Almonds have become one of the latest health crazes. Whether it’s almond milk, almond butter, almond flour, or almond-based cheeses, the rise in popularity of this nut has sky-rocketed since 2015.
A study by Neilsen showed that almond milk has become America’s favorite milk substitute, with over 250% in sales growth since 2010.
But with this growing demand for almonds and almond-based products, are almond growers resorting to cheaper methods of processing almonds before hitting the shelves? The answer is yes.
Why Did They Start Treating Almonds?
In 2001, a couple Canadians got sick from Salmonella after eating raw Californian almonds sold in bulk bins. Authorities took samples at all of the farms that could have produced the nuts to find the source of contamination. Three different Californian orchards contained the bacteria, and in response, the California Department of Health Services implemented new sanitary procedures.
A second and third outbreak occurred in 2003 and 2004, resulting in over 15 million pounds of almonds being recalled. The Almond Board of California then implemented regulation that would require pasteurization of all almonds starting September 1, 2007. However, this rule did not require that almonds from foreign countries be treated (1).
PPO Treated Almonds
The process of fumigation of raw almonds isn’t a pretty process, and could be putting the health of many at risk.
Fumigating almonds with propylene oxide (PPO) is done by placing the almonds into a closed chamber that is then exposed to propylene oxide gas. If not pasteurized or steamed, under law, almonds must be fumigatedwith PPO. The result? A dead almond with very low vitamin, mineral and enzyme count.
PPO does not occur in the natural environment. It is a synthetic, highly-flammable, volatile, colorless liquid that is used primarily as a chemical intermediate in the production of polyethers and propylene glycol. It is also used as an additive for engine fuel in vehicles, and as a pesticide and fumigant for the sterilization of foods (2).
According to PubChem, acute inhalation exposure to vapors of PPO can result in “respiratory tract irritation, coughing, difficulty breathing (dyspnea) and buildup of fluid in the lungs (pulmonary edema) that can possibly lead to pneumonia…It is reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen.”
That’s right, PPO causes cancer. It is even classified by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as a Group 2B, probable human carcinogen (3).
PPO is a commonly used method to treat almonds, because it is cheaper than steam distillation. PPO is also prohibited from being used on organic almonds due to organic regulations and standards.
Steam Distilled Almonds
Not all almonds are fumigated with PPO to pass pasteurization regulations. Steam distillation is another common (and more expensive) method that some gracious companies have used over the use of toxic chemicals like PPO.
Steam-distilled almonds are essentially exposed to steam heat sufficient to raise the surface temperature of the almond kernels to about 200ºF (93ºC). Similar to PPO, this method of “sanitizing” the almond kills the vitamins, enzymes and minerals inside the almond, essentially rendering it nutritionally incomplete.
Unfortunately, many of us have not had the privilege of enjoying a fresh, raw almond. Even products labelled as “raw” are not truly raw (unless you’re getting your raw almonds imported from Europe). According to those who’ve had the chance to try the difference between North American almonds (aka. pasteurized almonds) and European almonds (aka. raw almonds), the raw almonds are almost always more crunchy, and taste more rich. I can only imagine the difference between the two!
Raw almonds, as stated above, cannot be found in North America. The laws don’t require imported almonds from Europe to be heat-treated or treated with PPO, so the only way you’re going to find truly raw almonds is if they’re imported.
Raw almonds are rich in vitamins, minerals and enzymes. Unfortunately, heat-treated and sterilization with PPO destroy these delicate nutrients. Take the delicate omega-9 fatty acids found abundantly in almonds. Once almonds are heat treated, these delicate fats become rancid and oxidized.
Companies who claim their almond products are “raw” might just be fooling those who want to follow a completely raw diet. Do companies call their almonds “raw”, because steam pasteurization of almonds is an industry standard, or is it because they’re not roasted? It seems like some of these labels on “raw” almond products need to be changed. In my opinion, these companies are just capitalizing off the raw food movement and those who follow these labels with a blind eye like I once did.
Organic is Best if You Can’t Find Raw
If you aren’t willing to spend a pretty penny for raw imported almonds from Europe, organic is your next best bet.
While labelling does not require which type of pasteurization is used, organic almonds and organic almond products are exempt from fumigation (thanks to organic standards prohibiting the use of chemicals on organic products).
Organic almonds will always be steam pasteurized. Even if the product says “raw”, it will still be technically cooked through the high-heat steaming process.
Other Reasons Why Organic is Better Than Conventional
Almonds require a lot of water to produce. And this isn’t the best of news given over 80% of the almond crops in the world are grown in drought-stricken California.
According to the New York Times, it takes over 15 gallons of water to produce just 16 almonds (that’s crazy talk!). The land that almonds are being grown on is also problematic. According to Forbes, “23,000 acres of natural lands have been converted to almond farms. 16,000 of those acres were land previously classified as wetlands. Additionally, some agricultural land has been converted from lower-water crops to almonds.”
This problem is compounded by pesticide use in production of conventional almonds. Pesticides leach and run-off into nearby water sources, contaminating them and contributing to the toxification of drinking water for people in California’s farming communities. According to the Pesticide Action Network, the USDA Pesticide Data Program has found residues of nine different pesticides on almonds, five of which are toxic to honey bees, posing yet another threat to the environment.
Certified organic almonds come from fields where pesticides are not used, and often require less water to grow due to different farming practices. Organic almonds will always trump conventional no matter which way you look at it.
Where To Source Organic and Raw Almond Products
If you’re wondering where to find organic or raw almond products, your best bet is to look for the “organic” label on any almond product you choose to buy. Whether that’s almond milk, fresh almonds, almond flour, almond-based cheeses or the like, always choose organic.
Raw almond products are a bit harder to source, and the best I’ve found for raw organic almonds is from a company selling 25 pounds for $425 (something most people aren’t going to purchase into. That’s over $17 a pound for raw organic almonds).
Fortunately, I came across a product from Terrasoul Superfoods who source 100% raw unpasteurized organic almonds! They are $12.50 a pound, which is still expensive, but much better than many of the prices I’ve seen.
Blue Mountain Organics also sells truly raw almonds that you can sprout!
If you’re aware of any other companies or brands who sell truly raw, European almonds, let me and others know in the comments below!