Almonds are one of today’s wonderfoods but the fact that we can eat them is down to a random mutation that occurred several millennia ago. Thanks to that, we can enjoy their great taste and many beneficial nutrients.
A little bit of history
Wild almonds contain amygdalin, a substance that releases the toxin cyanide in the digestive tract and makes them taste extremely bitter. For wild almond trees, this is a self-defence mechanism. Cyanide, in a high enough dose, can kill you – for an adult, the dose is about 50 wild almonds.
At some point in history, a natural mutation changed this – it suppressed the production of amygdalin. As a result, some almonds became safe to eat and it didn’t take long for humans to discover that. The cultivation of almonds trees dates back 7,000 years, possibly more.
Almond trees are native to Asia but as their popularity grew, they reached ancient Greece and Rome and from there, spread across the Mediterranean and into North Africa. In the Middle Ages, almonds were a common ingredient in many Christian and Islamic cultures. In the 18th century, almonds were exported to the USA and gradually their cultivation in California started – California is now the world’s largest almond producer while Spain holds second place.
What do almonds offer nutritionally?
Almonds are packed with nutrients! An ounce (28 grams or a small handful) contains a respectable six grams of protein, which makes them a great protein snack. It also contains just six grams of carbohydrates, of which more than a half is fibre – that’s why almonds are great for your digestive health and feed your good gut bacteria.
An ounce of almonds has 14 grams of fat and although it’s almost all good unsaturated fats, we shouldn’t eat more than two ounces in a day to keep our fat intake at a healthy level.
Where almonds truly shine is their vitamin and mineral content. An ounce contains small amounts of almost all of the B vitamins (except B12) and a whopping quarter of your daily vitamin B2 (riboflavin) requirement. We need B2 for energy metabolism, tissue repair and growth, healthy eyesight and red blood cell production.
Almonds are also a rich source of vitamin E with one ounce covering more than a half of your daily needs. Vitamin E is an important antioxidant and it protects our cell membranes from deterioration and damage. By doing that, it helps to keep our organs – including blood vessels, skin and eyes – functional and healthy and is essential for our immune system.
A handful (28 grams) of almonds will nicely top up your calcium intake with 10 per cent of your daily requirement. That’s why almonds are always listed among good calcium sources. We need calcium to keep our bones healthy, muscles and nerves working and to make certain hormones.
The same amount of almonds also provides about a quarter of your daily magnesium needs.
Regular magnesium intake is essential for nerve and muscle function, a healthy immune system, steady heartbeat and strong bones. And there’s more to it – it helps to regulate blood sugar levels and is needed for the manufacture of the “happy hormone”, serotonin, in the brain. Magnesium is also important for calcium absorption and almonds contain both.
Almonds also pack small amounts of iron, zinc and potassium. These are super-important minerals but almonds are not considered a rich source.
Due to all the good nutrients they contain, it probably won’t come as a surprise that scientific research shows that almonds are good for your heart. Their regular consumption can improve the health of your blood vessel walls, lower your blood pressure and even reduce your cholesterol levels.
Because they are low in carbohydrates and contain magnesium that helps to regulate blood sugar, almonds are an ideal food for people with diabetes.
Almonds with their skins on (not blanched) are also a great source of antioxidants which help to protect your cells and DNA from everyday damage. These compounds are not just antioxidant they are also anti-inflammatory and so help to protect us from many chronic degenerative diseases.
Many of us prefer roasted almonds, so you may be wondering how they compare to raw almonds nutritionally.
When it comes to roasting, the main health concern is how the natural fats in almonds change. The longer the roasting lasts and the higher the temperature, the more likely it is that their fats will degrade. This means that the structure of the fat changes and stops being quite so useful for us and can even cause some oxidative stress (potential damage) in the body.
Another thing roasting changes is the antioxidant content of almonds – some antioxidants are destroyed by heat but not all. Plenty remain so it’s not a deal-breaker!
Some vitamin E is lost during the roasting process and some B vitamins too but not riboflavin. For the mineral content, calcium and magnesium remain unchanged.
Roasting degrades some nutrients in almonds but at the same time, it makes almonds easier to digest. That means we actually absorb slightly more nutrients from roasted than from raw almonds.
Then, there’s another side effect of roasting almonds – it triggers the formation of the chemical acrylamide in them. When roasted above 130°C, the amino acid asparagine combines with the natural sugars in almonds giving rise to acrylamide, a compound with potential cancer-causing effects. This is, of course, worrying but the good news is that the amounts you ingest in roasted almonds are much lower than what’s considered harmful.
As you can see, it’s a mixed bag when it comes to roasted almonds and health. Yet, there is a smart solution if you love the taste – buy raw almonds and roast them yourself! If you only roast them for a few minutes and not at extra high temperatures, nutrient loss will be much smaller than in commercially available products!
Almonds are such nutritional powerhouses that their popularity can only grow. If they aren’t a staple in your diet just yet, it’s high time to change that! For sustainability, try to buy Spanish almonds when possible – that is as ‘local’ as we can get for almonds.