Can you eat raw almonds? Well, that’s actually a pretty complicated question to answer.
Right off the bat, let’s get one thing straight: there are two kinds of almonds, sweet and bitter. The bitter almond is highly poisonous when eaten raw. However, selling unrefined bitter almonds is illegal in the country, so you shouldn’t worry too much about accidentally buying them in the supermarket. Bitter almonds, however, lose their toxicity when they’re processed. Sweet almonds, on the other hand, aren’t poisonous at all and are safe to eat raw. However, for safety reasons, they’re usually processed.
In fact, all of the “raw” almonds we see in the supermarket have been processed in some form, usually through pasteurization. This does two things:
- It makes sweet almonds easier to digest, not to mention more palatable as the boiling process brings out its natural sugars.
- It makes bitter almonds edible. Bitter almonds contain glycoside amygdalin which, when ingested, turns into hydrogen cyanide. The boiling/heating process of pasteurization leaches out the glycoside amygdalin and makes bitter almonds non-poisonous.
Again, unrefined/unprocessed bitter almonds are illegal to sell in the U.S.; given that, wild bitter almond plants abound, so if you see one in the woods, don’t just automatically assume they’re safe to eat! Pasteurize them first, or better yet, leave them alone for the bears to deal with.
Now that we’ve cleared that up, let’s talk about whether raw almonds are better than roasted almonds.
Almonds are Very Good For You
Whether roasted or raw, nuts in general are very healthy; they’re packed with vitamins and easy to eat, making them the perfect snack. Nuts like almonds are full of healthy fats, are a great source of protein, and are extremely rich in fiber. Almonds, especially, are full of anti-oxidants and nutrients that can help lower blood sugar, lower cholesterol, and has even been shown to be very effective at lowering blood pressure.
So now the question is, are raw almonds better than roasted almonds?
Eating Almonds Raw or Roasted Doesn’t Change Their Nutrients (Sort Of)
Despite the claims of some producers/bloggers, roasting almonds doesn’t actually make them any healthier than they already are. More often than not, raw and roasted almonds have very similar nutritional composition, albeit with minor differences.
To be fair, roasting does change the chemical composition of almonds somewhat. Obviously, it changes their color, making them darker (thanks to the Maillard reaction caramelizing the sugars in the nut) and making them drier. The latter makes the roasted almonds so much crunchier than raw almonds, which are something a lot of people appreciate (not to mention make them almost irresistible as a snack!).
Dry-roasted almonds also have slightly higher fat and calorie content than raw almonds; however, the change in amount is minimal to the point of being negligible. However, because roasting changes the chemical structure of the almond, polyunsaturated fats within the nuts become susceptible to oxidation, leading to a slight decrease in the overall anti-oxidant levels of the almond.
Oil-roasted almonds, despite the higher amount of fat in its processing, only have slightly higher amounts of fat than its raw or dry-roasted counterparts. This is thanks to the fact that Almonds are already high in fat, which means they won’t be able to absorb a lot of excess fat.
So Why Roast Almonds?
Simple: for better taste and texture. As mentioned, the Maillard reaction caramelizes the innate sugars inside the almond, giving them a rounder, more robust flavor. Meanwhile, the dry heat that roasting provides draws out most of the moisture inside the almond, making them drier and crunchier.
However, while it does increase the pleasure of eating almonds, roasting them does come with a few drawbacks, for example:
Roasting Almonds Can Damage Its Healthy Fats
Almonds are naturally high in polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats. These two types of fat are considered good fats and have been shown to be effective in lowering the risk of heart disease, not to mention lowering overall blood cholesterol.Unfortunately, the high temperatures and prolonged cooking times during roasting can have a negative effect on these healthy fats.
Polyunsaturated fats, for example, are prone to damage when exposed to high heats for too long. The heat damages the cells of the polyunsaturated fats, making them susceptible to oxidization, which in turn can lead to free radicals forming in the almonds.Besides that, oxidized fat can go rancid, giving the almonds a very bad taste and smell.
Of course, controlling the roasting process so that the almonds are not exposed to too much heat for too long a time can mitigate this. Roasting almonds under low-to-medium temperatures can lessen the risk of damaging the fats within the nut, thereby minimizing the creation of free radicals and stops the fat from going rancid.
Roasted Almonds Might Contain Harmful Chemicals
As mentioned earlier, the Maillard reaction is what gives roasted almonds their irresistible aroma, deep color, and amazing flavor. The Maillard reaction is the process wherein the natural sugars in a particular type of food reacts to asparagine, an amino acid that’s activated by temperatures above 248°F. This interaction between the sugars and the amino acids produces that “roasted” color in roasted almonds and creates a more complex flavor. However, this can also produce harmful chemicals.
The Maillard reaction has been known to produce the chemical acrylamide. Acrylamide is an organic compound that is a precursor for flocculation agents and organic solvents. It has been known to cause cancer in animals when consumed in high doses. Of course, the acrylamide that might be formed in roasting almonds is extremely minimal; however, long-term exposure does increase the risk of forming cancer cells in humans.
While acrylamide can form in any type of food that undergoes the Maillard reaction, almonds are more susceptible to acrylamide formation because of its high asparagine. This amino acid is essential in the creation of glycoproteins and plays an important role in eliminating ammonia from the body. However, when heated and when reacting to sugar, asparagine can produce acrylamide.
With that being said, does this mean that raw almonds are the safer choice? Well, not exactly
Raw Almonds Might Have Bacteria or Fungi
Like what we said earlier, most, if not all, the almonds you find in the supermarket are processed in some way, either by roasting or by pasteurization. Nonetheless, a lot of people get their almonds via foraging in the woods. Wild almonds come from trees, and while most of them are safe enough to eat, as with anything you take from the wild, it comes with certain risks.
Raw wild nuts, like almonds or hazelnuts or even pecans, can sometimes have harmful bacteria like E. coli or salmonella, especially if they’re growing on trees that are in or around urban areas. But even packaged “raw” nuts can contain these bacteria, especially if they fall on the ground during harvesting, where they can potentially pick up germs and other undesirable things.
Another toxin that’s been seen in raw nuts like almonds, walnuts, pecans, and pistachios is Aflatoxin. Aflatoxin is a poisonous carcinogen that can wreak havoc on your body. Fungi that can sometimes contaminate wild nuts usually produce this toxin and can be very difficult to kill even with pasteurization or roasting.
Of course, improper harvesting, storage, or just plain negligence by producers or foragers usually brings about most of the salmonella or Aflatoxin cases in the country. It won’t hurt you, however, to soak your almonds overnight before eating them.
So to answer your question: can you eat raw almonds? Technically yes, but it’s better if you give them a good soak (usually overnight) to get rid of the skin (which contains tannin, a chemical that prevents nutrient absorption), or even boil them to get rid of any toxins. Roasting almonds give them amazing flavor, color, and aroma, but try not to cook them for too long at too high a heat.