The Dark Side of Almond Use

People are eating almonds in unprecedented amounts. Is that okay?

This week another large study added to the body of known cardiovascular benefits of eating almonds. Every ounce eaten daily was 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 strong 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" (seed, technically) 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 is driven in part by vogue aversions to meat protein and to soy and dairy milks, and even by the unconscionable rise of the macaron. But the main 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 research necessarily affords a narrow vantage on health. It seems like every day someone asks me to dichotomize a health trend: good or bad. Almonds are a great example of why I'm terrible at doing that.

It was around the time of Jenkins' prior study, and amid the broader "actually, fat isn't categorically bad" movement in the U.S. that almonds really got traction. We eat about the same amounts of other nuts as we did decades ago, but almond consumption singularly soared. (Pistachios are on the rise, but they are nowhere near almonds.)

The only state that produces almonds commercially 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 almonds.com. Its 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 ecological concerns like, as NPR’s Alastair 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 projected that almond farmers will have their largest harvest to date. If more water is not released into the river soon, Bland reported, 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.

Presented by

James Hamblin, MD, is a senior editor at The Atlantic. He writes the health column for the monthly magazine and hosts the video series If Our Bodies Could Talk.

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