By law, every commercially grown almond sold in the U.S. must be steam-treated or chemically fumigated. Who knew?
Since 2007, every commercially grown almond from California – which means every almond grown commercially in the United States since they all come from the Golden State – has been heat-pasteurized or fumigated with a chemical called propylene oxide. Almonds are the only nuts required by law to be pasteurized, thanks to several salmonella outbreaks traced to almonds over a decade ago.
In one pasteurizing facility, as described by NPR, millions of almonds are heated in huge metal containers in which the temperature is brought to 165 degrees Fahrenheit in order to kill any bacteria from the field. The whole process takes around nine hours.While nixing salmonella is super awesome, almond advocates believe that the treatments change the flavor (for the worse) and mislead consumers. And indeed, steam-treated almonds are sold as “raw,” and since there is no federal or legal definition of what raw means, nobody is breaking any labeling laws.
In talking about the so-called “almond rule,” Tim Birmingham, who oversees quality assurance for the Almond Board says, "It does, in some cases, take away the consumer's ability to choose a truly raw product. But the intent was really to remove that threat of salmonella on the product.”
"I consider it that you're lying to people when you use the word 'raw' for something that has been pasteurized," says Glen Anderson, an almond farmer who thinks the process renders almonds into a cardboard-tasting ghost of their former, vibrant selves. Anderson exploits a loophole by selling small batches directly to consumers and is able to thus circumnavigate the regulation. But farmers like Anderson are an exception.
For people pledging allegiance to a raw food diet, food should not be heated above 118 degrees Fahrenheit and should be free of synthetic chemicals. Where does that leave pure raw foodists who love almonds? Either finding a farmer who sells directly or switching the affection to other nuts, which are free of similar regulation. But the glory days for truly raw nuts may not be glorious for long.
Linda Harris, a food safety researcher as UC Davis, says that our commercialized food system requires extra steps to make sure the food we eat is safe.
"I think a lot of these industries, the non-almond industries,” she says, “are further along than you might think in doing exactly what the almond industry has done."
If you want to test your almonds, raw food company Pure Jeevan recommends this test: Place a cup of almonds in a bowl and over with water. Let soak for 12 hours, then drain and rinse. Squeeze an almond to see if the skin slips off easily – if it does, that signals that the almond has been pasteurized. And the easier it is to remove the skin, the more treated is the almond. If you have to chip away at the skin bit by bit, it has not been pasteurized. And then, either way, put those soaked almonds to good use and make some almond milk.
This updated article was originally published in 2015.