to an examination of the nutrient content and health benefits of almonds. First, let’s pause for a moment to delve a bit deeper into the pasteurization regulations. Though the Almond Board of California claims this to be patently untrue, some groups and individuals believe pasteurization must degrade the nutrient content of almonds.
Pasteurization of this type of product can be done by various methods, including roasting, blanching, steaming, or treatment with propylene oxide, a toxic compound that some claim is unsafe and should not be used in food products. Regardless of the method, because pasteurization is the law, it is incredibly difficult to obtain truly raw almonds in the US.
Though some are available through private sale from small batch vendors who are exempt from the pasteurization requirement, any US-grown almonds found in regular grocery stores marked “raw” have, in fact, been pasteurized.
Studies have not been conducted to compare the nutrient content of pasteurized almonds to that of truly raw almonds. However, no one seems to have made the argument that pasteurized almonds are entirely devoid of health benefits. All in all, if you choose to eat almonds, you’re making a healthy choice.
Healthy fat, vitamins and minerals
As I mentioned before, almonds are high in fat. But don’t panic! This is the good kind. It’s monounsaturated fat, like you’ll find in other nuts and seeds. This type of fat has been found to help lower LDL (or the “bad” kind of) cholesterol.
This combination of nutrients may help to lower the risk of heart disease and diabetes. These nutrients also help to relax veins and arteries and thus improve blood flow. They even help to maintain heart function and healthy blood pressure levels.
Almonds are also a decent source of manganese, copper and riboflavin, a form of vitamin B. These minerals have antioxidant powers that help to combat free radicals in the body. The riboflavin aids in energy production.
Though you might not feel a rush after chowing down on a handful of almonds like you do after drinking a Mountain Dew or double espresso, you may experience a healthier boost of energy instead, that’s nutrient-rich and longer lasting. Plus, you won’t be left with the inevitable crash that follows high-octane caffeinated beverage consumption.
Officially heart healthy
Perhaps this nutritional info will lead you to give a second thought to those cereals and other products that are labeled “heart healthy,” and go running for the almonds instead. It couldn’t hurt! Unlike most packaged breakfast cereals, almonds are unprocessed and high in fiber with no added sugar.
Studies have also shown that eating almonds or almond butter with meals can help to reduce the glycemic index of other foods. The fat and fiber found in the nuts helps to slow the digestion and absorption of simple sugars, helping to prevent blood sugar and insulin spikes.
Back to that cereal example, you can have your cake, er, cereal, and eat it too if you simply sprinkle some almonds on top and eat them together.
Don’t forget to eat the skins!
Though many people prefer to use blanched almonds in their cooking, the skins actually offer a host of potential health benefits. Flavonoids found in the skins work together with the vitamin E, giving an extra boost to the power of the antioxidants.
Try blending a few roasted almonds with the skins into your next smoothie for added depth of flavor, or top salmon with a slather of combined mustard and mayo and a topping of roughly chopped whole almonds before roasting it in the oven. (Thanks for the recipe, Mom!)
Weight loss, too? That’s nuts!
Some research suggests that adding almonds to a reduced-calorie diet may help obese people to lose weight. A study published in the International Journal of Obesity and Related Metabolic Disorders found reductions in weight, body fat and blood pressure in obese adults who participated in the study and were given almonds as part of their diet, in comparison to those who ate a similar diet that did not include almonds.
In fact, preliminary studies have actually found that individuals who are not obese may be able to avoid gaining excess weight in the first place if they add almonds to their diets. Of course, this would need to be done in place of other foods, rather than adding excess calories to one’s diet in the form of almonds. Excess calories are excess calories, no matter where they come from or what form they take.
As printed in the journal Obesity, the findings of a 28-month Spanish study involving 8,865 adult men and women found that participants who ate nuts at least two times a week were 31% less likely to gain weight than participants who rarely or never ate nuts. Sounds like adding almonds to your diet is worth a shot, right?
Another study actually found that almonds help to increase satiety (or a feeling of fullness) and reduce appetite. This was documented to be a result of eating the nuts whole and masticating (or chewing) them to make the lipids (or fats) in the nuts more bioavailable (or more easily absorbed and utilized by the body.)
Next time you’re thinking about going for a cigarette to curb those hunger pangs, try crunching on some tasty almonds instead.
Even more reasons to eat almonds
Nuts such as almonds may be protective in other ways as well. Twenty years of dietary data collected from more than 80,000 women who participated in the Nurses’ Health Study shows that women who eat at least an ounce of nuts or nut butter each week have a 25% lower risk of developing gallstones. Nice!
Finally, remember that fiber that I mentioned earlier, that helps other foods eaten with almonds to digest more slowly? It serves another purpose as well- that of a prebiotic. Prebiotics actually feed the healthy bacteria living in the gut, improving digestion and immune function. Yum!
There’s no doubt about it- almonds are a nutritional powerhouse, offering benefits to various systems of the body. Eat them on their own, or with other foods. Just one word of caution- though it’s true that the almonds themselves are healthy, sweets and treats like Almond Joy bars and rocky road ice cream still contain lots of calories from sugar that are not outweighed by the benefits of the almonds.
Fortunately, a mostly vegetable-based whole foods diet tends to be rich in nutrients and low in calories, so you’ll probably have a little wiggle room if you’re eating healthily otherwise.
What’s your favorite way to eat almonds? Tell me all about it in the comments!