The Fearless Flyer, which is Trader Joe’s monthly advertorial, describes them like this:

“We sell truckloads of almonds at Trader Joe’s, and the best sellers, by far, are our Raw California Almonds.  These are Supreme grade, Nonpareil almonds, the highest-quality almonds grown in California and the variety for which the Golden State is famous.”

The bold emphasis was not added by us. That’s how they wrote it. Apparently they are really trying to play up the “raw” aspect, which they admit is their bestselling version. (1)

Maybe it wouldn’t be so popular if people knew the truth. While not illegal, Trader Joe’s verbiage is highly deceptive and feels like a scam.

Why? Because they are not selling truly raw unadulterated almonds. At least in the opinion of many.

Other stores and brands may not market them so aggressively, but the definition of a “raw” nut is something to consider regardless of who’s selling it.

It doesn’t matter if you are buying another store brand, like almonds from Costco’s Kirkland, Target’s Archer Farms, or Kroger’s Simple Truth. Name brands like Planter’s and Wonderful are not exempt, either.

Exempt from what?

The law. As in, the fact that it’s almost always illegal to sell raw almonds in the United States.

Are raw almonds good for you?

Unroasted bitter almonds are poisonous and unsafe to eat, because each nut contains 4 to 9 mg of cyanide. Eating 10 to 20 may be lethal. The bitter are illegal in the United States, where only sweet almonds are sold. The latter are nutritious, healthy, and safe to eat, regardless of whether they’re raw or roasted.

Cyanide? Yep. Just like apple seeds and the pits of cherries, apricots, peaches, and plums, there are literally hundreds of foods you eat regularly that contain cyanide, in the form of amygdalin. It’s even found in many commonly consumed beans and grains, like lima and sorghum. (2) (3) (4)

What is amygdalin?

Amygdalin is a naturally occurring molecule that is made of benzaldehyde, D-glucose (sugar) and hydrocyanic acid (hydrogen cyanide). Since the parts are chemically bound together, they only pose a danger to health if the cyanide is separated. The beta-glucosidase enzyme, which is sometimes found in gut flora, has the capability to break it down and release the poison.

amygdalin molecule chemical structureThere is also some amygdalin in raw sweet almonds (<0.05%) which is only a trace amount compared to how much there is in the bitter variety (3-5%). (5)

Interestingly enough, both the sweet and bitter come from the same species of tree, Prunus dulcis. It’s just a single recessive gene being turned on which causes 60x or more cyanide to be produced. (6)

Laetrile, a semi-synthetic form of amygdalin, was patented in 1961 as a potential cancer treatment. However clinical trials in the 70’s found it to be no better than placebo. As such, laetrile and amygdalin were never approved by the FDA. (7)

Despite that fact, there is still a lingering myth that raw almonds and apricot kernels can treat or cure cancer. It’s a hoax that has been debunked by science, yet many natural remedy folks refuse to believe the truth. Proponents call it vitamin B17, even though it’s not a vitamin!

Not only has it been proven to be ineffective for cancer, but usage of laetrile/amygdalin causes cyanide poisoning! (8)

We have strayed a bit from the topic though, because amygdalin content is NOT the reason why even the sweet variety of raw almonds are illegal in the United States.

No, the reason the raw are considered unsafe is because of another health concern…

Why are raw almonds illegal?

Some say it’s a conspiracy to block an alleged cancer cure, but that’s a myth. The real reason raw almonds can’t be sold is because the Almond Board of California pressured the USDA to ban them after two salmonella scares. Fearing a major outbreak would harm the nut’s appeal, the Board’s pasteurization proposal became law in 2007.

As part of Title 7 of U.S. Code of Federal Regulations (CFR), §981.442 became law on March
31, 2007. More commonly known as The Almond Marketing Order, this is the law which requires pasteurization “to reduce potential Salmonella bacteria contamination” prior to shipment. (9)

Here’s how the Almond Board of California instructs growers to treat them and the option for selling non-pasteurized (10):

almond pasteurization law

So if they don’t want to pasteurize them, they have to ship them outside the U.S., Canada, and Mexico!

This rule only applies to California, yet because this crop is so hard to grow elsewhere, it essentially covers the entire domestic production. (11)

Challenging the legality of this in court has been unsuccessful. Nick Koretoff Ranches of Fresno, CA filed suit against the USDA and lost in a 2012 U.S. District Court ruling. (12)

It is believed that this law is hurting organic farmers, because it means unpasteurized raw have to be imported from overseas growers, such as those in Italy and other European countries.

Purity Organics of Kerman, CA estimated that the law had cost their business “at least $250,000 in lost sales the first year and more since.” That was over a decade ago. Just think how today, raw food is exponentially more popular. (13)

This doesn’t mean unpasteurized are unsafe to eat. The prior two cases of salmonella poisoning are no different than what you occasionally see happen with countless foods. And ironically, those two incidents involved conventionally grown. It wasn’t even the organic that were contaminated!

The motive here seems to be more about a multi-billion dollar industry wanting to protect their profits, by ensuring their product’s image remains squeaky clean.

Just think of what happened in years past, when a few people got sick from contaminated spinach. For a while, you had many who were afraid to eat spinach altogether. As a result, sales suffered immensely for a brief period. Even prepackaged salads for sale at the grocery store began using “spinach-free” stickers on the clamshells.

Fearing the same might eventually happen with this nut, you can understand why a big industry would bankroll and lobby for such a law.

After all, they care about sales and the bottom line. Not necessarily what the consumer prefers or the nutritional changes that might result from pasteurization or fumigation with propylene oxide (PPO), which is the other legal way to sell them.

This rule does not apply to any other nut. You really can buy raw and non-gassed walnuts, pistachios, and peanuts (which is actually a legume). At least for the time being.

Is it possible to buy raw anywhere?

You can buy raw almonds in the U.S. but it’s not going to be at stores like Trader Joe’s, Walmart and Meijer. There are two legal loopholes for obtaining them. The first is through direct purchases from a farmer, with no reseller involved. The second way is imported almonds, as those don’t have to be pasteurized or fumigated.

Of course this begs the question, what’s inside those bags you see for sale labeled as “raw” at any random grocery store?

Now that is the part we think is highly deceptive about Trader Joe’s marketing. Just like the word “natural” doesn’t have an official definition in U.S. law, the same holds true for the word “raw.”

Even the average Joe or Jane, who isn’t into nutrition and superfoods, would tell you the definition means it’s not cooked/heated.

Despite the common sense and universal interpretation of the word, the word “raw” has not been defined by the USDA, FDA, or any other government body or court of law.

As a result, you can practically sell anything and call it raw. Even if it differs dramatically from what the average person’s interpretation of the word may be.

Shame on TJ’s for calling them raw, but at least not everyone is duping you.

The store brands from Walmart, Sam’s Club, and Whole Foods are honest and simply call them “natural almonds” which is a fair description to use. They are not calling them raw.

Whole Foods, Sprouts, and other health food stores do sell almonds that are truly raw. Those are the ones that are imported and they are often much more expensive because they’re not from California, which is where the majority of the world’s supply comes from for this particular nut.

You can get almonds that are not gassed and really raw (unpasteurized and non-irradiated) from Spain and Italy. Those are the two countries of origin for almost all of the brands selling them.

But not from a brand like Planters!

It’s the niche superfood brands that offer them, like Sunfood, Organic Traditions, and Terrasoul. Where to buy them will be the higher-end grocers with a health emphasis, as well as online retailers like Amazon and Vitacost.

Raw vs. roasted almonds

Any form of intense heat, particularly roasting, will destroy vitamin C, the B vitamins thiamine, niacin, and folate, and other phytonutrients. Worse yet, the roasting of the nut creates acrylamide, which is a Group 2A carcinogen. When you eat raw almonds, you get the benefit of more nutrients without the added acrylamide.

IARC cancer ratingsAdmittedly the taste of roasted is better in many ways. They’re crunchier and the flavor is usually more intense. But if you value your long term health over the momentary pleasures of a few bites, then you should opt for unroasted whenever possible.

Aside from the acrylamide concern and lower vitamin content, another issue is that heat destroys other phytonutrients, including certain types of antioxidants.

With an ORAC value of 4,454, on an ounce for ounce basis, this nut almost has the same level of antioxidant activity as raw blueberries, which measure at 4,669. With cooking of any kind, that number will only decrease.

If you insist on eating roasted, then it would be better to go with those that are from Europe.

Why? Because Swiss researchers found they generally contain less of the amino acid asparagine, which is a necessary component in the creation of acrylamide (14):

“Almonds of European origin contained significantly less free asparagine and formed significantly less acrylamide during roasting as compared to the almonds from the U.S.”

Pasteurized vs. unpasteurized almonds

The process of steam pasteurization can take up to several hours, where the almonds are heated to at least 165° F. Since acrylamide forms at temperatures above 250° F, steamed are healthier for you than roasted. The big difference between pasteurized and unpasteurized is flavor, texture, and phytonutrient content. For those aspects, the unpasteurized will be superior.

raw almond nutrition facts label

When it comes to the nutrition facts, the calories, fat, protein, and mineral such as iron, calcium and magnesium will remain the same, as pasteurization doesn’t alter those. Vitamin E won’t be affected either.

Some of the B vitamins may degrade from the heat treatment. Vitamin C would too but they have none to begin with.

The biggest changes are for things you won’t find listed on the nutrition facts label.

Unpasteurized

Pros

  • Phytonutrients preserved – Compounds which are non-essential but still believed to be beneficial for health, such as heat-sensitive antioxidants.
  • Enzymes intact – Alpha-galactosidase and other enzymes naturally present. (15)

Cons

  • Hard to obtain – Few retailers sell them and they can be expensive.
  • Bacteria risk – Increased food poisoning risk.

Pasteurized

Pros

  • Bacteria destroyed – Less chance of contamination from Salmonella and other bacterial pathogens.
  • Crunchier texture – Some prefer the texture better versus the soft unpasteurized.

Cons

  • Nutrition altered – Some phytonutrients and B vitamins will be adversely affected by the heat.
  • Enzymes affected – Alpha-galactosidase is the active ingredient in Beano tablets for gas and bloating. Almonds are a natural source and it’s unknown as to what degree the steam may destroy them.
  • Less flavorful – On a relative basis, many say the pasteurized taste like cardboard.

Despite the drawbacks, as long as only pure water is used to steam sterilize these nuts, they remain good for you.

The big worry comes from other methods, like pasteurization involving added chemicals or fumigation, which is the other legally accepted method for sanitizing the “raw” nuts.

Fumigation with a “probable carcinogen”

The process of fumigating raw almonds and other nuts involve placing them in a gas chamber, which is then injected with propylene oxide (PPO). This is a toxic chemical classified by the EPA as a Group B2 “probable human carcinogen” though it is believed to be safe for food treatment, since it is gas which should evaporate.

de-icing military plane

If propylene oxide sounds familiar to you, it’s probably because the more commonly known propylene glycol is made from it. That too is a highly controversial chemical. Aside from being used to de-ice planes, propylene glycol in food that’s non-organic is prevalent.

Going back to propylene oxide, aside from its potential cancer risk, it’s also mutagenic, which means it has been found to mutate DNA. Not to mention, it’s a strong irritant of the eyes, mucous membranes, and a depressant of the central nervous system. (16)

While there may not be data to disprove the safety of this food sterilization technique, just the idea of fumigating your food with poison, on the premise that it will evaporate after, doesn’t resonate very well!

Plus, even if only hypothetical, we have proposed 3 risks of ethylene oxide sterilization (ETO) on spices which might also be applicable to PPO used on nuts.

Californian-grown organic almonds that are “raw” should be steam sterilized, however the non-organic/conventional are often PPO treated, because it can be a cheaper and quicker way to sterilize them.

Where to buy truly raw almonds?

If you want truly raw and unpasteurized California almonds, you will have to buy them direct from a farmer. Bremner Farms of Chico, California does sell them by mail order and they are CCOF certified organic. For those imported from Italy and Spain, the brands Sunfood Superfoods, Terrasoul, Food to Live, Wilderness Poets, UpNature, and Jiva Organics sell them.

When purchasing the organic versions from those brands, you can be confident they are non-fumigated and non-irradiated.

The flavor can vary immensely among them. Some taste bitter and sour, even though they are not the bitter variety.

truly raw and unpasteurized almonds from Europe

Sunfood Superfoods offers an organic heirloom variety imported from Europe which has a fabulous taste. Because they really are raw and unpasteurized, they have a soft texture that almost melts as you chew them. An experience you definitely won’t know until you try one that’s truly raw! You can get them on Amazon.
These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.