The Dark Side of Almond Use

This week another large study added to the body of known cardiovascular benefits of eating almonds. Every ounce eaten daily seemed to be associated with a 3.5 percent decreased risk of heart disease ten years later. Almonds are already known to help with weight-loss and satiety, help prevent diabetes, and potentially ameliorate arthritis, inhibit cancer cell growth, and decrease Alzheimer’s risk. A case could be made that almonds are, nutritionally, the best single food a person could eat. Almonds recently overtook peanuts as the most-eaten "nut" in the United States, and Americans now consume more than 10 times as many almonds as we did in 1965. The meteoric rise of the tree nut (seed, technically) is driven in part by vogue aversions to meat protein and to soy and dairy milks, and even by the unconscionable rise of the macaroon. But the real popularity-driver is almonds’ increasingly indelible image as paragons of nutrition. This week’s research, led by the eminent David Jenkins, professor and research chair in nutrition and metabolism at the University of Toronto, suggests that in addition to almonds’ idyllic monounsaturated fats, the cardiac benefits may be due to vitamin E, fiber, antioxidant phytochemicals (phenols, flavonoids, proanthocyanidins, and phytosterols), or arginine—and that’s just a partial list of almondic virtues. This follows a massive study released last fall from Harvard that found eating nuts decreased mortality rates by 20 percent, and it builds on Jenkins’ work done more than 10 years ago which suggested, in the American Heart Association’s journal Circulation, “Almonds used as snacks in the diets of hyperlipidemic subjects significantly reduce coronary heart disease risk factors.” That’s all wonderful. But coverage of almond-nutrition-adulatory research like these are a narrow take on health. I used to be "that guy" who was always eating almonds, but I’ve recently started to think of them as more of a commodity. It seems like every day someone asks me to dichotomize a health trend: good or bad. Almonds are a great example of something that might seem totally straightforward but isn’t. It was around the time of Jenkins’ first study, and around the time of a general "actually, fat isn’t categorically bad" trend in the U.S. that really kicked almond consumption into overdrive. We eat about the same amounts of other nuts as we did decades ago, but almonds soared. (Pistachio consumption is increasing, but still nowhere near that of almonds). The only state that produces almonds is California, where cool winter and mild springs let almond trees bloom. Eighty-two percent of the world’s almonds come from California. The U.S. is the leading consumer of almonds by far. California so controls the almond market that the Almond Board of California’s website is It’s twitter handle is @almonds. (Almost everything it tweets is about almonds.) California’s almonds constitute a lucrative multibillion dollar industry in a fiscally tenuous state that is also, as you know, in the middle of the worst drought in recent history. The drought is so dire that experts are considering adding a fifth level to the four-tiered drought scale. That’s right: D5. But each almond requires 1.1 gallons of water to produce, as Alex Park and Julia Lurie at Mother Jones reported earlier this year, and 44 percent more land in California is being used to farm almonds than was 10 years ago. That raises serious ecological concerns like, as NPR’s Alistair Bland reported last weekend, that thousands of endangered king salmon in northern California’s Klamath River are threatened by low water levels because water is being diverted to almond farms. Despite the severe drought, as of June 30, California’s Department of Agriculture projects that almond farmers will have their largest harvest to date. If more water is not released into the river soon, Bland reports, the salmon will be seriously threatened by a disease called gill rot. If there’s one disease I never want to get, it’s gill rot. Even as production increases in California, demand for almonds is driving prices ever higher. Other producers are getting into the game. In England, for example, the cost of almonds has almost doubled over the past five years, and sales of almond milk increased 79 percent in a year. "The value of each kernel has gone up dramatically and growers are looking for the best return on their investment so they’re still planting almond trees at an alarming rate," one farmer told BBC’s Peter Bowes. "If you decided to plant an orchard right now, you would wait two years for available root stock to actually plant." The crop is so valuable in the U.K., Bowes reported in February, there had been a spate of thefts and missing almond trucks. He writes, "Nut-nappers, as they have become known, have been making off with produce by the lorryload." A truck loaded with nuts can be worth more than $160,000. Almond theft is not a major issue in California, but as almond skeptic Tom Philpott put it in Mother Jones, the ecological implications of almond farming during a drought are “potentially dire.” Over-pumping of aquifers threatens infrastructure like roads, which stand to collapse into sunken ground. Farmers can fallow vegetable fields during droughts, but almond trees need steady supplies of water. California’s almond industry is also completely reliant on honey bees to pollinate its almond trees. The industry requires 1.4 million bee colonies, according to the USDA, most of which are brought to the state from across the country. Because of colony collapse disorder, honey bees are a commodity. The almond farmers’ requirements represent approximately 60 percent of the country’s managed honey bee colonies. This year many of the mercenary pollinating bees died due to exposure to pesticides. Anyway, when I buy almonds, I don’t think about having a hand in killing bees or salmon, or getting someone’s truck stolen or collapsing a road. It’s just a jumble of what’s "good for me," what I feel like eating, and how much things cost. Michael Specter’s feature in last week’s New Yorker goes deep into the pros and cons of GMOs. To consumers, avoiding GMOs is sort of analogous to buying organic, in that the point isn’t nutrition, but environmental consciousness and global sustainability, which always come back to water. The seven million people on the planet will be 10 million by the end of the century. Specter makes the point that feeding the world’s population will be the greatest challenge of this generation, possibly ever. Thinking about that side of food makes it hard to write about nutrition in isolation. Maybe that’s why so many writers who start out covering nutrition end up naturally arcing their careers into food sustainability. Anyway, almonds are good for our hearts.


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