Almonds: The Healthy Snack that Can Actually Improve Your Health

almonds improve healthA study sought to evaluate the effect of an almond-enriched low-calorie diet on body composition and metabolism in a weight reduction program. The results showed that supplementation with almonds, in contrast to complex carbohydrates, was associated with greater reductions in weight and BMI, waist circumference, fat mass, total body water and systolic blood pressure.

According to the study, as reported by Green Med Info:

"[The] findings suggest that an almond-enriched [low-calorie diet] improves a preponderance of the abnormalities associated with the metabolic syndrome ... Almond supplementation ... is a novel alternative to self-selected complex carbohydrates and has a potential role in reducing the public health implications of obesity."

In related news, another study from as far back as 2002 showed that almonds used as snacks could significantly reduce coronary heart disease risk factors, probably because of the healthy components of the nut.

Even though the low-fat craze of the 90s is over, many people still resist snacking on nuts because they believe they're fattening. It remains one of the biggest nutritional myths of all time that if you eat a food high in fat, even healthy fat, it will make you fat. But as the above studies show, nuts like almonds are actually a sensible snack if you're trying to lose weight, and they have added health benefits as well.

What's Better for Weight Loss -- Almonds or Complex Carbs?

If you're watching your weight, a small handful of almonds is a better snack choice than a snack high in complex carbohydrates, such as a bran muffin. In one study comparing those who ate a low-calorie diet that included either almonds or complex carbs, the almond group had a:

  • 62 percent greater reduction in their weight/BMI,
  • 50 percent greater reduction in waist circumference
  • 56 percent greater reduction in body fat

A separate study in the journal Obesity also found that eating nuts two or more times per week was associated with a reduced risk of weight gain.

Other research has further proven that almonds confer superior health benefits to complex carbs like whole-wheat muffins; a study in Circulation found people with abnormally high level of lipids, such as cholesterol, in their blood, were able to significantly reduce their risk factors for coronary heart disease by snacking on whole almonds. Those who snacked on whole-wheat muffins got no such benefit.

What Makes Almonds so Healthy?

Although almonds are referred to as nuts, they are technically the seed (or pit) of the almond fruit. And, like most whole foods, they are naturally rich in a variety of nutrients and antioxidants that help your body thrive.

This includes:

Monounsaturated fats Magnesium Potassium
Vitamin E Selenium Calcium
Manganese Fiber Protein

There are actually nine clinical studies on record that show almonds may have a beneficial impact on heart health and cholesterol. In 2003, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration even issued a qualified health claim that states:

"Scientific evidence suggests, but does not prove, that eating 1.5 ounces per day of most nuts, such as almonds, as part of a diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol may reduce the risk of heart disease."

One of the healthiest aspects of almonds appears to be their skins, as they are rich in antioxidants including phenols, flavonoids and phenolic acids, which are typically associated with vegetables and fruits. As the Almond Board of California reported, a study in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry even revealed that a one-ounce serving of almonds has a similar amount of total polyphenols as a cup of steamed broccoli or green tea.

Still more research shows that almonds may help improve measures of insulin sensitivity and other heart risk factors among people with pre-diabetes, and emerging research also suggests almonds may have a prebiotic effect in your gut, which may help boost your immune system.

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Beware: Most All Almonds in North America are Pasteurized

Unfortunately, the U.S. Department of Agriculture implemented a mandatory pasteurization program for almonds in 2007, a measure they claimed would improve food safety. But what this really means is that you can no longer get raw almonds in North America.

The Almond Board of California states they have conducted independent nutritional lab analyses that show pasteurization does not degrade the nutritional value of almonds, but this is also what is claimed regarding milk -- that pasteurization does not change its nutritional composition. We know, however, that raw milk and pasteurized milk are two very different foods from a health standpoint, and it stands to reason that raw and pasteurized almonds are too.

The Almond Board of California again states that the pasteurization processes for almonds are slightly different from the one used for milk and juice in that they only treat the surface of the nut, but the Cornucopia Institute states the USDA mandate "requires sanitation of almonds with a toxic fumigant or treatment with high-temperature heat."

So please be aware that if you purchase almonds in North America, they will have gone through one of the following pasteurization methods:

  • Oil roasting, dry roasting, or blanching
  • Steam processing
  • Propylene Oxide (PPO) treatment

Propylene oxide is a highly toxic flammable chemical compound, once used as a racing fuel before it was prohibited for safety reasons. As the Cornucopia Institute states:

"PPO is so toxic that it is not even registered for use as a food processing agent in many parts of the world, including most of Europe, Africa, Asia, and Canada. It is also banned by the U.S. Hot Rod Association as too carcinogenic even to be used as a racing fuel! Yet despite its many dangers, the Almond Board of California and the USDA are willing to employ this toxic treatment to protect almond marketers from future food liability lawsuits.

The primary use of PPO is the production of polyethers, but it is also used to fumigate foods and plastic medical instruments, and in the production of dipropylene glycol and glycol ethers (as herbicides, as solvents, and in the preparation of lubricants, surfactants, and oil demulsifiers.) It is a popular wood varnish—hardly suitable for human consumption!"

Be aware, too, that pasteurized almonds sold in North America can still be labeled "raw" even though they've been subjected to one of the treatment processes listed above. There are generally no truly "raw" almonds sold in North America, so don't be mislead. I personally enjoy raw almonds nearly every day as it is an outstanding food. It is possible to purchase raw almonds in the US but it has to be done very carefully from vendors selling small quantities that have a waiver from the pasteurization requirement. Key is to find a company with the waiver that is NOT pasteurizing them.

A legal battle lead by the Cornucopia Institute is currently underway alleging the USDA exceeded its regulatory authority in imposing the raw almond treatment mandate. If you'd like to get involved, you can use the Institute's sample letter to contact your elected officials and let them know you feel the almond treatment rule should be overturned.

Almonds remain a wholesome food that may offer you benefits for weight loss, heart health and more, but to get the whole range of benefits, seek truly raw almonds that have not been pasteurized -- which, fortunately for those in North America, can still be found from high-quality sources online.