If you are purist when it comes to nutritional value of nuts, it may come as a shock to discover that most of the world’s almonds are heat treated. A little known secret in almond production and processing is that irrespective of the status of standard, raw or organically produced almonds, the world’s largest producer is required, according to The Food and Drug Administration (FDA), to pasteurize all almonds. This means even organic and raw almonds shipped in North America are exposed to heat treatments.
Almonds are the best nut source of Vitamin E. In fact, just one ounce contains 7.3 mg of “alpha-tocopherol” vitamin E, the form of the vitamin the body prefers.. What’s more, Vitamin E is an important antioxidant that helps protect cells from damage.
According to researchers at Tufts University in the United States, a 28 gram serving of almonds packs in the same level of flavonoid antioxidants as a serving of cooked broccoli or a serving of brewed green or black tea. A handful or about 23 almonds can provide an individual with heart-healthy monounsaturated fat, protein, fibre, potassium, magnesium and iron. All in just 160 calories!
Sounds great doesn’t it? But did you know that most studies on almonds come from unpasteurized and raw sources?
According to Food and Agriculture Organization, the world produced 2.00 million tonnes of almonds in 2011 with United States the largest producer at 0.73 million tonnes. The United States is said to produce by some estimates almost 80% of the world’s supply.
Since nearly all domestic almonds come from this fertile area in California, that means that any “raw” almonds you buy, unless they were imported from abroad, have been pasteurized via one of these methods. Which method was used depends on the brand and the preference of the grower. Farmers can also sell small quantities of truly raw, untreated almonds in quantities of 100 pounds or less at farmers markets and farm stands in California.
In January 2007, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced that virtually all almonds would have to be pasteurized later that year. The new rule was a result of Salmonella outbreaks in 2001 and 2004 that were traced back to raw almonds.
The Almond Board of California (ABC) collaborates with the USDA to institute industry-wide pasteurization programs. The purpose of this program is claimed to to “ensure consumers are provided with safe, wholesome food products, without compromising the almond qualities,”but unfortunately this is plainly false.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) are responsible for evaluating and approving the treatment processes that demonstrate
effectiveness in achieving a reduction of possible contamination in almonds while not impacting their quality and sensory attributes. To date, the FDA has approved not oil roasting, dry roasting, and blanching, but also processing and propylene oxide (PPO) and steam treatment for organic raw almonds as acceptable forms of pasteurization. Steam pasteurization meets the USDA Organic Program’s national standards.
Even the use of the term “pasteurized” is used in a misleading way, because according to the Almond Board of California (ABC), no heating is used during the pasteurization process, but rather a process referred to by the FDA as “terminal gas sterilization” with propylene oxide.
Propylene oxide is a highly toxic flammable chemical compound, once used as a racing fuel before it became prohibited for safety reasons. It is also used in thermobaric weapons. It is an epoxide, which is not GRAS (generally recognized as safe for human ingestion).
The Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) site has this to say about propylene oxide:
Dermal contact, even with dilute solutions, has caused skin irritation and necrosis in humans. Propylene oxide is also a mild central nervous system (CNS) depressant in humans…Propylene oxide has been observed to cause tumors at or near the site of administration in rodents, causing forestomach tumors following ingestion via gavage (experimentally placing the chemical in the stomach) and nasal tumors after inhalation exposure. EPA has classified propylene oxide as a Group B2, probable human carcinogen.
And yet you’re told these propylene oxide-treated almonds are no different from raw almonds!
This also means that all almond oils and nut butters are affected nutritionally by the same process since all almonds must be pasteurized regardless of their processing.
Despite what any agency has to say about the gentle and non-invasive effects of pasteurization, there is nothing gentle about violently heating any foods. Pasteurization destroys enzymes, diminishes vitamin content, denatures proteins, kills beneficial bacteria, promotes pathogens and is associated with disease.
Oil roasting, dry roasting, and blanching are the oldest and most traditional processes used in the industry and all three methods used by commercial processors decrease vitamin and mineral content substantially is most nuts, not just almonds.
Steam processing uses surface treatments. Multiple proprietary steam treatments are currently being utilized by the industry which meets USDA Organic Program standards. Regardless of claims to the opposite, these short bursts of steam do indeed impact the nutritional integrity of the almond. These treatments do not heat proteins-and diminish vitamins and minerals. The nutritional and sensory characteristics of the almonds ARE changed when treated with steam.
They are exposed to steam for 8 seconds at 210-215F. Then for 44 seconds they are moved through a high-heat dehydration tunnel to remove the moisture resulting from the steam. The circulating air temperature is 391- 395F. During this process the almonds reach 220-221F. This eliminates both good and harmful bacteria and also reduces critical enzymes, vitamins and minerals.
Propylene Oxide (PPO) treatment is also a surface treatment which has been approved for use on foods since 1958, and is widely used for a variety of foods such as other nuts, cocoa powder and spices. PPO is claimed to be effective at reducing harmful bacteria on almonds and also claimed to pose no risk to consumers. Yet PPO is classified by the EPA as a “Group B2, probable human carcinogen.” It also used in making polyurethane foams, antifreeze and hydraulic fluid. And while the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) currently allows PPO treatment of almonds, it has also made moves to ban the fumigant twice, and in 1996 seemed on the verge of revoking its “food additive regulation” status.
Changing its tune after protests from the manufacturer of the gas, the EPA permitted the chemical’s status to remain on the books and set an allowable residue level of 150 parts per million. But sometime between then and now, that residue allowance doubled to 300 ppm. And despite the fact that the state of California considers PPO to be a “known carcinogen” growers in that state can release almonds for sale once the PPO levels are down to 300 ppm.
Canada, which did not previously allow PPO use, also set an approved residue level of 300 ppm in 2009 to comply with its “international trade obligations.”
The USDA-approved marketing order was challenged in court by organic farmers organized by the Cornucopia Institute, a Wisconsin-based farm policy research group. According to the Cornucopia Institute, this almond marketing order has imposed significant financial burdens on small-scale and organic growers and damaged domestic almond markets. A federal judge dismissed the lawsuit in the spring of 2009 on procedural grounds.
Pasteurized almonds reduce the flavonoids found in almond skins when they team up with the vitamin E found in their meat. Reductions are estimated at anywhere between 30%-70%.
That means that twenty potent antioxidant flavonoids in almond skins, some of which are well known as major contributors to the health benefits derived from other foods, such as the catechins and naringenin, are all diminished in the pasteurization process.
“The synergy between the flavonoids and vitamin E in almonds demonstrates how the nutrients in whole foods such as almonds can impact health,” says Dr. Blumberg, however the synergistic relationship is lost once the almonds become processed.
Almonds that have been pasteurized are heated to the point where their life force is almost entirely dissipated. Recent scientific studies show that heating almonds creates potentially harmful levels of acrylamide, a threatening byproduct of the amino acid asparagine. Acrylamide is a chemical known to cause cancer, or reproductive toxicity (such as birth defects and other reproductive harm).
WHERE CAN YOU FIND TRUE ORGANIC RAW ALMONDS?
Not in any retailer in the United States, unless you happen to find farmers who will sell you small quantities. Otherwise all California almonds labeled “raw” must be steam-pasteurized or chemically treated with propylene oxide. However, this does not apply to imported almonds.
California farmers are leading the struggle to bring back your original almonds. In addition to the instituting of a lawsuit against the USDA “pasteurization” mandate, California farmers are actively pursuing another route, namely “non-thermal pasteurization” i.e. the use of ultra-violet light or ozone at room temperature to achieve the same result.
Spain is the second largest almond producer in the world and also offers some of the best almonds in the world which are unpasteurized. Many raw food companies started selling unpasteurized imported almonds from countries like Spain and Italy to the benefit of consumers.
If you’re serious about obtaining any almonds (within reasonable quantities) with a suitable degree of nutrition, you’re only option is to pursue sources outside of the United States to ensure you are receiving the best quality almond as nature intended.
About the Author
Natasha Longo has a master’s degree in nutrition and is a certified fitness and nutritional counselor. She has consulted on public health policy and procurement in Canada, Australia, Spain, Ireland, England and Germany.
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