The almond is a species of tree native to Iran, but widely cultivated elsewhere. Almond is also the name of its edible seed, that is – technically incorrectly – referred to as a nut. The fruit of the almond tree consists of an outer hull and a hard, inner shell that contains the seed. The almond seed contains a lot of healthy materials: vitamins, minerals, protein and fiber. Just a handful contains about 15 percent of your daily protein needs.
Almonds have been a popular nut (yes, we’re sticking with ‘nut’) for many centuries. There are numerous biblical references to the almond, which originally came from either China or Iran and its surrounding countries. They were taken by man from West Asia to the Mediterranean, North Africa and southern Europe as far back as the Roman Empire, as evidenced by found parts of almonds in Pompeii, among the remains from the eruption of the Vesuvius in 79 A.D. In Europe, the almonds were introduced in 716 through a charter from the king of France to a monastery in Normandy. In fact, the word “almond” comes from Old French: almande or allemande. Charlemagne ordered in 812 that almond trees should be planted on royal lands. Almonds were especially popular in England.
Industrial production of almonds worldwide accounts for about 1 million tons annually, with California being the top producer. Numbers may vary, but there are approximately 6,000 almond growers in the Golden State who jointly manage an area of 283,000 hectares. They grow sweet almonds in thirty varieties, 10 of which account for approximately 70% of total production. Within the EU, Spain is responsible for most of the production.
Almond production in Australia is experiencing strong growth and more than tripled over the last decades, as the US had difficulty keeping up with world demand due to severe drought in California as well as problems with the groundwater supply. Australia has since moved up to second place in the world ranking of almond producing countries.
The availability of water, a ‘Mediterranean’ climate, manure and artificial fertilizer is very decisive for the almond tree. The almonds are ripe after 7 to 8 months of flowering. The stone fruit (which contains the almond) bursts open and when the almonds are harvested they shake the trees (generally by machine) so that they fall out.
Almonds are sold shelled or unshelled. Shelling almonds refers to removing the shell to reveal the seed. Blanched almonds are shelled almonds that have been treated with hot water to soften the seedcoat, which is then removed to reveal the white embryo.
There are two types of almonds: sweet and bitter. Sweet almonds can be eaten this way or used as decoration. They are used in a variety of foods, including snacks, bakery products, breakfast cereals and desserts. Well-known examples are almond paste, nougat and marzipan. They can also be used to make almond oil or almond milk, which is easily digestible and can serve as a substitute for cow’s milk. Innovation provides more ways to process almonds in food.
The bitter almond is grown less and less. Bitter almonds were used to enhance the aroma of the sweet almond in marzipan and almond paste. Nowadays, the cheaper apricot kernel is often used for this. In addition, bitter almonds were used to produce bitter almond oil.
Almonds are rich in nutrients such as monounsaturated fats, magnesium, proteins and vitamin E, as well as fiber and phytochemicals. They contain about 90% unsaturated fatty acids and a lot of vitamin E. Vitamin E contains antioxidants, such as tocopherol. One ounce (28.4 g) of plain almonds provides 7.27 milligrams (mg) of vitamin E, which is around half a person’s daily requirement.
The long-term growth in demand for almonds can be largely attributed to the expanding economies of Asian countries. Changes in consumer preferences are another force behind the growing popularity of almonds and nuts, whereas weather conditions provide a third major factor on global prices. For instance, a drought in California, where the majority of almonds are produced, has a huge impact. However, all things being equal, nut prices have found somewhat of an equilibrium. Even though nut prices have leveled, they remain susceptible to supply and demand factors, and continue to play an important role within the agricultural exports mix.