In the Prunus genus, the almond is the odd man out. It is a dry little kernel, whose kin include fleshy peaches and plums — those lush crops associated with the bountiful summer months. Yet this nutty fruit should not be underestimated. It is essential to traditions around the globe, and its bang for the buck health benefits put it at the top of the preventative medicine food chain.
A clinical trial published by the American Heart Association showed that a daily ounce of almonds significantly lowers the body's LDL ("bad") cholesterol. This same one-ounce serving also showcases the low carb nut's nutritional density, providing doses of vitamin E, magnesium, fiber, monounsaturated fat, protein and iron all in a mere 160 calories. Women will be happy to know it contributes to folic acid and calcium intake.
Today, with approximately 750,000 acres of almond trees, California is the world's largest cultivator, but the almond's journey from its source in ancient China to the health-happy Golden State took centuries. It first traveled the Silk Road to the Mediterranean and Middle East, and Franciscan padres brought it from Spain to Santa Barbara in the mid-1700s. One of the world's earliest cultivated foods — harvesting dates back to at least 3000 BCE — the almond symbolizes female beauty in China and represents good fortune during the Christmas holidays in Scandinavia. A packet of five almonds, signifying health, wealth, happiness, fertility and longevity, is passed out to guests as a good luck favor at Italian weddings. There is even a rumor that eating almonds before a boozy night out will help keep you sober.
Consume in Moderation
Almonds are considered a folk remedy for cancer, but have a dark side, too — bitter almonds contain Prussic acid, a form of cyanide, and eating too many can be fatal. As for the sweet version, the possibilities are endless. Whether raw, salted or sugared (in marzipan or Almond Roca) or transformed into essential oil for skin treatments and massages, the almond is one of nature's most versatile — and valuable — fruits.