Sunday, June 12, 2011

Almonds, a nutty industry.

I love peanut butter. I mean, LOVE. Especially smeared on a toasted English muffin or on sliced apple – amazing! And there is nothing better than following each tasty bite with some piping hot coffee. It totally makes my morning.

Despite my infatuation with peanut butter, I’ve been trying to change things up. Having exactly the same foods every day means that I am getting the same nutrition every day – and missing out on the same nutrients. Also, peanuts are technically legumes. The Paleo diet recommends nuts rather than legumes, which contain anti-nutrients.

As I began my quest for a nut butter as awesome as my peanut butter, the first thing I noticed is that, unlike peanut butter, organic nut butters are basically non-existent. Apparently, organic nuts are rare and expensive. Despite the few options, I was able to find Kettle Brand Almond Butter (yup, the same guys who make the chips), Silk Almond Milk, and Pacific Natural Foods Organic Almond Milk (yay, organic!). I also picked up squeeze packs of Justin’s Almond Butter; sadly, stores near me don’t sell the jars. Later, I sat down with a glass of almond milk and started reading about almond production. What I found kinda made me not want to drink it anymore.

In 2004, there were two relatively small salmonella outbreaks that were linked back to almonds. Without any real pressure from consumers or the government, the Almond Board of California – the trade organization for US almonds - recommended to the USDA that all almonds be pasteurized to eliminate contamination. As of 2007, all domestic almonds must be pasteurized before they can be sold.

Quoting the Almond Board of California (ABC) website, the following are allowed methods of pasteurization:

  • Oil roasting, dry roasting, and blanching: These traditional processes provide the necessary reduction in harmful bacteria while providing consumers with the same product they have come to know and love.

  • Steam processing: These treatments are surface treatments only. Multiple proprietary steam treatments are currently being utilized by the industry which meets USDA Organic Program standards. The short bursts of steam do not impact the nutritional integrity of the almond. These treatments do not “cook” proteins or destroy vitamins and minerals. The nutritional and sensory characteristics of the almonds remain unchanged when treated with steam.

  • Propylene Oxide (PPO) treatment: PPO is also a surface treatment which has been approved for use on foods since 1958, and is widely used for a variety of foods such as other nuts, cocoa powder and spices. PPO is very effective at reducing harmful bacteria on almonds and poses no risk to consumers. In fact, PPO residue dissipates after treatment. The effectiveness and safety of this process was revalidated in July 2006, when PPO underwent a stringent re-registration process with the Environmental Protection Agency. The EPA confirmed that PPO poses no health risk. The treatment does not affect the nutritional and sensory characteristics of almonds.

Despite the ABC claims that PPO is perfectly safe, the European Union has banned PPO on both domestic and imported almonds*. It is also considered a “probable carcinogen” and has many harmful side effects. Supposedly, the PPO dissipates and should not reach harmful levels in almonds. It is still an unsettling thought that this toxic chemical is in my food. I’d certainly prefer to avoid it if possible, but that’s harder than you might think.

Because steam processing and PPO treatments are surface treatments, almonds treated in these fashions can still be labeled as raw. That means, when you purchase almonds, almond butter, or almond milk, there is no way to know how the almonds were processed.

Pasteurization increases the cost involved with producing almonds. Using the steam method, the only method allowed for organic almonds, is apparently more expensive than the PPO treatment. Perhaps that explains why so few organic almonds are produced compared to peanuts; it’s simply too expensive. In addition, imported almonds are not required to undergo any treatments whatsoever, making them more competitive with domestically produced almonds.

The pasteurization requirement came after salmonella contamination sickened people. How do almonds get salmonella in the first place? Animals carry the bacteria that can sicken people; almonds don’t. According to the agricultural extension of Rutgers University, “possible sources of contamination in the field or packinghouse could include use of contaminated irrigation or wash water (from a bacterially contaminated well or pond), use of improperly composted manure in the field, or handling of the produce by sick field or packinghouse workers.”

Basically, if we were more careful with our produce, salmonella contamination simply wouldn’t be an issue. In our pursuit of a cheaper product, we allow (and in effect, force) growers and producers to cut corners. And for some reason, an acceptable solution to this problem is to add more chemicals to make up for poor production practices. As consumers, we now have very few choices. We can pay the nearly $20 per pound for organic almonds or accept the risk of PPO.

As for almond butter, there are few options, all of them considerably more expensive than organic peanut butter. Strangely, despite the fact that peanuts were linked to a much worse salmonella outbreak than has ever been caused by almonds, I found no indication that pasteurization is required for peanuts.

I found a few retailers who sell organic almond butter:
Quail Oaks Ranch
Once Again Nut Butter

In addition, Justin’s Nut Butters only uses steam-treated almonds. I know this because Justin’s website contains sourcing information on every ingredient in every product they sell. From farm locations to food miles, Justin’s is clearly committed to using sustainable ingredients and practices AND making that information available to the public. Justin even held a sustainable squeeze packet summit in an effort to find a greener alternative to his single-serving nut butter packets. You can follow his progress on his blog. Justin’s almond butter comes in 16 oz. jars for just under $10. Other products include peanut and almond butters either plain, with honey, or with chocolate, maple almond butter, chocolate hazelnut butter, and ORGANIC PEANUT BUTTER CUPS! You can purchase some products online or do a retailer search.

I will definitely be more careful of what almond products I buy in the future. I prefer to avoid PPO, and I would always rather support smaller organic farms that employ more sustainable practices. Hence, I’ll be sticking with organic almond products or buying from companies like Justin’s that are choosing steam instead. Either way, my morning coffee and nut butter ritual is here to stay!

* - I was unable to confirm via the EUs website that PPO-treated almonds have been banned. However, the ban was mentioned in virtually every article I read on the subject of PPO use in almond production.


  1. Lots of great information! I too am an almond butter addict. I recently discovered Justin's Nut Butters as they were the perfect size for a lunch on-the-go.

  2. THANK you for this report and your work to do it. That our healthy food choices are SO EXPENSIVE here In USA and world over is shameful and wrong. Food Air Water All people, and all life must have them. It takes work to make this so. Good wishes to all in the quest.

  3. Oh my word!!!!, just came across your site and am droooooooling!!!! Am definitely gona try every recipe. This will be the first time I will be tasting almond butter as its not common to get here in south Africa. Probably cause almonds are quite expensive here.Almond Exporter