(August, 2015) Almonds are considered one of the healthiest foods on the planet. But, if you read between the lines, there are many disconcerting facts about them:
- All almonds in the US are pasteurized, which destroys some nutrients
- Raw almonds contain anti-nutrients that mess with your body’s minerals
- Roasted almonds are heated in unhealthy oils that destroy vitamins
- Flavored almonds are coated with sugar or poor-quality table salt
- Blanching removes the skin and healthy flavonoid antioxidants
- Commercial almond milk contains only 2% almonds
- Eating excessive amounts of nuts can lead to weight gain
Knowing this, it’s hard to believe that almonds are so highly regarded. The problem is, they’ve made junk out of goodness once again. Some argue that sugar-coating gets kids (and adults) to eat healthy, but that argument is nuts, so to speak. Whether eaten raw, toasted, slivered, as butter, coated with sugar, salt or different flavors, or drunk in milk form, there are notable problems.
Almonds are nutritional powerhouses, packed with fiber, minerals, biotin, vitamin E, antioxidants and healthy fats. It’s one of those high-fat foods that’s actually good for you, unlike most of the processed, factory-farm junk in food stores. But, in the hands of the food technologists and grocery manufacturers, almonds are inching closer to the junk pile.
Almonds are a favorite among nut eaters, largely because of their health benefits and versatility, not to mention flavor. Nuts have been linked to cardiovascular health, lower mortality and brain health. Five large human epidemiological studies have shown that nuts are tied to a lower risk for heart disease. Substituting nuts for carbs or bad fat (from fried foods, trans fats like margarine, or factory-farm eggs, meat and dairy) can improve cholesterol health and cut the risk of heart disease by 30 to 45%. As part of a low-glycemic diet, almonds not only help decrease blood sugar, but also provide antioxidants to stem free radical damage from sugar intake. Plus, almond’s minerals and vitamins help boost energy levels. The mono-unsaturated fats in almonds–similar to olive oil–also help with weight management. Remember, it’s sugar and carbs, not fat, that account for much of the obesity in the Western world. But, of course, eating too many nuts could contribute to weight gain. Keep it down to a handful or two daily.
Whole, raw almonds with skins provide the greatest health benefits. Twenty flavonoid antioxidants are found in the skin, including catechins (as in green tea) and naringenin (as in grapefruit). These antioxidants are anti-inflammatory, help prevent urinary tract infections, and promote longevity. One serving provides almost half the daily need for vitamin E, an important antioxidant that protects against environmental toxins, cataracts, Alzheimer’s, and diabetes. Antioxidant synergy (flavonoids and vitamin E) from almonds keeps LDL-cholesterol from oxidizing (going rancid), which is the main culprit behind heart disease. It’s hard to find a better food source for vitamin E.
In 2007 it became illegal to sell raw almonds in the US, unless growers can show that their manufacturing process keeps the bacterial count low. Back in 2001, they traced an outbreak of Salmonella poisoning to a California almond grower. When the Salmonella problem re-occurred from an entirely different grower, the Feds drafted legislation for a mandatory pasteurization program, either by exposure to steam to near boiling, or to toxic, propylene oxide gas (not allowed in certified organic almonds). Some argue that this is good, because it prevents further outbreaks. Unfortunately, it results in nutrient loss, toxic residues, and unduly penalizes organic growers, and those who use good manufacturing practices. Unwisely, the government punishes all growers for the sins of a few bad nuts (apples?). It would have been better to find the underlying cause of Salmonella contamination, which is more likely from non-sustainable and inappropriate, cost-cutting, corporate practices. Nevertheless, raw almonds are sold at local markets, albeit in limited quantities, or from responsible growers, so they are available.
The problem is that they come loaded with anti-nutrients, even the healthy organic ones. Phytates and oxalates in almonds are at high levels. Nuts contain tons of phytates, which bind to minerals (e.g., zinc, iron, magnesium, calcium, chromium, manganese) in the GI tract, and keep them from being available to the body, which can lead to mineral deficiencies. Reduce phytates by soaking, sprouting, fermenting, and roasting. (Read more about this in my blog, “Fight the Phytate”; see below.) Raw almonds also contain oxalates, which can crystallize in the kidneys or gallbladder, interfere with calcium absorption, and cause health problems.
Take the time to prepare almonds, at least by soaking them overnight in water to remove much of the anti-nutrients. Add a splash of apple cider vinegar to the soak to keep microbes from growing. Sprouting them for a day or two further helps remove anti-nutrients, and super-charges the healthy stuff. Since almonds lose their flavor after soaking, it helps to dehydrate or dry roast them. Dry roasting is much preferred, since the oils used commercially are usually of poor quality (e.g., soy, canola) and harmful to your health, while high heat destroys nutrients. Coconut oil is preferred.
I was inspired to write this blog and make my own almond milk after reading that commercial almond milk contains almost no almonds and has other questionable ingredients. Commercial almond milk is essentially water, sweetener and a handful of almonds. It’s not much trouble and less costly to make your own, comforted in knowing exactly what’s in it. Many recipes can be found online. I threw a cup of overnight-soaked, organic raw almonds in a food processor with vanilla, cinnamon and sea salt in 3.5 cups of fresh water, blended and strained them to remove the pulp. After squeezing out the excess milk, I dry roasted the pulp on low heat. It has a nice roasted almond flavor, a long shelf life, and embellishes a variety of foods, such as cereal, pancakes and salads. Refrigerate the milk and use it within a few days. It has more calories than commercial almond milk, but each tasty calorie is healthy for you, and helps to lose weight. Throw in a little sweetener if you must, but use raw honey, real maple syrup, a sugar alcohol, stevia, or something that’s not sugar, corn syrup or aspartame.
Home-made almond milk is preferred over soy milk, which comes from genetically modified, pesticide-sprayed soybeans, known for being hormone disrupters. Thousands of studies have tied unfermented soy to digestive, immune, thyroid, cognitive and reproductive disorders, not to mention cancer and heart disease. Only organic, fermented soy has health benefits. There’s also nothing particularly healthy about rice milk, and it’s often riddled with high levels of arsenic.
In contrast, coconut milk is loaded with vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and lauric acid, which has special antimicrobial properties. Coconut milk is a great energy booster, and weight loss promoter. Add shredded coconut to your almond milk recipe for added value and flavor. Raw Milk is another great option. It’s loaded with friendly bacteria, digestive enzymes, growth factors, and immune-boosting antibodies. Grass-fed, organic milk is another option, and more commercially available. Like raw milk, it’s rich in conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) to fight cancer and boost metabolism, as well as beneficial fats and high-quality protein. It is also loaded with bioavailable vitamins and minerals, including half the daily need for iodine, vital for energy, and to prevent retardation in babies. To add extra richness, combine grass-fed cow’s milk and almond/coconut milk in cereal, tea and coffee. If you can find milk from brown (A2) cows, all the better. The black & white Holstein (A1) cows have a toxic protein in their casein, which is why ~25% of people are allergic to milk. The kind without allergy issues is called a2 milk, and it’s coming our way.
The secret to health is in what you feed your body. There are no short cuts.