When Raw Means Not Raw

 Posted by on 8 November 2008 at 8:09 am  Food, Health, Politics
Nov 082008

Recently, Liriodendron pointed me to this May 2008 post by Stephan of Whole Health Source on the pasteurization of almonds. He writes:

I bought about a pound of almonds yesterday for a backpacking trip I’ll be doing this weekend. I like to soak raw almonds, then lightly toast them. It sweetens them and breaks down some of their anti-nutrients.

When I arrived at the grocery store, the only raw almonds they had were from California. I prefer to buy domestic products when I can, but in case you haven’t heard, “raw” almonds from California are no longer raw. They are required to be sterilized using steam or antiseptic gases, despite their relative safety as a raw food.

The worst part is that they are not required to label them as pasteurized; they can still be labeled as raw. The Almond Board’s argument is that there’s no difference in quality and pasteurized almonds are safer. I find this highly offensive and deceptive. It flies in the face of common sense. If you walked up to someone in the street and asked them what the phrase “raw milk” means, would they say “oh yeah, that means pasteurized”? A raw seed can sprout. A pasteurized seed can’t. Remember all those enzymes that break down anti-nutrients when you soak beans, grains and nuts? Denatured by heat.

I tried soaking them like I would regular raw almonds. I covered them in water overnight. In the morning, I noticed that the soaking water was milky and had an unpleasant smell. The outer layer of the almonds (the most cooked part) was falling apart into the water. They also didn’t have the crisp texture of soaked raw almonds.

Tonight, I toasted them lightly. They definitely taste “off”, and the texture isn’t as good. There’s no doubt about it, pasteurized California almonds are inferior. Despite my preference for domestic products, I’ll be buying Spanish almonds the next time around. If enough of us do the same, we’ll hit the Almond Board in the only place that counts: its wallet.

Here’s what Wikipedia says about the change:

Because of cases of Salmonella traced to almonds in 2001 and 2004, in 2006 the Almond Board of California proposed rules regarding pasteurization of almonds available to the public, and the USDA approved them. Since 1 September 2007, raw almonds have technically not been available in the United States. Controversially, almonds labeled as “raw” are required to be steam pasteurised or chemically treated with propylene oxide. This does not apply to imported almonds.

According to this blog post, organic almonds are pasteurized with steam, whereas non-organic almonds may be treated with propylene oxide.

Some months ago, I noticed that the whole, raw almonds I occasionally bought at the grocery store had a chemical taste to them — almost gasoline-like. They were inedible. I thought perhaps that I’d just gotten a bad batch, but when I tried them again a few weeks later, the taste was the same. Now I wonder whether that taste is some kind of residue from the propylene oxide.

Since then, I’ve switched to buying my whole almonds at Whole Foods. They’re organic, and they taste fine. However, I’m pretty sure that, contrary to their label, they’re not raw but instead pasteurized with steam. I’ll have to ask a manager whether the “raw almonds” are actually raw or not. If not, I’ll probably order some unpasteurized almonds direct from the farm. Or perhaps I can find a local grocer who stocks imported almonds. I want my raw foods to be raw, with all their enzymes intact, dammit. Is that really too much to ask?

In the final paragraph of his blog post, Stephan notes:

One of the most irritating things is that the new rule is designed to edge out small producers. I can’t see any other reason for it. Raw almonds are a safe food. Far safer than lettuce. Should we pasteurize lettuce? Pasteurization requires specialized, expensive equipment that will be prohibitive for the little guys. I’m sure the bigger producers will generously offer to fill the production gap.

Sadly, large food producers often seem eager to use the power of the government to prevent their smaller competitors from providing consumers with much-wanted goods. It’s very frustrating — and very wrong.

  • Julie

    You can buy “truly raw” almonds imported from Italy at Whole Foods (for $19.99/pound) if you want to be sure they are not pasteurized.

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