They're pasteurized, which means all "raw" almonds have been cooked a little
If you've ever spent any time reading about food on the internet, chances are good you've come across at least a couple articles extolling the health benefits of raw almonds. But those raw almonds you're smugly soaking in water à la Gwyneth Paltrow probably aren't as raw as you think they are. "You assume they’re pulling it off of the tree, they’re putting it in the bag, and then I’m eating it," says Jordyn Gatti, founder of Better Almond Butter. But that's not the case in the United States. By law, every single almond that is produced in the United States must be pasteurized—even if it’s labeled as “raw."
That labeling doesn't make a ton of sense though, because pasteurization is, by definition, the process of heating up a food to kill all potentially harmful bacteria. That heating process would seemingly negate the whole concept of "raw," which most people take to mean "uncooked." So what are you eating when you eat a raw almond? And what does "raw" mean when it comes to almonds?
Well, according to the Almond Board of California, “raw” almonds are pasteurized almonds that are not roasted, and almond farmers are allowed to use this nomenclature on labels, confusing as it might be for consumers. According to Gatti, this convention is probably part of the reason more people don’t know about almond pasteurization in the United States. “That’s been a huge factor in keeping the veil over the eyes of the public, because you’re not going to question ‘raw,’” he explains.
There's ostensibly a good reason to pasteurize almonds, instead of shipping them raw. Much like raw milk, raw almonds can harbor food-borne diseases that make people sick. There were actually a series of salmonella outbreaks in the early 2000s, linked to almonds from California (which provides over 80 percent of the world's almonds) that sickened hundreds of individuals in the US and Canada.
It was after those outbreaks that "the California almond community conducted research and learned that there is a low level presence of salmonella occurring naturally in the soil across the whole California almond growing region, which resulted in a risk of low level salmonella contamination on almonds," explains a spokesperson for the Almond Board of California to Extra Crispy in an email. As a result, the Almond Board lobbied the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to implement a law that would require that all almonds from California to be pasteurized; the rule has been in effect since September 2007.
And over the last decade, almond pasteurization has become standard practice, but most consumers still don't know that the almond they're eating has been pasteurized or how that happens. And there are issues with both of the most common methods of pasteurization if a consumer is looking for a truly raw almond. Steam pasteurization, for example, is a process by which the almonds are blasted with heat from, as the name suggests, steam in order to kill any potentially harmful bacteria—but a steam-pasteurized almond has basically been cooked at 165°F, and therefore can't be truly raw, even if the nut never gets roasted before it gets to you.
The most common way to pasteurize almonds in the United States, according to research from Food Safety News, is with a chemical: propylene oxide, or PPO. The freshly picked almonds are gassed with PPO, which kills any errant bacteria, and though this method is approved by the US Food and Drug Administration, PPO is categorized as possibly carcinogenic to humans by the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer. The Almond Board of California does insist that, “no, there are no side effects when it’s used in this safe way—as a surface treatment for effective pasteurization.”
So not only are the raw almonds in the grocery store not actually raw, they might've also been sprayed with a possibly carcinogenic gas. And yet, according to USDA regulations, these nuts can still be labeled as “raw” even if they've undergone this chemical treatment. If you're concerned about consuming PPO, check the label to see if the manufacturer makes any mention of its preferred pasteurization process—but Gatti notes, "Only recently have I started seeing, on packaging, 'Hey, these are steam-pasteurized almonds.'"
To get your hands on raw almonds in the United States that haven't been pasteurized by either steam or PPO, you must import them. This quest to find truly raw, unpasteurized almonds is why Gatti's company, currently based at Foodworks Brooklyn in Bushwick, Brooklyn, makes its almond butter with nuts from Marcona, Spain.
Fortunately, Marcona almonds—with their rounder shape, softer texture, and sweeter taste, closer to that of marzipan than a conventional American almond—are becoming ever more popular Stateside—and as Americans learn about almond pasteurization, there's an increase in demand for these unpasteurized products, and a desire to know what, exactly, is happening to "raw" almonds along their way to market.