Raw Almonds Are Not Raw!

I routinely consume a handful of almonds a day – the raw kind (roasted&salted I would consume two handfuls plus the whole bag).   I never thought there was much to learn about almonds, certainly not anything that I could learn from reading the almond bag  (Ingredients: Almonds), until the day I did read the almond bag and saw this, “steam pasteurized”.   Which means: the raw almonds we are eating are not raw!

Until recently they were, which is why we still think they are. But in the early 2000’s a minor salmonella outbreak occurred due to lapsed health practices at one large Californian plant.  So acting under pressure from a panicked USDA, the California Almond Board agreed that starting in 2007 it would require all California-grown almonds to be pasteurized (90% of US and Canadian sold almonds are grown in CA.)

The problem with pasteurization (usually done by steaming at 160 degrees though some producers use chemicals) is that it affects the flavor, texture and nutritional value.  (The latter part of this has not been proven conclusively but it is well known that heating food above 118 degrees, degrades enzymes and some vitamins.) The flavor though is definitely more “cooked” and less intensely flavorful.

The other reason why we think our not-raw almonds are raw is that they are still allowed to be labeled raw! And even if the package is more accurate and just says “Almonds” it is not a requirement that it say “pasteurized”. This is because the industry knows that “raw” is an important selling feature and so have decided to not require this disclosure.  Some retailers are still selling almonds that even they think are truly raw, because the distributor is not required to disclose this.

So is there any way to get truly raw almonds?  Yes! Though you’ll be buying the nut equivalent of an exotic mail-order bride. They’re called Sicilian almonds (grown in Italy). Flavor-wise they are other-worldly and worth every coin.  Raw Sicilian almonds have a deep, sweet, almondy taste; they are darker, have a fine almond dust coating and are slightly softer. Eating them gives you the sensation of marzipan in your mouth.  (Once you try them, you’ll find that pasteurized Californian almonds give you the sensation of a semi-hard object with a hint of almond flavor.)

Whole Foods has them in their specialty nut section or go to a health food store and ask specifically for them (my favorite place in NYC to get them is Integral Foods, W.13th street, where they sell them in bulk).  When buying, look not only for the word “raw”, but also a slightly larger, flatter nut and a steeper price.  But seriously do it, once you go Italian, you’ll never go back …

Your thoughts on raw nuts?

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Almond Milk (How To Make Your Own)

Photo: Not-raw almonds.  Copyright © Michelle Madden.

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  • Lisa

    I believe that peanuts also began being pasteurized not too many years ago for this same reason (salmonella). It does seem very reactionary though — if there is something so inherently dangerous about raw nuts then why do not require ALL nuts to be pasteurized? And if raw nuts are so dangerous, why not require the foreign italian almonds to be pasteurized?! Its seems very reactionary on the part of the US gov …

    • Sonya

      Good Question. I’d like to know the answer to that too. Sweet Beat..? And ideas. I suppose the US Gov does it to avoid law-suits. “Made in the US” means “Sued in the US” and if the FDA approved it, they’re the one’s holding the hot-potato…with very deep pockets. With Italian products (or any foreign products for that matter) perhaps the FDA can claim “It’s not from USA.”…?

      • http://wwww.thesweetbeet.com Michelle

        Sonya, great point about the legal issues — an important side note, the site is sweet BEET (two “e”s, not BEAT) — that will take you to a different site!

    • http://wwww.thesweetbeet.com Michelle

      Great question. I don’t think there is anything so inherently dangerous about raw nuts; what’s dangerous is a lack of hygiene standards at the plants. It’s unfortunate that rather than the FDA having more rigid standards for processors, better oversight&policing and hefty fines for transgressors, they “penalize” the consumer by “cooking” a product we’d prefer to have raw.

    • http://wwww.thesweetbeet.com Michelle

      I don’t believe there is anything inherently dangerous about raw nuts; what’s dangerous is a lack of hygiene standards at the plants. It’s unfortunate that rather than the FDA having more rigid standards for processors, better oversight&policing and hefty fines for transgressors, they “penalize” the consumer by “cooking” a product we’d prefer to have raw.

      • Natasha

        I would prefer to not get salmonella. While I generally chase the best tasting products, I am willing to sacrifice taste at the margins for safety.
        We tend to blame the FDA and USDA the second there is any break out of salmonella, e.coli or anything else, but then we complain that they are reactionary?

        • http://www.thesweetbeet.com/ Michelle

          I agree that food safety is the highest concern, but what I wish we’d see more of is the gov setting very high standards for safety at the plants, testing&monitoring to be sure they’re met, and then fining violators with HUGE fines + shutting down plants until the strds are met. The deterant/ punishment for sloppy strds does not seem to be high enough.

          As such, its easier for the FDA to simply create a blanket “solution” that everyone is req’d to follow, when “everyone” was not the problem. There has to be better way …

  • Sonya

    Is there anything the Italians don’t do well when it comes to food!? I’ve been a nut-junkie for a while. Thanks for setting me straight about the facts.

  • http://bexbrands.com Becky Nelson

    The law is that raw nuts do not have to be pasteurized if they come from the grower. A friend of mine in San Diego sells almonds from their orchards in Kern County, California, so as long as they are sold directly to the consumer, they can be non-pasteurized. They are INCREDIBLE! Feel free to visit their website at hopkinsag.com. They only sell top grade almonds (I forget what the technical term is) … you’ve gotta try ’em!

    • http://www.thesweetbeet.com/ Michelle

      Thanks for letting us know!

    • Michael M

      There are other California farms that sell live, raw, organic, unpasteurized almonds on line direct to consumers. Some of them are considerably cheaper than the company mentioned here. Do a Google search for unpasteurized California almonds and you will find them.

  • http://Almonds Audrey M

    What happens to the calcium (plus other nutrients) if you soak almonds, or drink “almond milk” ?

    I absolutely LOVE your blog …. so full of great information, and the photos are beautifully artistic.

    • Michelle

      Thank you! Soaking nuts softens them and make them easier to digest, but if you don’t have chewing or digestion problems then there is no need to soak them, as the act of chewing neutralizes the enzyme inhibitors, meaning that once you chew the nuts your body can access the enzymes and nutrients. Most people soak as step #1 before sprouting nuts, but doesn’t sound like that’s the direction you want to go.

      The calcium won’t be affected if you just soak them overnight in water. If you drink store bought almond milk, most brands add calcium to supplement the existing calcium. You can also make your own almond milk super easily by soaking the nuts overnight, then adding 3:1 water to nuts ratio in a blender, then straining the liquid through a cheese cloth or fine sieve to trap the fibrous, brown bits and finishing it off with a drop of vanilla and/or honey or agave (if you want a touch of sweet).

  • carol

    What about unshelled almonds? The article is not clear – are you only referring to shelled nuts?

    I’d guess that unshelled nuts do not need pasteurization….?

    • Michelle

      Good point — the issue is only with respect to shelled almonds. Can’t even remember the last time I actually cracked open my own almond !

  • Kathleen

    Based on this blog post, I stopped by Integral as I was in the neighborhood while staying in NYC for the weekend. I asked one employee where I could find the Sicilian almonds. Not only had she not heard of them, but she was kinda bitchy about it. I didn’t complain about them not having them, only explained, when asked by her what they were and that I’d read that the store carried them online. She gave major attitude saying that next time I should call first. Seriously? I replied that it wasn’t a problem as I was passing by anyway, but that next time I’d get them at Whole Foods. How does that place stay in business?

    • Michelle

      Wow! So shocked and sorry to hear that! Sounds like she doenst even KNOW what her store carries! If you go to the bulk section, the raw almonds that they have ARE Sicilian, Italian almonds. I don’t think they are even labelled that, but I had a long conversation with the buyer about a month ago (forget his name but he’s usually at the store though often not on the floor) and they are indeed Sicilian.

      Clearly they need to be doing a bit more work on both informing their staff about what they’re buying as well as encouraging a kinder “shelf-side” manner. Let me know if you decide to go back – and what happens on visit #2.

  • http://trytianchinow.com,http://askrogerdrummer.com Roger Drummer

    The steamed almonds are actually still considered raw as it’s a flash process that doesn’t cook the almond, leaving all the enzymes, fats and proteins unaltered. The almonds will still sprout—an indication of a raw live food.

  • http://www.anaturalway.org Fred Belcher Jr

    Good comment by Roger about the the flash process. I have an article on this at my website (www.anaturalway.org) and he is exactly right. Be aware though, under California law, unless the almonds are designated “organic”, they can be pasteurized 1 of 3 ways, and with the other 2 ways, this can “kill” them! Be safe and healthier…..buy organic!

  • Ron Coleman

    Raw domestic almonds can be purchased at farmer’s markets. The sellers at farmers markets are not required to pasteurize their product. I buy some great ones at my local farmers market in Auburn, Ca.
    Ron C.

  • Andre P

    I bought raw almonds from Integral Foods in Manhattan boy oh boy were you right about how much better they taste.  I can’t go back to pasteurized almonds anymore!

    • http://www.thesweetbeet.com Michelle Madden

      I love their raw almonds — I think the intense flavor is also due to the fact that they are a slightly different varietal than the ones we usually get from CA. I spoke to the buyer at Integral and he told me they source their almonds from Italy.

  • Maria

    Thanks for the great info. One more source that I didn’t see mentioned is http://www.tierrafarm.com. They have raw Sicilian almonds and tons of other great stuff. Their facilities are all peanut-free too, so that’s important for us given my daughter’s severe peanut allergy. Even if that’s not a big deal for you, their products are really amazing and pretty reasonably priced. Thanks again!

  • jazznut50

    I would never purchase anything from Whole Foods whose supposed “organic” frozen vegetables come from China. They have become a sell-out to the government and traitors to the organic label.

    Pasteurized almonds are useless. Not only do they not taste like anything (let alone an almond) they are nutritionally dead. Pasteurization completely kills all beneficial parts of this nut.

    And why have they picked on almonds? Because, like the kernel of the apricot pit, they contain high levels of a cyanide which kills cancer cells, but does not harm the person. Very soon, as they discover more and more benefits from other nuts, they will make up another so called “outbreak” of some sort so that they can scare the public into also pasteurizing other nuts. Right now, their biggest concern is keeping cancer-killing, natural products away from the public and keeping them ignorant of their benefit.

    • Cloora

      Wow you are an idiot. I hope you kill yourself with some cyanide…

  • kyle

    If pasteurization truly affected the taste (by dramatically changing chemical content) wouldn’t you, a handful a day consumer have noticed as soon as it was introduced?
    Furthermore it matters not that enzymes are degraded during pasteurization – as soon as they hit your stomach they’d be degraded anyway. Both heat and high acidity destroy enzymes. Eating enzymes from other organisms is useless – we need to make our own

  • Matt

    Don’t some “raw” almonds contain high amounts of cyanide?