Benefits of raw nuts are well-known and millions of people eat them daily either as snacks or adding to a variety of dishes. However, are the raw nuts you eat actually raw? One really can’t be sure about this nowadays as there are various stipulations about how this type of produce must be processed. In truth, the vast majority of the packages you can buy in stores contain pasteurized nuts.
On one hand, this definitely makes the food safer as pasteurization destroys dangerous bacteria and some toxins. Organizations responsible for food quality control use this as their reasoning when they explain why this form of processing is mandatory for some products.
On the other hand, such treatment affects the chemical structure of the produce itself. Those who oppose nut pasteurization claim that it also ‘kills’ nutritional benefits of the food.
Both sides have some sound arguments, so it’s difficult for a regular person to understand whom to listen. As this matter is very important health-wise, we’ll try to explain all the pros and cons of pasteurization as well as risks of foregoing it. You can use this information to make an informed decision on the subject.
Why Pasteurized Nuts Are Good
First of all, you need to understand that mandatory pasteurization isn’t a whim of some bureaucrat. This rule aims to reduce the risks presented by raw produce, which can save lives in some situations.
Note that this process also increases shelf-life of numerous foods. Many businesses resort to it in order to increase their profit even if pasteurization isn’t necessary under the current regulations.
However, when it comes to nuts, there are some very good reasons that pushed officials to demand a thorough food processing. This mainly pertains to almonds as, at the moment, they are the only type of nut that must be pasteurized in the US. This particular rule was the main cause of the debate regarding raw vs. pasteurized nuts.
Everything started around 2001, when one of the Salmonella outbreaks in Canada was traced back to raw almonds. Over the following years, a few more outbreaks were caused by these nuts grown in California. Infected produce came from different growers and no measures taken after finding the source of the poisoning managed to solve the problem effectively.
Eventually, the Government realized that major changes are required in order to stop the spreading of disease. The USDA (US Department of Agriculture), CDC (Centers for Disease Control), California Almond Board, and FDA (Food and Drug Administration) combined their forces and developed a piece of legislation enacted on the 1st September of 2007. According to this law, all California-grown almonds must be pasteurized.
This process reduces the amount of Salmonella bacteria significantly. The approved methods to achieve this result are:
- Steaming that can get the surface temperature of the nuts to 200F.
- Fumigation with propylene oxide gas (PPO).
Are almonds the only pasteurized nuts?
Technically, any producer can get their nuts pasteurized as there is no law AGAINST it. However, there also isn’t a law mandating this in regards to anything but almonds grown in California.
There are some talks regarding cashews, but this is caused by a completely different issue. Cashew nuts are covered with a very thick shell, which contains urushiol, a toxic poison oak allergen. The kernel itself is safe from the substance, but if the nut isn’t opened with extreme care, the toxin can get onto it.
To prevent this, manufacturers use steam to force the shells open up without the risk of damaging the kernel. As a result, the majority of cashews on the market are, in fact, pasteurized. Although, some producers claim that they shell these nuts using different techniques.
Hazelnuts also fall into the group of mostly pasteurized nuts in the US. Growers do this in order to reduce the risk of disease and prevent the repeat of the ‘almond situation’ and subsequent FDA restrictions.
Dangers and Disadvantages of Pasteurization
The most important thing to understand when talking about the potential dangers of pasteurization is that different methods carry different risks. Treatment with PPO, while officially accepted, is definitely not the best way to make nuts safer.
Even the FDA recognizes that nuts pasteurized using this method cannot be deemed ‘organic’. PPO is a highly toxic and flammable compound that was used as a racing fuel before being banned for safety reasons.
If you care about your health, be sure to look out for PPO treatment signs on the label of any food and try to avoid products that come into contact with this chemical.
Steam processing, on the other hand, is considered perfectly safe. There is some research, which indicates that exposure to high temperatures changes the chemical constitution of lipids in the nuts and makes them ‘bad’ for health. However, steam pasteurized nuts stay hot for not more than 60 seconds. Studies indicate that the changes occurring during this time are insignificant and aren’t hazardous to human health.
Roasting (oil and dry) can also be used to pasteurize nuts as long as the kernels are heated up to or over 200F.
Does pasteurization reduce the nutritional value of nuts?
Diminished nutritional content is the main argument used by the ‘anti-pasteurization’ advocates. They claim that treated produce severely lacks in nutrients and as such cannot be considered ‘healthy food’.
However, the truth of the matter is a bit more complicated. There is no arguing the fact that pasteurization really destroys some amount of nutrients and alters some chemicals in the nuts. This effect cannot be prevented as exposure to heat causes a variety of compounds to break down.
Despite this, the actual nutritional value of nuts isn’t ‘destroyed’ by this process. It is merely reduced, although the exact amount of this reduction is difficult to calculate. Experts from the FDA and other relevant food quality control organizations state that the loss of nutritional content in pasteurized nuts is small and doesn’t outweigh the extra safety that comes from destroying dangerous bacteria and pathogens.
How to Tell If Nuts Have Been Pasteurized
Usually, this should be indicated on the label. However, almonds in the US may be called raw even despite the fact that they’ve been through the pasteurization process.
One effective method to determine if your nuts are truly raw is soaking them. Treated almonds cannot sprout, so they will only grow moldy in a few days. This is a big loss as soaking and sprouting nuts makes them release various beneficial chemicals.
Should You Eat Raw or Pasteurized Nuts?
There isn’t an ultimately ‘right’ answer to this question, so every person should decide for themselves. Pasteurization indeed destroys a variety of dangerous elements that can cause diseases. It also prolongs shelf-life of the products, which means you can save money by buying nuts in bulk.
At the same time, it reduces the nutritional content of the food, so you don’t get all the health benefits nuts should provide. In addition, the PPO pasteurization method is a danger in itself.
Consider all these facts before making the final decision on the matter and choose whether you want to take a risk with raw nuts or would you rather deprive your diet of some nutrients.
Where to Find and How to Store Non-Pasteurized Nuts
If you choose to go for truly raw nuts, you need to know how to find them in the US. There are several ways to do this:
- Buy from small organic farms.
Note that the FDA requires mandatory pasteurization of almonds from growers who produce more than a specified amount of nuts. Many farmers don’t fall under this regulation, so you might be able to buy non-pasteurized California almonds on the nearest market. Some of these producers even offer their goods online. However, you must remember that raw, shelled nuts don’t keep for long.
- Buy imported nuts.
The regulations about the import of non-pasteurized nuts aren’t as strict, so you can find packaged, untreated kernels from Asia, Spain, and other regions. Again, you must take note of the expiration date and study the label carefully. Even if they aren’t pasteurized, these products might be treated by different means to prolong shelf-life.
Pasteurized nuts can keep for 6 months or more if you store them in an airtight container and put it in a cool and dark place. Unfortunately, raw nuts will go rancid in a few weeks due to fresh oils in the kernel. You can extend their life by storing them in the fridge. However, even then, it’s not advised to keep them for more than several months.
Nuts are an amazing food group as they provide you with a wide range of essential nutrients (even when pasteurized). Therefore, you should decide whether you prefer them raw, steamed, or roasted and make sure there is always a handful of nuts in your daily meal plan.