Almonds are considered to be one of the earliest domesticated tree nuts, and one of the most prized snacks in the world. Packed with a variety of vitamins and minerals, it is easy to see why the almond is present on almost every continent and the health benefits of this little nut have long been touted by experts.
Often referred to as “the gourmet nut”, almonds are among the most nutrient dense tree nuts. In botany, almonds are typically classified as a fruit and form part of the stone fruit family. Other fruits in this family include peaches, plums, nectarines, apricots as well as cherries.
It is a known fact that almond extracts are often made from apricot stones, as the two have very similar flavors.
There are two forms of the almond plant. One produces sweet almonds and the second produces bitter almonds. The bitter almond is typically shorter and wider than the sweet almond and contains traces of lethal prussic acid in its raw state. Although the toxicity is destroyed by heat, the sale of unrefined bitter almonds is prohibited in the United States. Fifty unprocessed bitter almonds can be lethal to a human. Yet, bitter almonds are successfully processed to make almond extract and almond-flavored liqueurs.
Packed with nutrition
Almonds are packed with nutrition. Besides a good source of vegetable protein, almonds are high in riboflavin, fiber, folic acid, iron, zinc, thiamin, niacin and magnesium. Almonds are also rich in potassium, manganese, copper and the antioxidants vitamin E and selenium. A study published in the American Journal of Epidemiology suggests that a good intake of vitamin E might help to prevent poor memory.
Almonds are an excellent source of calcium, containing nearly as much calcium in a quarter cup of almonds as there is in a quarter cup of milk. Calcium plays a vital role in the functioning of all cells in the body. If there isn’t an adequate supply of calcium through diet, your body will draw from its stores (i.e. bone and teeth). Over time, if calcium is continually drawn from bone, this will predispose one to osteoporosis.
Almonds promote heart heath
Almonds also provide a good source of monounsaturated fat, the same type of health-promoting fats as are found in olive oil, which have been associated with reduced risk of heart disease.
One researcher, David Jenkins MD, has done many studies of the effects of almonds. In a 2002 study, he tested 27 men and women with high cholesterol over three months. People who ate about a handful of almonds a day lowered their bad LDL cholesterol by 4.4%. Those who ate two handfuls lowered it by 9.4%. The results were published in the journal Circulation.
Snack on almonds and lose weight
Eat seventy almonds per day. That’s the number that people in a US City of Hope National Medical Center experiment ate daily for six months, in conjunction with a reduced-calorie diet, to drop 18 percent of their body weight.
In the study, 65 overweight and obese adults — 70 percent of whom had type 2 diabetes — were put on one of two diets designed for weight loss. The first group ate a liquid formula-based, low-calorie diet containing moderate fat from almonds (39 percent total fat, 25 percent monounsaturated fat, 35 percent carbohydrate as percent of energy). The second group ate a liquid formula-based, low-fat, low-calorie diet including self-selected complex carbohydrates (18 percent total fat, 5 percent monounsaturated fat, 53 percent carbohydrates as percent of energy). The two diets’ calorie count and protein levels were equivalent.
Participants in the almond diet saw an 18% reduction in weight and body mass index (BMI) — a measure of weight based on height — compared with an 11% reduction in the non-almond dieters. Additionally, waist circumference in the almond group decreased by 14%, compared with a 9% decrease in the non-almond group.
Study author Michelle Wien partially credits the satiety factor. “Almonds are a nutrient-dense food that provides healthy monounsaturated fat, protein and fiber, which together contribute to feeling full,” she says.
Both groups had improvement in their type 2 diabetes with lower blood sugar and insulin levels. But those on the almond diet were able to lower their need for diabetes medication more so than the non-almond dieters.
Almonds offer the most nutrition eaten raw but have a crunchier and more enhanced flavor when roasted. Almonds blend well with both spicy and sweet foods, so be creative. Use almonds in appetizers, side dishes and or main entrees.
Almonds rank as the largest US horticultural export and more than 80 countries import their almonds from California. According to the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), the top five almond producers in a calendar year in 2003 were the United States, followed by Spain, Syria, Iran and Italy.