Almonds have been popular since ancient times and across many parts of the world. Despite being known as a nut, they are actually a drupe, with an outer hull and hard shell with a seed inside. Regardless whether you call it a nut or a seed, there are a lot of things to do with almonds and a lot of health benefits you can get from eating them. Here’s a few to inspire you.
Introduction to the almond
The ‘nut’ we know as the almond grows on a deciduous tree that has white or pale pink flowers. They are best grown in Mediterranean-style climates with warm and dry summers then mild, wet winters. The tree is a member of the Prunus genus of trees, meaning it is related to plums, cherries and peaches.
Despite being so well suited to the Mediterranean climate, the tree started out life in Central Asian countries such as Iran, India and Azerbaijan, where it was known as badam. As people traded with Mediterranean civilisations, the almond spread and found a fertile new home. It was then spread across Europe, other parts of Asia and eventually to North American.
Wild almonds can be toxic as the fruit contains glycoside amygdalin. When crushed, chewed or injured, the seed transforms this into prussic acid (hydrogen cyanide) so wild almonds aren’t fit for human consumption. The almonds we all eat are from domesticated varieties that don’t contain this deadly toxin. Those different varieties also explain the difference between sweet and bitter almonds.
Health benefits of almonds
Like other nuts, almonds are considered high in calories and ‘energy-dense’ but also contain a host of other nutrients and chemical compounds that are beneficial to the human body. For example, ¼ cup of almonds contain:
- 207 calories
- 5g protein
- 5g fibre
- 7g carbohydrates
- 5g sugar
- 16mg Vitamin E (61% RDA)
- 4mg riboflavin (44% RDA)
- 8mg manganese (44% RDA)
- 97 mg magnesium (36% RDA)
- 172mg phosphorus (29% RDA)
- 96mg calcium (9.5% RDA)
- 33mg iron (4% RDA)
Almonds contain the same kind of healthy monounsaturated fatty acids that are found in olive oil as well as antioxidants that have been shown to help with heart health. One is called flavonoids, a plant-based compound that is in the skin of the almond and provides Vitamin E to reduce health of the arteries and reduce inflammation
Also in almonds are compounds such as arginine, copper, manganese and calcium that all help with heart health. Studies also indicate that almond compounds can help reduce bad cholesterol of LDL, especially in people with high cholesterol and diabetes.
Almonds are classed as ‘brain foods’ because they contain riboflavin and L-carnitine, two nutrients that help boost brain function and prevent cognitive decline. This is one reason why older people are encouraged to eat almonds – another being their anti-inflammatory properties.
Almonds are popular in many natural skin products and for good reason – they contain both Vitamin E and antioxidants that reduce the signs of ageing and nourish the skin. There are also antioxidants shown to help reduce the risk of skin cancer and to reverse oxidative stress caused by poor diet and UV exposure.
Anything with healthy fats and dietary fibre can help with weight loss because they persuade us that we are full and don’t need to eat anything else. Their high amount of calories makes you feel full for longer and also have a stabilising effect on blood sugar levels, avoiding the cravings for something sweet.
Almonds are a source of probiotic components that help the digestive system as well as boosting healthy bacterial growth in the gut and detoxifying the system. Studies have shown an improvement in the ‘intestinal microbiota profile’ when people regularly eat almonds, especially when including their skins.
Bone and tooth health
Finally, trace minerals in almonds are good for bone and tooth health including magnesium and phosphorus. This help maintains strong bones and teeth as well as helping to fight cavities, tooth decay and the chance of osteoporosis.
Things to do with almonds
People have written books on things to do with almonds and there are probably thousands. So, I thought rather than go into lots of details, I would look at some general ideas about how you can get almonds into your diet in tasty and fun ways.
- Almond milk
There’s a lot of talk about almond milk at the moment, the pros and cons of it. I’ve tried it myself in smoothies and it works well. It doesn’t have the same benefits as cow’s milk but if you want a dairy-free alternative or, like me, just enjoy trying something different in smoothies, it is definitely beneficial. By using almond milk in smoothies and other dishes and drinks, you get the benefits of the almonds while not having to eat the actual nut if that’s not your thing.
A simple example of an Almond Milk and Berry Smoothie from The Food Network combines ½ banana, ¼ cup blueberries, ¼ cup strawberries and ¼ cup mango with two cups of almond milk for a simple, nutritious smoothie. Just pop all the ingredients into a blender and mix until smooth.
- Almond flour
Almonds can also be ground into a flour or meal that is very beneficial because it uses the whole of the nut – including those nutrient-rich skins. It is then easy to use it in a host of recipes in place of normal flour such as Almond Flour Pancakes, waffles or even in recipes such as Paleo Banana Bread.
Perhaps its most famous use is in marzipan made by combining it with honey or sugar and sometimes with a little almond oil or extract to add to the taste. Marzipan is used in cakes, under the iced layer as well as to make chocolate covered sweets and even little fruits and decorations for cakes. It is also used in stollen cakes, though sometimes almond paste is used instead.
- Almond paste
Almond paste is made from ground almonds or almond meal mixed with sugar and a little cooking oil, eggs, heavy cream or corn syrup depending on the use for it. It is often used to fill pastries and chocolates. Famous examples of dishes containing it include bear claw pastries in the US and a number of biscuits and muffins in Sweden, where it is known as mandelmassa. It is used in almond croissants in France and in Sweetheart cakes in China.
- Almond syrup
Almond syrup, also known as Orgeat, is used in a number of cocktails as well as in coffees, to flavour sodas and even in cakes. It is often added to a number of different types of coffee to give it that unmistakable nutty flavour. An example of a cocktail would be the Polish Angel that combines a dash of almond syrup with 1 part vodka, 1 part apple juice, a dash of lemon juice and champagne to top up.
- Almond oil
Almond oil can be a cooking product and also an essential oil used in beauty products. As a cooking oil, it is available alongside walnut oils and infused oils as alternative ways to cook food. It can be used to cook bread and muffins as well as in salads and even to cook meat or pasta. As a beauty product, it is often used in hand and body lotions and in hair products.
- Whole and blanched almonds
Of course, there’s nothing complicated about eating almonds – you can buy whole and blanched nuts in the supermarkets as well as ground almonds. These are used in many different recipes including Bakewell Tarts and amaretto biscuits. They are also used in many Indian dishes, particularly pasanda-style meals.
Unless you suffer from some kind of allergy to almonds, there’s no reason not to get them into your diet. Whether you opt for almond milk in smoothies, ground almonds in a favourite cake or even cooking with almond oil, there are hundreds of ways to include these beneficial nuts. And they bring their unique taste to whatever you do with them that makes them enjoyable as well as healthy.