Everything You Need To Know About Almonds
Everything You Need To Know About Almonds
Almonds, what really are they? How are they grown? And why have they evolved from simple, humble health-food to a worldwide craze? Read on to learn everything you need to know about almonds and much more.
What are almonds and are they even a nut?
Let’s start at the beginning with perhaps the most simple question of all - what are almonds and are they even a nut?
You may have encountered this debate before, but contrary to the popular belief that almonds are a member of the nut family, almonds are in fact the seed of a fruit produced by the almond tree, whose Latin name is Prunus amygdalus.
Scientific Latin names, such as Prunus amygdalus, are used to identify and classify plants by their characteristics, and the binomial (two-name) system that we use today was developed by the Swedish naturalist, Carl Linnaeus in the mid-1700s. The two-names used within this system refer to the genus and the species of each plant. From Prunus amygdalus, the scientific name for the almond tree, we can interpret that the tree comes from the genus Prunus, which is also used for fruit trees such as the plum, peach, nectarine, and apricot.
Technical terms aside, many ‘nuts’ are in fact not technically nuts at all, including brazil nuts, cashews, walnuts, coconuts, macadamia nuts, pistachios, and peanuts - who would have thought! Now, we’re not going to single-handedly change the common nomenclature of these nuts, so if you’re happy for us to do so, we’ll continue to refer to almonds as nuts for now.
So what is an almond?
Identity crisis over, almonds are the seed of the almond fruit, which is categorized as a drupe. Drupes consist of an outer flesh or skin that then surrounds a single shell in which a kernel (the almond) is contained. Before the almond can be eaten it must first be dehulled and deshelled to reveal the tasty seed within. If left to their own devices the almond tree would drop its fruit naturally, releasing the almond kernel which would then germinate to produce another almond plant.
Almonds through history
Almonds have played a role in history for many centuries and are referenced in historic and religious manuscripts including the Bible, specifically the ‘Book of Numbers’ in which Aaron’s rod blossoms, bearing almonds. Later in 100AD, we have evidence to suggest that the Romans used almonds as a fertility charm, showering newlyweds with the kernels to bring them good fortune when bearing children.
The exact ancestry of almonds may not be known, but the trees were thought to have originated in Asia, spreading abroad between 600-900AD as explorers enjoyed them while traveling the ‘Silk Road’ between Asia and the Mediterranean. The almonds discarded by these travelers ultimately flourished in the warm, lush Mediterranean climates of Italy and Spain and almonds began growing in the Mediterranean.
It wasn’t until the mid-1700s that the almond was first planted in California, now the single largest producer of almonds in the world, and by the 1870s new cross-breeds had been cultivated, giving us the almond varieties we enjoy today.
The almond industry today
In the past 30 years or so, California’s almond production has quadrupled to cover more than 500,000 acres of land in the Fresno, San Joaquin, and Sacramento valleys, making almonds California’s single largest agricultural export. Although California dominates the global market, almonds still grow prolifically in Italy and Spain, Iran and Morocco, though the production in these countries tends to center around local consumption rather than global export.
How are almonds produced?
With the demand for almonds so high, almond production is now conducted on a monumental scale, but the core principles of the growing process remain the same. Here’s a quick rundown of the basic almond production process.
- Almond trees are planted and matured to grow fruit
It can take between five and twelve years for an almond tree to begin producing fruit, but once this waiting period is over, the tree will continue to produce a crop for up to 50 years to come.
- Almond trees require pollination
The fruit of the almond tree is produced as a part of the tree’s sexual reproductive process and therefore requires some form of pollination. Pollination can occur naturally when bees visit the trees blossoming flowers, or it can happen manually. Most almond producers prefer to use natural pollination as it tends to be more successful and less labor-intensive than manual pollination and so to ensure that bees visit their trees almond growers rent hives during the blooming season.
- Preparing for harvest
Once pollinated the blossom of the almond tree will begin to form fruit. When ripe it’s time for the almond harvest, which usually begins in July and ends in October. When the almond fruit is ready to harvest it’s important that the fruit dries out a little, and so almond producers tend to back off on their watering regime in the days leading up to the harvest. As the fruit dries from lack of water it cracks open, which signifies that the tree is ready to shake.
- Shaking the trees
Almonds are collected from the tree in a process called ‘shaking’, in which specialist machines are used to rapidly shake the tree causing the almond fruit to fall to the ground. The fallen nuts are often then left on the ground to dry out for anywhere between five and seven days, which makes the dehulling process easier, if left any longer than this then red ants may move in to eat the tasty kernel inside.
- Collecting the almonds
Once the dropped fruit is ready for collection, it is swept up using specialist machinery and then collected in vast trailers to be taken to the processing plant.
During the dehulling process, the almond is separated from its hull, usually by rubbing it against a rubber belt. These de-hulled almonds are then sorted by size using a series of slotted metal grates and are sent to a gravity separator, which ensures that any hull material or other foreign bodies are removed.
- Quality control
The de-hulled but still shelled almonds then pass through a series of cameras that look for imperfections on their shells. Any contaminated or defective almonds are knocked out of the flow with a blast of air, leaving only the viable almonds to continue through to the grading process.
- Almond grading
By now the almonds are ready to be graded, this is done by assessing the quality of their shells. The grading process is conducted by a combination of cameras, grids, and manual workers to ensure that no contaminants make it through.
Any almonds with cracked shells will usually be de-shelled on-site and sold to be roasted and processed as shelled almonds. Almonds with perfect shells may be sold with their shells still on, to be de-shelled by the buyer or sold to the consumer as shell-on almonds.
Why are we so crazy about almonds?
Clearly the demand for almonds has increased significantly in the past 30 years but why now have we suddenly gone crazy for almonds? The answer lies in the health benefits of the nut itself and the products it is now being used to make. Let’s dive in a little further.
The health benefits of almonds
Almonds have long been seen as a form of ‘super-food’ and for good reason, they’re packed full of nutrients and you only need to eat a very small amount of them to see their benefits. Here’s what you get when you consume a portion of almonds.
The nutritional value of almonds
Just 1 serving (approximately 28g) of whole shelled almonds provides the following nutrients:
- Carbohydrates: 2.5g
- Fiber: 3.5g
- Protein: 6g
- Fat: 14g (9g of which is monounsaturated)
- Vitamin E: 37% of the RDA
- Manganese: 32% of the RDA
- Magnesium: 20% of the RDA
Almonds and Antioxidants
Do a little digging on the health benefits of almonds and you’ll quickly begin to see the words almond and antioxidants used hand in hand. Antioxidants help to protect the body from oxidative stress and free radicals, which ultimately cause cell damage that can lead to aging, inflammation, and diseases such as cancer. An almond’s antioxidants are concentrated in its skin, which is why if you’re looking for antioxidative benefits it’s best to purchase almonds with their skins still on, i.e not the blanched, white variety.
Almonds as a source of important vitamins and minerals
As you can see a single serving of almonds is a great source of Vitamin E, Magnesium and Manganese which all have very important functions within the body.
Vitamin E is the term given for a group of eight fat-soluble compounds that include four tocopherols and four tocotrienols. All you need to know about Vitamin E is that it’s very good for you, contributing to organ function, vision, reproduction and the health of your blood and skin. Vitamin E is also a powerful antioxidant, protecting the body from harmful free radicals that play a role in heart disease and cancer. Almonds are in fact one of the world’s leading sources of Vitamin E, with a single serving providing 37% of persons recommended daily allowance (RDA).
Did you know that magnesium is the fourth most abundant mineral in your body and is responsible for more than 600 cellular reactions including the synthesis of DNA? Despite its importance in the body, many people don’t monitor their magnesium intake, and as a result, The National Institute of Health has found that up to 68% of American adults aren’t meeting their recommended intake. Magnesium deficiency has been linked to depression, fatigue, high blood pressure, and heart disease, and is completely avoidable - just a single serving of almonds provides 20% of a person’s RDA, with other foods such as pumpkin seeds, spinach and black beans helping to make up the rest.
Manganese is a trace mineral, meaning that the body only needs it in very small amounts, but that doesn’t reduce its importance. Manganese is needed by the body for bone formation, the creation of connective tissue, and the production of sex hormones and blood clotting factors. Without manganese, in their diets, individuals may experience infertility, poor bone growth, and seizures. The main dietary sources of manganese are legumes, pulses, nuts, and seeds and a single serving of almonds can provide a person with a third of their recommended daily intake.
Almonds are packed full of protein
If there’s one macro-nutrient that people are always trying to eat more of its protein. Protein is made up of amino acids, which function as the main building blocks for cells. Without protein, the cells within the body cannot grow or repair themselves and the body will resort to breaking down its own tissues in order to keep your essential organs functioning. Whether you’re a body-builder looking to build new muscle or just your average Joe looking to lead a healthier lifestyle, it’s important to have adequate protein in your diet.
The good news is that protein is relatively abundant in most of the food we eat, and the average person only needs approximately 50g a day to meet their minimum requirement. The minimum requirement for protein can be easily achieved by eating just one large chicken breast a day but the problem with protein is that many of its highest sources come from animal products, such as meat, dairy and eggs, and so for those looking to lead a plant-based or vegan lifestyle it’s important to be mindful of alternative protein sources - such as the almond.
Almonds contain 6 grams of protein per 28g serving, the equivalent of eating a large boiled egg, making them a great protein-packed snack for those following a vegan diet and a great way to increase your plant-based protein intake. By consuming almonds in their raw form or as almond butter, almond flour or almond milk, vegans can easily increase their protein intake, whilst also enjoying the other many benefits that almonds have over animal-based protein sources.
Almonds are high in fiber
Fiber is perhaps one of the most underrated nutrients, helping to improve digestion, relieving constipation and reducing the risk of diabetes, heart disease, and cancer. Fiber is found in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds, but despite being present in some of the largest food groups, it’s estimated that up to 97% of people aren’t eating the recommended 31.5 grams a day! Without adequate dietary fiber, the body struggles to eliminate waste, which can lead to bowel conditions and further health complications such as cancer. What’s more, with all dietary sources of fiber coming from plant sources, by eating more fiber you’ll also reduce your cholesterol, limit your chances of developing heart disease, will feel fuller for longer, find it easier to maintain a healthy weight and will increase your overall longevity.
Almonds are low in carbs and high in good fats
We have a tendency to demonize high-fat foods but not all fats are created equal. Whereas saturated fats from animal sources can block arteries and lead to heart disease, unsaturated fats from plant-based sources can actually do the opposite, helping to lower cholesterol levels and keeping the heart healthy. Almonds are a fantastic, healthy fat source that is also very low in carbohydrates making them popular with those consuming low-carb or ketogenic diets or who are looking to increase their healthy fat intake.
Almonds and a ketogenic diet
A ketogenic diet (often referred to as the keto diet for short) is a diet fueled primarily by fat, with adequate protein and extremely low carbohydrate intake. By dramatically reducing their carbohydrate intake and replacing their lost calories with fat, those following the keto diet are able to put themselves into a state of ketosis, in which their body is forced to burn fat as its main energy source, ultimately leading to weight loss and a reduction in insulin levels.
For those following a ketogenic diet, it’s important to find alternative high-fat food sources to traditional high-carb ingredients, such as flour, which is where the humble almond comes in. Aside from being a great high-fat and protein-packed snack on their own, almonds are extremely versatile and can be ground into a flour to be used in baking as a low-carb, high-fat substitute for wheat flour. Almonds can also be ground into nut-butter, strained into nut-milk and blended into a delicious hummus - the sky really is the limit when it comes to their versatility.
Some ketogenic almond-based recipes to try include:
- Almond flour pancakes
- Almond fried chicken
- Almond cookies
- Almond bread
- And roasted almond hummus.
Where to buy the best quality almonds
With almonds becoming ever more popular there’s no shortage of places to buy them and you’ll find them in most grocery stores and online. What’s important to remember is to focus on the quality of the product and the experience of the seller - not all almonds are created equal. To save money and to avoid paying inflated grocery-store prices it’s always worth looking at online almond sellers who often provide better deals on bulk orders and can offer you a much larger selection of products.
Storing your almonds at home
Almonds can be stored in their shells, out of their shells, at room temperature, in the fridge or even in the freezer, depending on how long you wish to store them. In general, nuts will last slightly longer in their shells, but this makes them less easily accessible and so most people tend to store them shelled for easy access. Whichever method of storage you choose, be sure to package your almonds in an air-tight container and to keep them away from strong odors such as onion or garlic, as almonds tend to absorb strong odors and flavors very easily.
Storing at room temperature
If storing your almonds at room temperature, then be sure to place them in an airtight container, this will stop them from going stale and will protect them from moisture and rot. You can easily find airtight containers online, or if your almonds come in a resealable bag then just make sure to always re-seal it between uses. When stored correctly, almonds that are kept at room temperature will keep for up to three months. If you do go to use them and they taste a little stale, then try putting them in a 350-degree Fahrenheit oven for approximately 10 minutes to crisp them back up and reignite their flavor. Sadly, even an oven won’t revive a rancid nut, they’ll need to be thrown away.
Storing in the fridge
You may think it odd to store your nuts in the fridge but it can double their storage life, keeping them fresh for up to six months. As with storing your nuts at room temperature, be sure to put them in an air-tight container first to stop any moisture getting in and keep them away from smelly foods that could ruin their flavor.
Storing in the freezer
Finally, to keep your almonds fresh for up to a year and even beyond, then package them up in an airtight container and store them in your freezer. When you’re ready to eat them, simply take them out and let them defrost so they’re not too cold and hard on your teeth.
To help you keep track of how old your almonds are, always label their containers with the day they were first stored.
Three store-bought almond products you can make at home
You may have tried store-bought almond butter, almond milk, or almond flour before, but did you know that these three products can be easily made at home? That’s right, once you know-how, you can easily create almond butter, almond milk and almond flour in your home kitchen, without unnecessary additives and often saving you money too. We’re going to cover how to make these products in more detailed blog posts, but here’s a quick run-down of what you’ll need to get started.
- Almond butter
Homemade almond butter can be made with just one ingredient - almonds! And you can use both raw or roasted almonds, depending on the flavor you prefer. You don’t need to use any added oil when making your almond butter, because the almonds themselves will release their own natural oil to give the butter its creamy consistency. To make almond butter all you need to do is to add your almonds to a food processor or high-speed blender and then to have some patience. At first, the almonds will be ground into a powder and at this stage, you may start to wonder if it will ever resemble the almond butter you can buy from the store, but it will, you just need to give it some time. To stop the ground almonds collecting at the side of your processor or blender, you may need to stop it and scrape down the sides several times. Finally, around the 10-15 minute mark, you’ll start to see the consistency change and after a further 10 minutes, you’ll have something that resembles a chunky almond butter. If you like your almond butter smooth, then simply blend for a few minutes longer. Then allow to cool and transfer to your chosen container.
- Almond milk
Many people say that once you start making your own almond milk you’ll never go back to store-bought and we have to say we agree. All you need to get started are raw almonds, some water, a sweetening agent if you like sweetened milk and a nut milk bag. You can create almond milk at home using a muslin cloth, but for the creamiest consistency then we recommend investing in a nut milk bag that has a super fine mesh.
Start by soaking your almonds in an inch of water, the longer you soak them the creamier your almond milk will be, so we recommend putting them in the refrigerator and soaking for 48 hours. Next, drain off their soaking liquid and give them a rinse under cold water before adding them to a blender with your water and blend for 2 minutes on the highest setting. Finally, all you need to do is pass this creamy white liquid through your muslin cloth or nut bag, pressing down on the almond pulp to ensure you get all the creamy almond flavor. If you like your almond milk sweet, then now’s the time that you can add in some honey or stevia to taste. Store your almond milk in the fridge for up to two days as it’s best used fresh.
Finally, we have almond flour, which is a great gluten-free and ketogenic alternative to conventional wheat flour and can be used in all kinds of baking and recipes. The process of making almond flour is nearly identical to that for almond butter, except we aren’t going to need to spend quite so long at the food processor. To get started take raw, blanched almonds (they’re almonds without the skin) and add them to a food processor. Next, simply pulse the food processor, scraping the sides down roughly every 10 pulses or so. This keeps the almonds cool and stops them from becoming almond butter which is what happens when you blend them constantly. After a minute or so of pulsing, you should have some delicious, homemade almond flour!
And that’s everything you need to know about almonds
Well, we think we’ve just about covered everything you need to know about almonds - aren’t they a fantastic, healthy and versatile ingredient? If we’ve inspired you to give them a try or to re-stock up on your supplies, then be sure to take a look at our own extensive range, all cooked with love in small batches to ensure maximum quality and flavor - we’re confident you’ll love them as much as we do.
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