Almonds, which is pollinated by bees, is one of the most versatile nuts in the world. Raw almonds are rich in dietary fiber, vitamins like E and B-complex, and minerals. They’re packed with healthy fats that lower cholesterol and lead to heart health. But did you know that in 2007, the USDA made it a requirement to pasteurize all almonds commercially sold in the U.S., Canada, and Mexico?
The state of California, which produces 80 percent of the world’s almond supply, is the only place in North America where almonds are grown commercially. In the past 30 years, California’s almond yield has quadrupled. More than 450,000 acres are located in the lush San Joaquin and Sacramento valleys, stretching 400 miles between Bakersfield and Red Bluff, California.
New California Laws Require Almonds to Be Pasteurized
California state laws mandate that almonds be heat-pasteurized, irradiated, or put through a similar “kill step” before being sold for commercial reasons. This step kills the microorganisms that live on the outside of the almond, to protect consumers from contaminants deemed unhealthy, says the Almond Board of California.
“The health and safety of consumers is the number one priority of the California Almond community, which is why the industry made the decision seven years ago,” says Kate Northway of the California Almond Board.
The contaminants found on almonds can include anything from insects and fungus to salmonella. In fact, the decision to pasteurize almonds came after several salmonella outbreaks occurred in almond processing plants in 2001 and 2004. Five methods of pasteurization were initially allowed: dry roasting, oil roasting, steam processing, blanching, and irradiation through the use of propylene oxide (PPO).
The Almond Board now states, “Irradiation is not used to pasteurize any almonds,” which means that the use of PPO is no longer sanctioned by the Almond Board for organic almonds. If fact, you’d be hard-pressed to find almonds that have been irradiated using PPO these days.
Although it’s been in use since the 1950s, and the Environmental Protection Agency says PPO doesn’t pose a risk to consumers, many almond producers are eliminating its use on their own. That’s good news all around for almond lovers.
What Is Almond Pasteurization and How Does It Affect Nutrition?
Typically reserved for dairy products and fruit juices, pasteurization is the process of heating food enough to kill potentially harmful bacteria. Raw food advocates avoid heating food to temperatures in excess of 118 degrees, and many believe that the almond has evolved over millennia with one goal in mind: to survive in order to develop into a tree. Thus, advocates argue, how can the microorganisms that live on the almond hurt us?
Pasteurizing almonds doesn’t mean that the nuts are nutritionally dead, but heating almonds does have nutritional drawbacks. Heat pasteurization can change the composition of lipids (fats) in the nut, making them less healthy for our bodies, says Jayde Lovell, a science communicator and the producer of Did Someone Say Science? When heated to a certain temperature, fats and oils oxidize—which means they break down and acquire extra oxygen molecules that lead to spoilage. Whether this is a bad thing is a subject of debate.
Although organic foodies argue that the almond is destroyed by steam pasteurization and other heat sterilization processes, “Heat treatment used to kill salmonella is quite mild and doesn’t raise the content of oxidization products to unhealthy levels,” according to Lovell.
The Almond Board of California says this when it comes to organic almonds: “[They] are pasteurized using treatments that meet the USDA Organic Program’s set of national standards. Organic pasteurization methods include dry and oil roasting, and steam pasteurization which retains the flavor, texture, and nutritional qualities of unroasted, natural almonds.”
Almond Buyers Face New Challenges: Almonds That Don’t Sprout
It’s important to point out that individuals may still suss out and purchase raw almonds directly from private farms that have not been pasteurized or treated with PPO. Once they surpass a certain amount, on the other hand, buyers are required by the USDA to purchase almonds that have been processed somehow.
This is what happened with JEM Raw Organics, producers of sprouted, raw almond butters. “We were initially getting almonds from a wonderful small farm in California,” says JEM’s CEO Jen Moore. “They were these beautiful, raw almonds. When we started growing, the state of California wouldn’t allow us to purchase from them because we were buying too much from a raw farm, and no almonds can be sold for commercial uses that aren’t pasteurized first.”
This quickly became a problem, as one of JEM’s hallmarks is sprouted nut butters. The process of sprouting allows certain acids and enzymes to be released from the nut, making almonds and other sprouted nuts healthier than un-sprouted varieties.
Almonds are high in phytic acid which not only binds with other nutrients like zinc, calcium, and magnesium (making them impossible to absorb), it’s also an irritant to the digestive system. Sprouting neutralizes this acid. Enzymes that work against the digestive tract are also neutralized, while the amino acids—fats that are essential to our health and are a big reason for consuming nuts in the first place—are broken down for easier absorption when almonds are sprouted.
But the JEM team just couldn’t get the sterilized almonds to sprout without molding, and they missed working with the small organic farm that had originally provided their almonds.
“We were told that we could have pasteurized almonds and they would still sprout and grow trees,” said Moore. “But when we tried to sprout them, we just grew mold.”
So they started importing their almonds from Spain, where growers aren’t held to the same regulations as those in California. Even so, the almonds are free of microbial pathogens, and the stock at JEM routinely goes through independent testing to ensure the safety of their products.
Not only are they consistently free of salmonella and other pathogens without being irradiated or heat-pasteurized, JEM’s products are healthy and delicious. Ultimately a functional food that provides energy and, in some cases, can help regulate blood sugar, the nut butters at JEM are evidence that the almond industry can operate in a different way—a way that ensures healthy bees, healthy people, and a healthy environment.
Moore continues: “Nature provides natural enzymes on the outside of food to prohibit fungus and disease. The almond wants to live so it can become a tree. Kill steps kill their ability to do this. It may be possible, but we just couldn’t sprout these almonds.”
This brings up a very important point: While pasteurized almonds may not be nutritionally dead, they are functionally dead. The heating process interrupts the natural life cycle of the nut, and as JEM found, they can’t easily be sprouted. Exactly how this process affects the nutrients is still being examined, but what we know so far doesn’t seem promising.
So why doesn’t the USDA simply require a label for unpasteurized almond products? Ultimately, the choice to consume raw, healthy, and alive products should be left up to the consumer, not a government entity. Raw nut producers and small organic farms are pushing for just that—freedom to produce food with all the benefits nature intends.
Megan Winkler is an independent writer from Dallas, Texas. She spends her mornings meditating and studying, her days writing for various websites and publishers, and her evenings sipping tea and laughing with friends and family. Her own journey through health challenges has led her to dive into the world of wellness in search of better ways to eat, play, and live. Her undergraduate studies in psychology and master’s degree in military history inform her perspective on how humans interact, relate, communicate and get along in life.
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