I love almonds (and nuts in general actually) but I’m not the only one as these crunchy little numbers have been a delicacy throughout history. They originated in China before spreading throughout Europe. And speaking of loving almonds, the ancient Romans would give newlyweds almonds as a fertility charm. Even now sugar-coated almonds are given as bomboniere (gifts) to guests at Italian weddings and symbolise health, wealth, happiness and long life as well as fertility. I always thought the tooth-cracking coating spoiled a perfectly good almond but the sugar itself is also symbolic of wishing guests a sweet life.
Despite their charming reputation in times past, almonds – like all nuts – have been tarred by the fat-phobia brush, deeming them too naughty to enjoy because of their high oil content. However in the case of almonds and nuts in general, nutrition science is the bearer of glad tidings. The type of fat in almonds is ‘good’ fat, meaning it is mostly unsaturated and therefore good for health. And to make this story’s ending even happier, the good fats are combined with a super-healthy combination of protein, fibre, vitamins and minerals (particularly vitamin E, magnesium and potassium), and beneficial phytochemicals.
Almonds contain little carbohydrate so they can’t be tested for GI, however eating them with high GI foods will lower the GI of the meal or snack, which is great news and adds further to their charm. Even more exciting is the research indicating that not all of the calories (kilojoules) are fully absorbed from eating almonds, probably due to their physical structure that prevents some of the oil from being absorbed. While this does not represent a get-out-of-jail-free card for overeating, it does suggest we can relax a bit about the numbers and focus on eating almonds regularly for their many health benefits. To name a few, almonds have been shown to lower LDL (bad) cholesterol, improve insulin sensitivity and enhance satiety (feeling of fullness), all of which support sensible snacking and metabolic health.
Dietary surveys show most of us don’t eat enough nuts to obtain these health benefits but how much do we need? The scientific evidence suggests we aim for one to two handfuls (30–60g) a day of nuts which gives us plenty of opportunity to enjoy a variety of nuts including almonds. Eat them anyway you like - raw or roasted - but leave the chocolate-coated ones to special occasions and buy your almonds unsalted, and of course you get more fibre and phytochemicals eating the skin.
You can roast your own almonds quite simply (see Anneka's recipe). They’re great to eat on their own but they add wonderful flavour and crunch to stir-fries and salads, they provide real ‘oomph’ to trail mix and they’re so versatile as to be delicious in desserts too. Witness the delight of friand made with almond meal, or the gorgeous crunch of slivered almonds in a crumble. You can blanch your own almonds for making sweet treats by placing raw almonds in a bowl of boiling water for one minute, rinse under cold water, drain, dry and peel the skin off. These pale and naked beauties can be crushed, sliced or pulverised in a blender or food processor to make almond meal which you can then add to fruit smoothies or cookies, or use to make cakes and muffins.
And after all that effort it’s good to know you can freeze any unused almond meal for another day. Of course if you’re really keen you can make marzipan – the famously indulgent confection used to make sweets, hideous miniature faux fruits (sorry if you like them but I think they’re awful) or rolled out to make white icing for celebration cakes.
And after all that sweet talk you’re probably looking for a dietary ‘detox’. You may have heard the hype about activated almonds being the ultimate health food, but what are they? Essentially activated almonds are soaked overnight, rinsed and slow roasted on a low heat for several hours. Enthusiasts say this process deactivates enzyme inhibitors in the outer layer making the almonds more digestible and their nutrients more available. Looking at the science it becomes clear this is more a good story to justify charging a lot more money for them. Enjoy them by all means but I think I’ll stick to the regular lazy almonds.
Gosh, what a great all-rounder: taste, versatility, health, history and symbolism. I think I’ll go and have a handful now, and I’m definitely making Anneka’s cake!
Nicole Senior is an Accredited Practising Dietitian and Nutritionist, author, speaker, consultant, and commentator with an interest in how we can learn to love good food that's good for us.