Almonds are highly valued for their high content of phytosterols, monounsaturated fatty acids, vegetable proteins, soluble fibre, vitamins and minerals. Since 2003, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has permitted the following claim for nuts on food labels: “There is evidence to suggest, but not prove, that consuming one and a half ounces per day of most nuts in a diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol may reduce the risk of coronary heart disease. While there is ample scientific evidence that almond consumption is beneficial, this claim is not permitted in Canada.
Active ingredients and properties
Several epidemiological and clinical studies associate regular consumption of shelled and oleaginous fruits with various health benefits such as a cholesterol-lowering effect, a decreased risk of cardiovascular disease and type 24 diabetes, a decreased risk of gallstones5 and gallbladder removal, and a decreased risk of colon cancer in women. The amount of shelled and oleaginous fruit that provides these benefits is usually equivalent to about five one-ounce (30 g) servings per week.
Several clinical studies have demonstrated the effects of almond consumption on lowering blood cholesterol levels, particularly LDL (“bad”) cholesterol. According to epidemiological data , a daily consumption of 30 g of nuts could reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease by 45% when these foods replace foods high in saturated fat. These benefits could be attributable to the high content of shelled and oleaginous fruits in various components known for their cholesterol-lowering action such as phytosterols, monounsaturated fatty acids, plant proteins and soluble fibre.
Phytosterols. Almonds have a high phytosterol content. Indeed, 30 g of almonds (about 25 almonds) contain 34 mg of these compounds13. Phytosterols are constituents with a structure very similar to that of cholesterol found in products of animal origin. This resemblance allows phytosterols to compete with cholesterol in the intestine and, consequently, reduce its absorption. In addition, a meta-analysis of 41 clinical trials showed that the intake of 2 g/day of phytosterols reduced LDL cholesterol levels by 10% and that this reduction could reach 20% in the context of a diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol. This amount of 2 g/day is virtually impossible to achieve through diet alone. For this reason, products enriched with phytosterols such as margarine have appeared on the market. Even if present in very small quantities, phytosterols naturally present in foods such as almonds remain interesting for cardiovascular health.
Nutritional value of almonds: Beware of salt and fat
Several types of almonds are available on the market and differ in their respective nutritional values. For example, oil-roasted almonds are higher in fat than dry-roasted or dried almonds. The latter are therefore to be preferred. Salted almonds also contain nearly 70 times more sodium than unsalted almonds, hence the importance of consulting the list of ingredients. A healthy and delicious solution is to buy raw unbleached almonds and roast them yourself in the oven at 175°C (350°F) for 10 minutes.
Unsaturated fatty acids. More than half of the fat in the almond is monounsaturated fat, especially oleic acid, which is also found in olive and canola oil. A study of more than 80,000 women followed over a 14-year period revealed that monounsaturated fatty acid consumption was linked to a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease. In addition, a meta-analysis of 27 clinical trials published between 1970 and 1991 showed an increase in HDL-cholesterol (“good” cholesterol) when carbohydrates were partially replaced by monounsaturated fats in the diet, while this substitution did not affect LDL-cholesterol levels. Among all other nuts and shelled fruits, almonds contain the least amount of saturated fatty acids (4%).
Fibre. The almond contains a high proportion of fibre, 80% of which is insoluble and 20% soluble. Fibre helps normalize intestinal transit and has a faster satiating effect. Several studies have shown that a diet high in fibre is associated with a lower risk of colon cancer. Although the preventive effect has been demonstrated, the role of fibre in the treatment of cancer remains controversial. In addition, soluble fibre promotes fecal cholesterol excretion, which results in lower blood cholesterol levels. A diet high in soluble fibre may also help normalize blood glucose and insulin levels, which may help in the treatment of cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes.
Plant proteins. Among other nuts, almonds contain the most protein. These are of good quality, but incomplete compared to animal proteins. Indeed, vegetable proteins differ from animal proteins by their amino acid composition. They generally have a higher content of arginine, but a lower content of lysine, an amino acid considered essential to the body. A study in animals has shown that arginine has a cardioprotective effect by lowering blood cholesterol levels. The almond also contains a good proportion of arginine, an amino acid that has been shown to have effects on energy metabolism. Indeed, arginine is said to have thermogenic properties that increase the oxidation of carbohydrates and lipids via the modulation of genes that regulate basic energy expenditure. Arginine is also a compound that stimulates the synthesis of nitric oxide (NO), a powerful neurotransmitter in the body that promotes vasodilatation of blood vessels. Some studies have shown that arginine may help improve blood flow in the arteries of the heart and thus prevent certain cardiovascular diseases. However, the evidence is still insufficient and other scientific data must confirm these results.
Antioxidants. Almonds are high in antioxidants, compounds that reduce free radical damage in the body. These are highly reactive molecules that are believed to be involved in the development of cardiovascular disease, some cancers and other age-related diseases. Among these, vitamin E8 (also known as “alpha-tocopherol”), a powerful antioxidant, is believed to have protective effects against cardiovascular disease, diabetes, hypertension and cognitive decline. Squalenes, precursors of phytosterols, are also found in almonds. Several studies indicate that these compounds have antioxidant and anticarcinogenic effects by inhibiting tumour growth and inactivating many carcinogens. Finally, the skin of almonds contains phenolic compounds which, according to an in vitro study, have anti-inflammatory and anti-carcinogenic properties. However, additional studies will have to be conducted before concluding that they have effects on humans.
The Portfolio Diet
Recently, a new nutritional approach has been proposed to reduce blood cholesterol levels: the Portfolio diet. This diet combines four food components known for their beneficial effects on total cholesterol levels: soluble fibre (oats, eggplant, combo), soy protein, phytosterols (enriched margarine) and almonds. Researchers studied the effect of this diet in 34 subjects with high blood cholesterol levels. Adherence to this diet for a four-week period resulted in a decrease in LDL (“bad”) cholesterol levels of approximately 30%, compared to 8.5% for the low-fat control diet, without affecting HDL (“good”) cholesterol or triglyceride levels. The diet was followed for four weeks, with no change in HDL (“good”) cholesterol or triglyceride levels. This did not affect HDL (“good”) cholesterol or triglycerides. In addition, the Portfolio diet lowered blood cholesterol levels in a manner similar to a drug designed for this purpose (statin). The four components of the Portfolio diet are thought to have complementary mechanisms, each acting in a different way, resulting in a complementary effect on lowering LDL cholesterol levels.
Most important nutrients
Excellent source of magnesium. Almonds and plain almond butter are excellent sources of magnesium for women and good sources for men, as their needs are different. Magnesium is involved in bone development, protein building, enzyme action, muscle contraction, dental health and immune system function. It also plays a role in energy metabolism and in the transmission of nerve impulses.
Excellent source of Manganese. Almonds and plain almond butter are excellent sources of manganese. Manganese acts as a cofactor of several enzymes that facilitate a dozen different metabolic processes. It also helps prevent free radical damage.
Excellent source Copper. Almonds are an excellent source of copper. As a constituent of several enzymes, copper is necessary for the formation of hemoglobin and collagen (a protein used for tissue structure and repair) in the body. Several copper-containing enzymes also contribute to the body’s defence against free radicals.
Excellent source of Vitamin B2. Almonds are an excellent source of vitamin B2 for women and a good source for men, as their needs are different. Plain almond butter is a good source of vitamin B2 for women and a good source for men. Vitamin B2 is also known as riboflavin. Like vitamin B1, it plays a role in the energy metabolism of all cells. In addition, it contributes to tissue growth and repair, hormone production and red blood cell formation.
Excellent source of Vitamin E. Almonds are an excellent source of vitamin E. A major antioxidant, this vitamin protects the membrane that surrounds the body’s cells, particularly red and white blood cells (cells of the immune system).
Good source of phosphorus. Almonds are a good source of phosphorus (see our Phosphorus Nutrients fact sheet). Phosphorus is the second most abundant mineral in the body after calcium. It plays an essential role in the formation and maintenance of healthy bones and teeth. In addition, it participates in the growth and regeneration of tissues and helps maintain normal blood pH levels. Finally, phosphorus is one of the constituents of cell membranes.
Good source of iron. Almonds and plain almond butter are good sources of iron for men and sources for women, as their needs are different. Every cell in the body contains iron. This mineral is essential for the transport of oxygen and the formation of red blood cells in the blood. It also plays a role in making new cells, hormones and neurotransmitters (messengers in nerve impulses).
Good source Zinc. The almond is a good source of zinc for women and a source for men, their needs being different. Plain almond butter is a source. Zinc is involved in immune reactions, the production of genetic material, taste perception, wound healing and the development of the fetus. It also interacts with sex and thyroid hormones. In the pancreas, it is involved in the synthesis (manufacture), storage and release of insulin.
Source Calcium. The almond is a source of calcium. Calcium is by far the most abundant mineral in the body. It is mostly stored in the bones, of which it is an integral part. It contributes to the formation of bones and teeth, as well as to the maintenance of their health. Calcium also plays an essential role in blood clotting, maintaining blood pressure, and in the contraction of muscles (including the heart).
Source Potassium. Almonds and plain almond butter are sources of potassium. In the body, it is used to balance the pH of the blood and to stimulate the production of hydrochloric acid by the stomach, thus promoting digestion. In addition, it facilitates the contraction of muscles, including the heart, and participates in the transmission of nerve impulses.
Source Vitamin B1. Almonds are a source of vitamin B1. Also called thiamin, this vitamin is part of a coenzyme necessary for the production of energy, mainly from the carbohydrates we ingest. It also participates in the transmission of nerve impulses and promotes normal growth.
Source Vitamin B3. Almonds are a source of vitamin B3. Also called niacin, this vitamin is involved in many metabolic reactions and contributes particularly to the production of energy from the carbohydrates, fats, proteins and alcohol we ingest. It also contributes to the process of DNA formation, allowing normal growth and development.
Source Folate. Plain almond butter is a source of folate. Folate (vitamin B9) is involved in the production of all the cells in the body, including red blood cells. This vitamin plays an essential role in the production of genetic material (DNA, RNA), in the functioning of the nervous and immune systems, and in the healing of wounds and sores. Since it is necessary for the production of new cells, adequate consumption is essential during periods of growth and for the development of the fetus.
Almond and weight gain
Many people limit their consumption of shelled and oleaginous fruits for fear that their high caloric content may lead to weight gain. Several epidemiological studies indicate that regular consumption of tree nuts and oilseeds is not associated with increased body weight as many have suggested. Indeed, certain compounds contained in shelled and oleaginous fruits increase satiety and body metabolism and render incomplete the absorption of lipids (nearly 20%), which results in a decrease in energy intake.
Allergy to shelled fruits and oilseeds. According to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA)31, nuts (including all nuts and oilseeds, including almonds) are among the foods most frequently associated with allergies. Symptoms of hulled and oleaginous fruit allergies can be severe and can go as far as anaphylactic shock. In addition, it is recommended that people with peanut allergies also avoid eating other nuts and oilseeds (including the almond), since they are often handled and distributed by the same companies that handle and distribute peanuts.
Urinary stones. Some people may be advised to adopt a restricted diet of oxalates to prevent the recurrence of kidney or urinary stones (also called urinary lithiasis). Oxalates are compounds that are naturally found in many foods, including tree nuts and oilseeds in general. It is therefore preferable that these people avoid consuming them.
The almond over time
The almond takes its name from the popular Latin amandula, an alteration of the Latin amygdalus, taken from the Greek amugdalê. It appears in the written language in the 13th century. In the twelfth century, we also find the form “alemande”, phonetically close to the English almond. Interestingly, the word “amygdalus” is derived from the same Latin name, this organ having the shape of an almond.
The almond tree is thought to have originated in the hot, dry regions of the Near and Middle East where, according to archaeological excavations, it was consumed by hominids 780,000 years ago. In terms of culture, we know that it was grown in China 3,000 years ago and in Greece 2,500 years ago.
During the conquest of Spain, the Arabs brought with them citrus seeds and almond stones that they planted. From there, the almond tree spread all along the Mediterranean coast. However, it was not until the middle of the 18th century that Franciscan fathers from Spain brought it to North America, specifically to California. The cool and humid temperatures of the coast did not suit the almond tree, and it would be another half-century before it was discovered that the almond tree could flourish inland. Today, California is the world’s largest producer of almonds, closely followed by Spain, known for its famous Jordan almond, produced in Malaga, and the Valencia almond.
A symbolic value
The almond tree, like its fruit, has always been associated with fertility. The Romans are said to have instituted the custom of throwing almonds to brides to encourage abundant offspring, a custom that still exists in various parts of Europe.
Almond milk could well change the way you cook, for example with this recipe for almond milk flan. The almond is also the main ingredient in this muesli recipe.
Here are some recipe suggestions from :
- Almond Tiles
- Almond cream
- Small Almond Financiers
- Almond cake
- Galette des rois
Choosing the right one
Dry inshell almonds are sold all year round. As for fresh almonds (still in their green, fluffy fruit), they are rarely found in Quebec, except in a few specialized stores. In Europe, they are available in season, from June to October.
Shelled almonds are available with their skin or hulled (with the brown skin removed), whole, slivered, salted, smoked, dipped in tamari and roasted, or in powder form. Since all of these products are likely to go rancid, buy only small quantities at a time and keep them preferably in the refrigerator.
Store-bought almonds should not have been harvested more than a year ago. Distributors normally replenish oilseed stocks each year at the time of the new crop, which normally arrives on the market during the holiday season. In practice, this is not always the case, as the temptation is great to dispose of old stocks first. Check with the merchant.
Bitter almonds are used as food, but are not available on the market as they are because they must first be cleaned of the hydrocyanic acid they contain, which is toxic even in small doses.
Almonds are used to make countless sweet delicacies – such as croissants, macaroons, cakes, tiles, cobblestones, fortune cookies, and so on. – as well as tasty treats: pralines and sugared almonds, made from almonds coated with hardened sugar, Spanish turrón, nougat, marzipan and cuddly almonds from Aix, frangipane and orgeat.
But almonds are not confined to sweet dishes: they also contribute to the flavour of many savoury dishes, such as beans or almond fish, and condiments such as pestos and tapenades. When ground, they can be used instead of wheat flour to thicken sauces and soups. Peppery, salty, spicy, dipped in tamari and then roasted in the oven, they make a good snack. Appreciated as much in the East as in the West, they are used in the composition of many regional dishes:
Turkish tarator is a sauce for fish and meat; made with blanched and slivered almonds, fresh breadcrumbs, water, lemon juice, garlic and olive oil, it is made like a mayonnaise.
Ravioli di zucca d’Italia are fresh squares of dough stuffed with pumpkin flesh, beaten egg yolks, onion, Parmesan cheese, honey, white wine and almond amaretti biscuits. It is served with sage butter.
The Moroccan b’stilla is a squab pie seasoned with blanched almonds and ground with a little sugar and cinnamon.
In India, biriyanis and other meat and dried fruit dishes often contain it. The almonds are first browned in clarified butter before being added to the dish.
In Spain, romesco sauce is made with roasted almonds and red peppers, red wine vinegar, garlic and olive oil, all of which are made into mayonnaise. As for the famous Cebollada con Almendras, it is a soup made with onions, chicken stock, white wine, blanched and ground almonds, parsley and cumin.
Sweet almond is used as an edible oil to coat the moulds in which the most delicate cakes are baked. Think about using it on a green salad, to which it gives an original flavour.
Almond milk or almond drink
In the Middle Ages, it was forbidden by the Church to consume eggs, meat and dairy products on Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays, as well as during Lent, on pain of burning in hell. In total, there were finally nearly 180 days of abstinence, half the year. Almond milk was therefore welcome, especially since it kept much better than cow’s milk. It could even be churned into butter. Today it is used in a variety of dishes. To prepare it, one part ground almonds and, depending on the desired consistency, two to four parts water are mixed together. It is then put into a blender. Or pour hot water over the ground almonds and leave to infuse over low heat for about 30 minutes; if you want a very clear milk, pass through a muslin cloth.
Cheese, which was also popular at that time, is a porridge made of wheat flour and almond milk, enriched with egg yolks and coloured with saffron.
The “blanc mengier” or “blamanger” of the Middle Ages was made from minced chicken, boiled rice and almond milk. Seasoned with sugar and salt, it was decorated with fried almonds and aniseed. Today, the blancmange is prepared with milk, almonds and sugar, and is served for dessert.
Shelled almonds: it is best to keep them in an airtight container in the refrigerator, as they go rancid quite quickly.
Almond oil: composed mainly of monounsaturated fatty acids, it is relatively stable at room temperature, but it is preferable to keep it in the refrigerator if you want to keep it for a long time.
Ecology and the environment
Almond production in California is now being singled out. Since the production of a single almond would require about 4 litres of water, there are concerns about the water supplies available in this region. In addition, California has been in a period of extreme drought for the past few years and almond growers have had to drill numerous wells to irrigate their plantations. The consequences for the environment are disastrous, including a subsidence of the soil that threatens roads, irrigation canals and bridges.