One of our eastcoast editors sent this insightful article about the political economy of the Sacred Nut that appeared in The Atlantic, from Boston. We were intrigued by the literate good sense of the author, James Hamblin, MD, so included some other titles from his recent work at the bottom.
Enjoy Spanish Marcona almonds -- blj
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 atMother 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.
Even as almond production increases in California, demand 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 wrote, "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 honeybees 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, honeybees are a commodity. The almond farmers' requirements represent approximately 60 percent of the country's managed colonies. This year many of the mercenary pollinating bees brought to California 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 on GMOs in last week's New Yorker gets into how seven billion people on the planet will be 10 billion by the end of the century, and feeding that population might well be the greatest challenge to humanity ever. Thinking about going easy on almonds is sort of analogous to GMO dilemmas or buying organic, where the point isn’t really nutrition, it's environmental consciousness and sustainability, which always come back to water. Thinking about that side of food makes it hard to write about nutrition in isolation. Anyway, almonds are good for our hearts.
;More articles by Dr Hamblin:
Always Talk to Strangers
People who know and trust their neighbors are less likely to have heart attacks. New research builds on the understated health benefits of a sense of belonging and community.
Do We Look Fat in These Suburbs?
People in dense cities are thinner and have healthier hearts than people in sprawling subdivisions. New research says the secret is in the patterns of the streets.
The Question Doctors Can't Ask
Is there a gun in your home? If so, is it secure? A Florida law now prevents physicians from discussing firearm safety with patients
Notes on almond production up to the mid-1990's. The amounts are somewhat different but the trend has only gotten more unbalanced in favor of California, which now accounts for about 80 percent of the world supply of the Sacred Nut. -- blj
World almond production has been estimated to be about 334.000 tons (average from 1992 to 1996) of shelled product. The main producing country is the United States, which accounts for 68% of the world production. The other producing countries are Spain (16%), Italy (4%), Greece (3.7%), Iran (1.8%), Tunisia (1.8%), Morocco (1.7%), Portugal (1.1%), followed by Turkey and others countries with a lower production.
The 1960's witnessed an increase in Californian production, which passed from 21% of the world production in the period 1957-61, with a total of 24.000 tons of shelled product, to the current 68%, with a production of 245.000 tons. In the same period (1957-61), the Mediterranean countries provided 63% of the world production with about 75.000 tons of shelled almonds; today (1991-95), the percentage is down to about 28%, with the same production as in the years 1957-61: 75.000 tons of shelled product. This means that the production in the Mediterranean countries has largely remained unchanged over the past 40 years, thanks to the increase in the Spanish production, which has offset the Italian drop in production although the comparative percentage has significantly decreased.
During recent years the American production of shelled almond has exceeded 250.000 tons and is approaching over 300.000.
In 1969 the area covered with almond trees was about 61.794 hectares which has nearly tripled in area since that time. The large expansion during the past thirty has been due to expansion into the middle and southern San Joaquin valley with the new production of high quality irrigation water.
Other reason include expansion into more marginal soils of the Sacramento valley and Sacramento due to increased land modification use of adapted rootstocks.
Almond cultivation is mainly in the counties of Kern, Merced, Fresno, Madera, Stanislaus and San Joaquin in the San Joaquin valley and in Butte and Colusa countries in the Sacramento Valley. The most widely grown almond variety is Nonpareil which accounts for 45 of the entire production.
Other important varieties include "Carmel" (18%), "Mission" (7%), "Price" (5%), "Butte" (5%), "Ne Plus Ultra", "Merced" and "Peerless" (about 3% each) and about 40 others.
The average per hectare yield exceeds 1.3 to 1.5 of shelled product.
Some production problems include rain during bloom affecting adequate cross-pollination and disease control, moninfectious bud-failure ("Nonpareil", "Carmel", "Merced"), Navelorange worm control. Nonpareil which is the standard for the industry is papershelled and susceptible to injury.
Control is being achieved by methods of IPM, harvest management, timely application of insecticides and shift to more resistant varieties as "Carmel", "Mission", "Padre" and "Butte".
All harvesting is mechanized. Aflatoxina is a potential problem but is kept under control by effective screening of now affected kernels during processing. Recent studies carried out at the University of California showed that Aflatoxina B1 does not cause cancer in man. Nevertheless Aflatoxina as related to dried fruits and nuts is a concern in marketing.
In 1966 the almond growing area was about 220.000 ha; in 1970, it increased to about 280.000 ha; in 1975 it was about 440.000 ha and today it is 620.000 ha. The Ministry of Agriculture Fisheries and Food in making this estimation also took into account about 10 million isolated trees regular, which account for 60.000 ha. In 1992 production reached 80.000 tons of shelled product and the average related to the last few years (1991-1995) was 53.000 tons.
The most important areas where almond is produced are the provinces of the Balearic Islands, Zaragoza, Tarragona, Lleida, Granada, Almeria, Málaga, Alicante, Castellon de la Plana, Valencia, Murcia and Albacete.
The most widely cultivated varieties are 'Marcona' and 'Desmayo Largueta', which, account for 40% of the spanish current production. Other cultivated varieties are 'Desmayo Rojo', 'Garrigues', 'Ramillete' and 'Atocha'. In the Balearic Islands cultivars like 'Jordi' and 'Vivot' are grown. In most modern orchards, 'Ferragnes', 'Cristomorto' and 'Ferraduel' have also been planted. Recently Spanish bred cultivars like 'Guara', 'Moncayo', 'Masbovera', 'Glorieta' and 'Francolí' are being planted.
At the moment the Spanish production is only correlated to the large almond planted areas, while the production per hectare is very low. However, in new irrigated orchards, production is very high and competitive with American cropping (1.0-1.2 tons/ha of shelled almond).
Various problems affect Spanish almond: non-homogeneous production, low production in dry areas and small farm size. Also, in the new orchards the pollination problem is a strong constraint.
Although Spain is today the second producer of almond in the world, it is also an important importer (16.000 tons).
Almond cultivation in Tunisia dates back to the Punic-Roman period. The Tunisian production in the last 10 years has been estimated to be about 6.000 tons of shelled product, most of which exported. The almond is mostly cultivated in the region of Sfax, around Bon Cape, in the north of the county and also in the pre-desertic area (Kairuan, Kasserine, Feriana, etc.).
Each growing area presents particular characteristics. The area of Sfax is characterised by mild winters and low rainfall (200 mm); plant spacing is 12-13 per 12-13 m. The most important varieties are 'Achaak' and 'Ksontin', as wellas 'Mazzetto' (probably 'Tuono') in the new orchards. In the area of Cape Bon, with a rainfall of 500 mm, planting is more intensive (200 trees/ha). The varieties present are the local 'Heuch Ben Smail', 'Blanco Khooukhi' and 'Abiol de Ras Djebel'. In the flat area and in the hills of the northern part of the country, where the rainfall is about 400-600 mm, the winters cold and summers hot, the best varieties are 'Tuono', 'Ferragnes', 'Monaco', 'Peerless', 'Fournat de Brezenaud' and 'Desmayo Largueta'. The plant density is about 150 trees/ha. In the north-west area, with a rainfall of about 350-550 mm, 'Ferragnes', 'Ferraduel' and 'Tuono' are cultivated.
Most of the Tunisian production is locally marketed. Unfortunately, almond cultivation in Tunisia is a low-cash product because of the very low production per hectare due to the unfavourable climatic conditions. However, Tunisian production could be attractive to the European market, because of the early ripening of the fruit.
The commercial production of Morocco is about 6.000 tons in kernels, marketed only locally. It is impossible to quantify the area cultivated in Morocco. The species is also present in the Atlantic forest area. Hence, the production is not homogeneous; it is mixed with bitter almond, and utilised only for processing.
Recently an important new plantation rationale is been operated by SODEA, with varieties such as 'Marcona', 'Ne Plus Ultra', 'Ferragnes' and 'Ferraduel'.
Portuguese production is about 3.600 tons (3.000-5.000 tons), concentrated in two areas, Algarve in the south, and Trasos Montes and Alto Douro in the north-east.
The production is not very qualified because it is represented by mixed local and traditional cultivars and seedlings.
Turkish production is about 2.500 tons (2.000-3.000); it is not possible to quantify but is very important for the local market. The most important producing areas are located in Izmir and in the south-east, near the Sirian border.
Almond cultivation in this country dates back a long time and is traditional; it has only recently been developed. In the new areas, the most important varieties are 'Texas', 'Troito' (probably 'Tuono') and 'Retsou'. Lately, the cultivar 'Ferragnes' has also been introduced. The most important area is Crete; new orchards have been planted in Tessalia, also with irrigation.
Production in Greece has increased in the last few years and at present is around 12.000 tons.
Italian production has decreased down the years. It is presently about 14.000 tons (1991-1995) and represents only 4.2% of the world almond crops. The orchards are very old. Recently, a few new orchards have been planted with selected varieties such as Tuono', 'Ferragnes', 'Filippo Ceo' and 'Falsa Barese'.
The Iranian commercial production varies around 6.000 tons of shelled product, obtained from both orchards and scattered trees.
The producing area is practically located in the North-West of Iran, in the Azerbaijan (Tabriz) region, where it covers an important role in the agricultural economy of the region.
Nearly all the cultivated almond trees have been obtained from seed and thus show serious problems regarding quality and normalization of the production particular for what concerns the exports requirements.
Almond marketable world production in the last fifty years - tons