Sunday, March 27, 2011

Almonds: The Good, Bad & The Ugly

I love almond flour as a substitute for grain flours in baked goods - it tastes amazing. I relied heavily on almond flour when I first removed grains from my family's diet so that we would not feel deprived. Almonds are a nutritious food too: they're low in saturated fats, and high vitamin E, magnesium, manganese, and a good source of fiber, copper, phosphorous, and riboflavinin (1). However, I also know we've been eating too much almond flour lately. If I were to imagine what people were eating 10,000 or more years ago, they definitely wouldn't be eating the quantity of almonds that we are today.

There are a number of reasons why our heavy reliance on almond flour concerns me. The first one has to do with the decline of the honey bee population due to Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), a disorder where colonies of bees are mysteriously disappearing from the hive in spring. It is estimated that one quarter of our food is dependent on the honey bee, so we definitely don't want to be without them.

Almonds are very dependent on the honey bee for pollination because of the large mono-culture crop that they are. Thousands of acres are planted to almond tree after almond tree, and this lack of diversity cannot support a honey bee's need for nectar and pollen year long. So, beekeepers cart their honey bees across North American to aid with pollination season. Without the help of these little pollinators every year, there would be very few almonds for us to eat. The almond season brings together bees from across the country, where diseases are passed from hive to hive. Carting the hives in trucks long distances causes the bees a great deal of stress. Almonds need pollinating during the time of year when a bee colony would naturally be in a resting state. All of these factors, among others, are suspected in contributing to the decline of the honey bee and CCD.

The second reason for concern about almonds has to do with the level of phytic acid in almonds - it's quite high. I'm very concerned about society's over-consumption of foods high in phytic acid and it's ability to bind to minerals, just like the ones that make almonds so healthy. In our house, switching from grains to almonds actually increased our phytic acid consumption, which is not good. On the bright side, soaking raw almonds (with their skins on) removes much of the phytic acid and enzyme inhibitors present. Making your own almond flour is relatively easy, but it is an extra step that is not being done when you buy ground almond flour directly from the store.

This brings me to my third concern: the State of California requires by law that all exported almonds be pasteurized, while the FDA still allows them to be called raw. I'm sorry FDA, but pasteurized food is not the same as raw food. Why is the consumer being so grossly mislead? Once almonds have been pasteurized, they can no longer be soaked to remove the phytic acid because they have essentially been cooked. Almonds in this state are now prone to going rancid faster as well. Wait, there's more: the methods of pasteurization allowed are steam or by using a chemical called propylene oxide, which is a 'probable' human carcinogen (2). Probable or not, I don't want to be a human guinea pig for cancer.

If you really, really want raw, unpasteurized almonds you can order them online here - their supply comes out of Brazil. It almost makes you wonder, though, whether the effort to get healthy almonds to our plate is worth it?

Food for thought.

A World Without Bees, byAlison Benjamin 

Linked to Fresh Bites Friday.

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