In botanical terms, an almond is actually a drupe not a nut. A drupe is a fruit in which an outer fleshy part or skin surrounds a shell with a seed inside. The almond “nut” is technically the seed of the fruit of the almond tree.
Unlike other soft fruits, the almond fruit is a thick, leathery grey-green outer covering. Inside is a hard woody shell that encases the edible seed that we know as almonds. Almonds are off-white in color and are covered by a thin brownish skin.
There are two types of almonds: bitter and sweet. Bitter almonds are used to make almond oil which is used as a flavoring agent for foods and liquors such as Amaretto. They are not edible because they contain the toxic substance hydrocyanic acid. This acid is removed during the manufacturing process. Sweet almonds are for eating and are found in grocery stores with their shell on or off. Shelled almonds are available whole, sliced or slivered in either their natural form with their skin on or removed.
Almonds grow on trees that reach 13 to 33 feet high and have beautiful pink or white flowers. Almonds are related to peaches, plums, cherries and apricots. It takes three years after planting an almond tree for it to start bearing fruit. It then takes five to six years for the tree to mature. Almonds are harvested in the fall about seven to eight months after flowering.
Almonds are mostly grown in countries that border the Mediterranean Sea. California is the only state in the U.S. that cultivates and produces almonds and they are the state’s largest tree nut crop in dollars & acreage.
Almonds are one of the best snacks to incorporate into your diet because they contain healthy fats, are a good source of protein and fiber, provide a rich source of many nutrients, and are packaged together for your convenience by Mother Nature.
A handful of almonds (about 22 whole kernels or 1 oz.) have 6 grams of protein which helps maintain your energy levels throughout the day. Almonds are also high in dietary fiber; this small serving provides almost 4 grams.
You’ve probably heard that “nuts are fattening”. This statement needs qualification. While a handful of almonds contain 169 calories, about a quarter of these calories are from carbs/protein and three-quarters is from fats. But, the bulk of this fat is the health-promoting unsaturated kind (both monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats).
Almonds are an excellent source of vitamin E, which helps maintain healthy skin. They are also an excellent source of manganese and magnesium. Almonds are a good source of the B-vitamin riboflavin and the mineral copper.
While almonds are naturally low in sodium, like so many prepared kinds of nuts, they are often doused in salt. Given that most of us consume far too much sodium in our diet, look for non-salted almonds to keep your sodium levels in check.
The skin of the almond contains polyphenols, which are antioxidants that help protect the body from free-radicals. Blanched almonds are shelled almonds that have been treated with hot water to remove their skins. To receive all of the health benefits of almonds, be sure to eat them with the brown skin intact.
Almond milk is a popular milk substitute and is perfect for people who are lactose intolerant. Almond milk is a healthier choice than cow’s milk, as even low-fat milk contains three times more calories (102 vs 35). Unlike cow’s milk, almond milk contains NO unhealthy saturated fat just unsaturated fats. While cow’s milk provides significantly more protein and carbs than almond milk, dairy products can be congesting for many people. Higher dairy intake is also associated with increased incidence of acne.
Almond butter has recently become a popular alternative to peanut butter especially for anyone who has a peanut allergy. Both “butters” have a similar nutritional profile in that a tablespoon is about 100 calories, the majority coming from unsaturated fats. Almond butter is slightly lower in saturated fat and protein than peanut butter (which is made from legumes). Currently almond butter is a little more expensive than peanut butter and is not available in all grocery markets. We suggest going to Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s to find almond butter.
Regular consumption of nuts, including almonds, helps to maintain a healthy heart and healthy cholesterol levels.
Almonds are high in monounsaturated fats, the same type of health promoting fats found in olive oil. Higher intakes of these fats are associated with a reduced risk of developing heart disease. Numerous studies have shown an association with the consumption of almonds and elevated HDL or “good” cholesterol and lowered LDL or “bad” cholesterol levels. The phytosterols found in the skin of almonds are also associated with cholesterol-lowering properties.
The high levels of vitamin E found in many nuts like almonds may help reduce the risk of heart disease by preventing the oxidation of fats in the bloodstream. Almonds also contain numerous polyphenols (plant chemicals) such as flavonols and flavanones that exert potent antioxidant activity.
Almonds also contain high levels of magnesium and are a source of potassium. Magnesium helps veins and arteries relax which helps improve the flow of blood, oxygen and nutrients throughout the body. Potassium helps maintain normal blood pressure and heart function.
Based on their heart health benefits, the American Heart Association recently certified that almonds can display the Heart Check Mark. This mark is overseen by the AHA and makes it easier for shoppers to identify and choose heart healthy foods. In 2003, the U.S. Food and Drug administration issued a qualified health claim recognizing that consuming most nuts including almonds, as part of a diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol may reduce the risk of heart disease.
Selection & Storage
Although packaged almonds are available year-round, they are the freshest in mid-summer, when they are at the height of their season.
Always store almonds away from sunlight in a sealed, air tight container to maximize freshness. Keeping them in the refrigerator will help them from going rancid and prolong their freshness for several months. Storing almonds in the freezer can keep them fresh up to a year.
Almonds that are still in their shells have the longest shelf life. Look for shells that are not split, moldy or stained. They should be uniform in color and not limp or shriveled.
Shelled almonds are also better if bought from sealed tight containers than from bulk bins because with exposure to heat, air and humidity they will go rancid. Be sure to smell shelled almonds before purchasing them. Almonds should smell sweet and nutty, if their odor is sharp or bitter they are rancid.
You can enjoy almonds in many different ways. Experiment with your breakfast by adding whole, sliced, slivered or diced almonds to your morning yogurt with fruit, oatmeal or shakes. Add a handful of almonds to your salad or chop and sprinkle them on chicken, pasta or sautéed vegetable dishes. Grab a handful of raw almonds as a snack. Spread almond butter on whole wheat toast or celery. Substitute a cup of low-fat milk for almond milk or blend with smoothies.
Try making this delicious Asparagus, Grape Tomatoes, Portobello Mushrooms & Sliced Almonds with Whole Wheat Rotini dish. We like adding almonds to our favorite salads like this Beet salad with almonds and chives.
The world’s largest almond factory is in Sacramento, California. It processes 2 million pounds of almonds a day!
A quarter-cup of almonds contains 7.6 grams of protein which is more than the 5.5 grams provided by the typical egg.
David H. Rahm, M.D. is the founder and medical director of The Wellness Center, a medical clinic located in Long Beach, CA. Dr. Rahm is also president and medical director of VitaMedica. Dr. Rahm is one of a select group of conventional medical doctors who have education and expertise in functional medicine and nutritional science. Over the past 20 years, Dr. Rahm has published articles in the plastic surgery literature and educated physicians about the importance of good peri-operative nutrition.