Almonds are the most popular nuts in the United States. A favorite of dieters, in recent years almonds have become famous for their versatility and health benefits.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Americans’ demand for almonds has increased 220 percent since 2005. In 2012, Americans ate an average of 2 lbs. (907 grams) of almonds each, while they ate half a pound (227 g) of walnuts, about a third of a pound (136 g) of pecans and 1.2 lbs. (544 g) of all other nuts, including hazelnuts, macadamias, pistachios, Brazil nuts and cashews.
There’s good reason for the love affair. “Almonds have been studied extensively for their benefits on heart health, diabetes, and weight management,” said Jenny Heap, a registered dietitian with the Almond Board of California. “The unique nutrient combination of almonds — plant-based protein, fiber and monounsaturated fats, plus keynutrients like vitamin E and magnesium — help make them a heart-healthy snack.”
Technically speaking, though, almonds are not true nuts at all. The edible part that we call a nut is actually a seed, and almonds themselves are drupes, according to the University of California Riverside’s botany department. Sometimes called “stone fruits,” drupes are characterized by a tough rind surrounding a shell that holds a seed. Peaches and apricots, close cousins to the almond, are common examples of drupes. Like these relatives, almonds grow on beautiful, flowering trees and thrive in warm, dry climates.
The almond tree (Prunus dulcis), also related to cherries and plums, is native to Western Asia and Southern Europe. According to the Agricultural Marketing Resource Center, Spanish missionaries brought almonds to the New World, but the nut’s popularity did not rise until the 1900s. Today, the United States is the largest supplier of almonds in the world. California is the only state that produces almonds commercially. This may change, though, as the water supply in California declines.
“Ounce for ounce, almonds are higher in fiber, calcium, vitamin E, riboflavin and niacin than any other tree nut,” Heap told Live Science. “Every one-ounce serving (about 23 almonds) provides 6 grams of protein and 4 grams of fiber, plus vitamin E (35 percent DV [daily value]), magnesium (20 percent DV), riboflavin (20 percent DV), calcium (8 percent DV) and potassium (6 percent DV). In addition, almonds are a low-glycemic index food.”
Like other nuts, almonds contain a fairly high amount of fat, with about 14 grams per one-ounce serving. Fortunately, about two-thirds of it is heart-healthy monounsaturated fat, according to The George Mateljan Foundation’s World’s Healthiest Foods website.
A 2005 study published in the Journal of Nutrition showed that almonds pack the biggest nutritional punch if eaten whole, with their brown skins on (unblanched), rather than with their skins steamed off (blanched). The study identified 20 powerful antioxidant flavonoids in almond skin. Combined with the high vitamin E content in the meat of the almond, these flavonoids endow almonds with a unique nutritional package that may have implications for cholesterol levels, inflammation and more.
Here are the nutrition facts for almonds, according to the U.S.Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which regulates food labeling through the Nutritional Labeling and Education Act:
1 ounce (28 g)
Calories from Fat 119
*Percent Daily Values (%DV) are based on a 2,000 calorie diet.
Amt per Serving%DV* Amt per Serving%DV*
Total Fat 14g22% Total Carbohydrate 6g2%
Cholesterol 0mg0% Dietary Fiber 3g12%
Sodium 8mg0% Sugars 1g
Vitamin A0% Calcium6%
Vitamin C0% Iron6%
Probably almonds’ best-known quality is that they are good for your heart. “Nearly two decades of research shows that almonds can help maintain a healthy heart and healthy cholesterol levels,” said Heap. A 2009 article in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition (AJCN) looked at the evidence on nut consumption and a variety of health issues. It noted that in four large-scale studies considered major in the field — the Iowa Women's Health Study (1996), the Adventist Health Study (1992), the Nurses’ Health Study (1998) and the Physicians' Health Study(2002) — nut consumption was linked to a lower risk for heart disease. Together, the studies showed an average reduction in the risk of death from heart disease by 37 percent, or “8.3 percent … for each weekly serving of nuts.”
“A growing body of evidence suggests that regularly choosing almonds in place of snacks high in refined carbohydrates is a simple dietary strategy to help support heart health,” said Heap. In another evidence review, published in 1999 in Current Atherosclerosis Reports, researchers looked at the Nurses’ Health Study and estimated that eating nuts instead of an equivalent amount of carbohydrates reduced heart disease risk by 30 percent. Substituting nuts for saturated fats, such as those found in meat and dairy products, resulted in a 45 percent estimated reduced risk.
Replacing almonds with saturated fats may also help lower LDL (bad) cholesterol levels. A 1994 study published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition looked at men with normal cholesterol levels and found that those who supplemented their diets with almonds for three weeks saw a 10 percent reduction in LDL levels.
Additionally, a serving of almonds provides 5 percent of the recommended daily value of potassium, which is necessary for heart health, according to the American Heart Association. Many studies have linked potassium with lower blood pressure because it promotes vasodilation (widening of blood vessels), according to Today’s Dietitian. The magazine article cited a study of 12,000 adults, published in Archives of Internal Medicine, which showed that those who consumed 4,069 mg of potassium each day lowered their risk of cardiovascular disease and ischemic heart disease by 37 percent and 49 percent, respectively, compared to those who took 1,793 mg per day.
Magnesium is also essential for heart health. According to the University of Maryland Medical Center, some doctors have seen positive results from giving patients who have suffered from heart failure doses of magnesium. There also may be a link between lower heart disease risk in men and intake of magnesium.
Heap noted that in 2003, the FDA approved “a qualified health claim recognizing that California almonds may help reduce the risk of heart disease." The official statement said:
"Scientific evidence suggests, but does not prove, that eating 1.5 ounces of most nuts, such as almonds, as part of a diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol may reduce the risk of heart disease. One serving of almonds (28g) has 13g of unsaturated fat and only 1g of saturated fat.”
Almonds may even be good for those suffering from hyperlipidemia (excess lipids or lipoproteins in the blood). These patients used to be instructed to stay away from nuts because of their fat content, but a study published in 2002 in the journal Circulation showed that hyperlipidemic patients who ate almonds as snacks actually saw significant reductions in heart disease risk factors.
Weight loss and preventing weight gain
“With their combination of protein, fiber, good fats and satisfying crunch, almonds are a smart snack option to help keep hunger at bay while satisfying cravings,” said Heap. While she noted that “numerous studies have shown that choosing almonds as a daily snack does not lead to changes in body weight,” substituting them for other snacks may help dieters. A 2003 study published in the International Journal of Obesity and Related Metabolic Disorders suggested that combining almonds with a low-calorie, high-monounsaturated fat diet led to more weight loss than did a low-calorie diet with lots of complex carbohydrates. Another recent study, published in 2015 in the Journal of the American Heart Association, looked at substituting almonds for a muffin of the same caloric value and found that though participants did not lose weight in either group, the almond-eating group saw a reduction in abdominal fat, waist circumference and fat on the legs, as well as improved LDL cholesterol levels.
Almonds can also be a more satisfying snack than high-carb counterparts. “Their combination of protein, fiber, and good fats makes them a satisfying snack choice that can help keep you from reaching for empty calorie choices between meals,” said Heap. “In fact, a recent study showed that women who ate a mid-morning snack of 1-1.5 ounces of almonds felt more satisfied and ate fewer calories at subsequent meals.”
As if that weren’t good enough news, almonds may also help prevent weight gain. A Spanish study published in 2007 in the journal Obesity found that over the course of 28 months, participants who ate nuts twice a week were 31 percent less likely to gain wait than were participants who never or rarely ate nuts.
Almond trees bloom between late February and early March.
Credit: Jerocflores | Shutterstock
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Good for gluten-free dieters
“Almonds are naturally gluten-free, and are a versatile, nutrient-rich addition to gluten-free diets," said Heap. "Because gluten-free diets can be low in iron, fiber, B vitamins and protein, and high in saturated fat and sugar, it is important to help fill these gaps and optimize nutrition. All forms of almonds, including almond flour, almond milk and almond butter, are excellent additions for those choosing a gluten-free lifestyle.”
According to the AJCN review of nuts and health outcomes, the links between nut consumption and diabetes risk and symptoms are less clear than with heart disease. Nevertheless, the Nurses’ Health Study showed an inverse relationship between regular consumption of nuts and diabetes, as did the Shanghai Women’s Health Study (2008).
Additionally, there is some evidence that almonds can be helpful in regulating blood sugar levels. A 2006 study published in the Journal of Nutrition looked at giving participants controlled meals based either around almonds, rice, potatoes or bread. Researchers found that participants’ blood sugar and insulin decreased after eating the almondmeal but not the others. Also, antioxidants in the blood increased after the almond meal, while they decreased after the other meals.
Almonds may also help lower the glycemic index of a high-glycemic meal. A 2007 study, published in the journal Metabolism, looked at combining almonds and bread-based meals. The more almonds participants ate, the lower the meal’s glycemic index became and the less the participants’ blood sugar levels rose. Eating three ounces of almonds with the bread-based meal lowered the meal’s glycemic index to less than half of that of the bread-only meal.
These tasty tree nuts can help you get moving. They are a very good source of energy-encouragers riboflavin, manganese and copper. Riboflavin is also known as vitamin B2, and it helps produce red blood cells and release energy from the carbohydrates you eat, according to the National Institutes of Health. Manganese and copper are components in an enzyme that stops free radicals in mitochondria, where our cells produce energy, according to World’s Healthiest Foods. In this way, these trace minerals help maintain your body’s energy flow.
The fat and fiber content in almonds may help prevent gallstones by keeping your gallbladder and liver running smoothly. An analysis of the Nurses’ Health Study showed that frequent nut consumers were 25 percent less likely to need a cholecystectomy, a procedure to remove the gallbladder that is often done to treat gallstones. Another study, published in 2004 in the American Journal of Epidemiolgy found similar results in men, with frequent nut consumers seeing a 30 percent decreased risk in gallstone disease.
According to the AJCN nuts and health review, some studies suggest that there might be a relationship between nut consumption and reduced cancer risk in women, especially for colorectal and endometrial cancers, but these studies do not focus on almonds specifically. One animal study published in 2001 in Cancer Letters looked at whole-almond consumption in rats and found that those who ate almonds had fewer cancer cells in their colons.
Additionally, the antioxidants and vitamin E in almonds may have cancer-fighting benefits, though the National Cancer Institute warns that results from studies examining antioxidants, vitamins and cancer are inconclusive.
In July and early August, almond hulls begin to split open to expose the almond shell.
Credit: Dolores Giraldez Alonso | Shutterstock
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Risks of eating almonds
It is possible to be allergic to almonds. An almond allergy is typically grouped with a tree nut allergy (including cashews, walnuts, Brazil nuts and others), and is usually severe.
According to the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology, tree nut allergies are among the allergies most likely to cause anaphylaxis. Symptoms of an almond allergy include abdominal pain, diarrhea, difficulty swallowing, nasal congestion or a runny nose, nausea, shortness of breath, and itching. Both whole nuts and nut products, including oils and butters, can trigger an almond allergy attack.
Almonds are susceptible to aflatoxins, chemicals produced by molds that potentially can cause cancer. It is unsafe to eat almonds that are infected with mold, which appears as gray or black filaments. According to the Almond Board, the almond industry has programs and procedures to minimize aflatoxins.
In 2007, after cases of salmonella were traced to almonds, the U.S. Department of Agriculture mandated that California growers pasteurize their almonds. Since then, raw, untreated almonds grown in California have not been available. Almonds that are labeled as "raw" are actually pasteurized with steam or with propylene oxide. The practice is considered controversial, and organic farmers have sued the USDA, according to the Cornucopia Institute.
Almonds and dogs
Animals can apparently eat almonds safely, with some caveats. According to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, there is no evidence that almonds or Brazil nuts are toxic to animals. However, the ASPCA cautions that eating large amounts can cause upset stomachs. Foods with high fat content, such as nuts, may produce pancreatitis. Also, many nuts are sold salted, and could pose a risk for the development of a sodium ion toxicosis.
Fun facts about almonds
The Romans considered almonds a fertility charm and gave them to newlyweds.
There are more than 30 varieties of almonds.
Many almond trees are not self-pollinating and depend on bees to carry pollen to one another.
The United States — primarily California — produces 83 percent of the world's almonds, followed by Australia (7 percent), European Union (5 percent), and Iran, Turkey and Tunisia (all 1 percent).
The Almond Board of California's forecast for the 2014-2015 growing season is 2.1 billion lbs. (952 metric tons) of almonds.
Almonds should be stored in cool, dry conditions, away from direct sunlight and away from other foods with strong odors, which almonds can absorb.