Category Archives: nuts

Beware The Bitter Almond

As part of the Health Nuts Project, the skeptical cardiologist has been evaluating walnuts, hazelnuts and almonds which he plans to put in packets and distribute to patients and readers.

Previously, we discovered that most raw almonds from the US have been fumigated with a chemical called propylene oxide and that roasting almonds creates potentially carcinogenic chemicals.

Consequently, after considerable searching, I purchased raw organic almonds from a company called NutsinBulk. These turn out to be from Spain (where pasteurization of almonds is not required) and are quite tasty.

As I was munching on one of these almonds I suddenly noticed an incredibly bitter taste causing me to spit the chewed almond out. My first thought was that this almond had gone “bad” in some way. Perhaps a mold had crept into it. Looking at the pieces I had spit out, however, I could see no discoloration or other visible difference from the “normal” almonds.

Subsequent experimentation has revealed that about one in ten of these almonds is incredibly bitter and there is no way to predict this from  the external appearance of the almond.

The Source of Bitter Almonds

The sweet almond  that we are used to eating in the US is produced from one type of almond tree (Prunus amygdalus var. dulcis) and does not contain poisonous chemicals. However, the bitter almond that I encountered comes from a different type of almond tree (Prunus amygdalus var. amara).

Prunus amara trees were likely the original almond trees but over time the sweet almond trees have been selected for and now dominate. According to the LA Times and Paul Schrade, who provides bitter almonds to restaurants:

Until recent decades, most Mediterranean almond orchards were grown from seed, and the shuffling of genes resulted in a mix of bitter almond trees among the sweet. Growers liked to keep a few bitter trees around because they helped to pollinize the sweet varieties. The inclusion of bitter nuts gave snackers occasional unpleasant surprises, but they deepened the flavor of marzipan, almond milk and glazes for cakes. In Italy, bitter almond paste was traditionally used to make crisp amaretti cookies, and bitter almond extract flavored amaretto liqueur. In Greece, bitter almonds are used in soumada, a sweet syrup. (apparently cooking or adding alcohol eliminates the toxic cyanide)

There’s little large-scale cultivation of bitter almonds left in Spain and Italy, mostly just scattered trees remain, but it is still possible to buy raw bitter almonds at European specialty markets. Morocco and Iran now lead in commercial production of bitter almonds.

What Makes The Almonds Bitter: Amygdalin

The source of the bitterness is amygdalin:

A recessive gene causes bitter almond trees to produce in their shoots, leaves and kernels a toxic compound called amygdalin, which serves as a chemical defense against being eaten. When amygdalin is moistened, it splits into edible benzaldehyde, which provides an intense almond aroma and flavor, and deadly hydrocyanic acid, a fast-acting inhibitor of the respiratory system.

A variety of sources confirm that:

The lethal dose of raw bitter almonds depends on the size of the nuts, their concentration of amygdalin and the consumer’s sensitivity. But scientists estimate that a 150-pound adult might die from eating between 10 and 70 raw nuts, and a child from ingesting just a few.

YIKES!!!When I read this I was shocked. Could it be that consuming 10 of these raw  biter almonds would kill me.? How could I distribute these potentially lethal edibles to my patients?

Amygdalin (Laetrile) , Alternative Cancer Therapy and Quackery

In addition to bitter almonds, significant amounts of amygdalin are found in the stone fruit kernels of apricots, peaches and plums. A synthetic form of amygdalin called Laetrile achieved great notoriety in the 1980s as a cancer treatment. Although research had shown the chemical to be ineffective, it was embraced by “alternative” healers who claimed it was a “natural” cure for cancer which was being suppressed by a conspiracy between the US FDA, big pharma, and the the medical community.

Steve McQueen, suffering from pleural mesothelioma sought the care of a delisted American holistic orthodontist practicing in Mexico, William Kelley. The NY Times reported:

In July 1980, McQueen secretly traveled to Rosarita Beach, Mexico, to be treated by Mexican and American doctors using Dr. Kelley’s regimen. He received not only pancreatic enzymes but 50 daily vitamins and minerals, massages, prayer sessions, psychotherapy, coffee enemas and injections of a cell preparation made from sheep and cattle fetuses. McQueen was also given laetrile, a controversial alternative treatment made from apricot pits.

Although we hear little about Laetrile these days, like most snake oil it is still promoted by alternative medicine. For example, The notorious quack Dr. Mercola still promotes the idea that laetrile is a safe and effective treatment of cancer on his web site with a post that has been viewed over 700,000 times.

You Can Die From Eating Bitter Almonds

Certainly, there is considerable evidence that Laetrile can be toxic or lethal but bitter almonds can also cause lethal cyanide poisoning. A case report describes a woman with colon cancer who turned down potentially curative surgery/chemotherapy and turned to alternative treatments including Laetrile.  A helpful friend gave her a bag of bitter almonds for their “medicinal properties”, whereupon the woman consumed a slurry composed of 12 ground up almonds with water. Within 30 minutes she developed  severe cyanide poisoning with vomiting, abdominal pain, pulmonary edema, severe lactic acidosis and  loss of  consciousness.
Analysis of the bitter almonds showed they contained on average 6.2 mg of cyanide per almond. It is estimated that a lethal dosage of cyanide is 50 mg or 0.5 mg per kg body weight, thus the calculation that 10 almonds could kill someone weighing  60 kg or 132 pounds.
My  Search For Healthy Almonds Continues
The small amount of cyanide one gets from consuming a single bitter almond seems to have little effect. (Although the Mediterranean diet nutritionist Conner Middelman-Whitney , who spent time in Europe and encountered bitter almonds occasionally says that she does remember a weird, numb sensation in the mouth when they were consumed.)  It’s extremely unlikely that one of my patients would consume 10 of the bitter almonds (without reflexively spitting them out as I did) in a short period of time.
When I have consumed them I noticed no adverse effects but after such an encounter I stopped eating the almonds for the day.
However, I’m not interested in testing that theory. (Ability to taste amygdalin or smell cyanide varies between individuals, thus I can’t be certain that the bitter taste would serve as a reliable warning.)
Therefore,  I’ve concluded that I’m not going to distribute these potentially lethal almonds to my patients and will be removing them from the Dr. Pearson Health Nuts Packages.
My search for non-fumigated, non-cyanide-laced , non-carcinogenic almonds continues!
Cyanogenically Yours,
-ACP
N.B. Famous deaths from cyanide poisoning include Hitler and Alan Turing.

 

 

Nutella: Healthy and Natural Spread or Highly Processed, Slickly Marketed Junk Food?

It’s World Nutella day according to Ferrero, the Italian confectonery company and manufacturer of the globally beloved hazelnut-based spread.screen-shot-2017-02-05-at-6-28-42-am

“With Nutella we spread positive energy to families to bring more happiness to the world” we are informed. On this day, apparently, the world should be spreading Nutella on as many food products as possible, ramping up positive energy levels to unprecedented levels.

Here are some of the other products Ferrero sells:screen-shot-2017-02-05-at-9-08-21-am

Three of them are clearly recognized by consumers as candy.

Should Nutella be in the same category as tic-tacs?

 

 

Nutella Ingredients

Perhaps in anticipation of World Nutella Day, a graphic has been appearing on Twitter:

nutella-englisy

detailing the ingredients of Nutella. The English version of this was posted on Reddit on a subreddit that I can’t mention on my family-friendly blog. It is a translation of a graphic that was published in German originally.

screen-shot-2017-02-05-at-8-18-31-am
If you thought you were getting mostly hazelnuts under the lid as this Nutella website graphic implies, you will be disappointed.

I’m not sure where the original data for the graphic came from but it seems to be a reasonable illustration of how much of Nutella is made up of palm oil and sugar. A 2 tbsp serving of Nutella (37 grams) contains 12 grams of fat, 21 grams of sugar and 2 grams of protein. Only about 12% of Nutella comes from actual hazelnuts.

I don’t have any concerns from a cardiovascular risk standpoint with the fat content of either the palm oil or the hazelnuts in Nutella.

But the 5 teaspoons of sugar per serving screen-shot-2017-02-05-at-8-44-16-am

are just still another source of empty
sugar calories adding to the daily dietary glut of sugar consumers face when consuming highly processed foods.

Nutella definitely is a highly processed, highly sugared product that shouldn’t be a regular part of a healthy Mediterranean diet. Most of the ingredients have gone through  complex sourcing and factory processing although their marketing material strains to emphasize the freshness and naturalness of these ingredients.

screen-shot-2017-02-05-at-6-30-27-am

One ingredient not depicted on the now viral graphic of Nutella is vanillin. From Nutella’s ingredient graphic one might think the screen-shot-2017-02-05-at-6-34-38-amvanillin is being extracted from (per wikipedia)

“the seed pods of Vanilla planifolia, a vining orchid native to Mexico, but now grown in tropical areas around the globe.”

In reality, however, the Nutella people,  ” use synthetic vanillin, an aroma identical to the one naturally present in the vanilla pod.”

Is the Palm OIl In Nutella Carcinogenic?

Some question the healthiness of the palm oil in nutella, either due to its high saturated fat content or its carcinogenic potential. A european food safety authority paper in May, 2016 declared certain toxins found in palm oil in particular to be “genotoxic and carcinogenic”

EFSA assessed the risks for public health of the substances: glycidyl fatty acid esters (GE), 3-monochloropropanediol (3-MCPD), and 2-monochloropropanediol (2-MCPD) and their fatty acid esters. The substances form during food processing, in particular, when refining vegetable oils at high temperatures (approx. 200°C)

The highest levels of GE, as well as 3-MCPD and 2-MCPD (including esters) were found in palm oils and palm fats, followed by other oils and fats. For consumers aged three and above, margarines and ‘pastries and cakes’ were the main sources of exposure to all substances.

As a result, According to Reuters, In Italy, some products containing palm oil have been removed from grocer’s shelves and one pastry company has eliminated palm oil from it products, labeling them as “palm oil free.”

High temperatures are used to remove palm oil’s natural red color and neutralize its smell, but Ferrero says it uses an industrial process that combines a temperature of just below 200C and extremely low pressure to minimize contaminants.

Nutella has fought back, defending its use of palm oil, with television and print advertisements.

Healthier Alternatives To Nutella

Conner Middleman, nutritionist , cooking instructor and author of Zest For Life, has shared with me her recipe for Nutritella, a healthier version of Nutella you can make at home. She points out in her intro to the recipe:

Nutella was invented in the 1940s in the Piedmont region of northern Italy, where hazelnuts grow plentifully. Alas, modern, store-bought Nutella contains a mere 13% hazelnut and only a hint of cocoa; the rest is made up of sugar, palm oil and artificial vanilla flavoring. My home-made version of Nutella, on the other hand, contains very little sweetener (in the form of raw honey), 3 tablespoons of flavonoid-rich dark cocoa, and about 90% hazelnuts, which boast a particularly high concentration of antioxidants and healthy fats (mostly monounsaturated). This is not to say that you should eat this spread by the tablespoonful; its high fat content means it’s high in calories and it should be enjoyed in sensible amounts (1-2 tbsp/day). The good news is that a high-fat food such as this one keeps you sated for longer, and because it is made from whole, real foods, it’s not only rich in calories, but also in nutrients! 

Here’s the recipe:

1 cup/125g toasted hazelnuts (Trader Joe’s roasted Oregon hazelnuts work great here; alternatively buy plain, raw hazelnuts and roast them yourself as described below)

½ oz/2 tbsp/15g unsweetened cocoa

3 tbsp hazelnut oil (La Tourangelle is my favorite brand – available in the oils section of good supermarkets or online)

3 tbsp honey or maple syrup

2 tsp alcohol-free vanilla extract (e.g., Trader Joe’s)

6-8 tbsp milk/plant milk/water

If you are roasting the hazelnuts from scratch, preheat oven to 350F. Place nuts on a dry, clean baking sheet and roast for 8 minutes (set timer). Remove and tip hot nuts onto a clean kitchen towel (pictured here).

As they cool, the skins will loosen, crack and flake off. Gather up the towel by its corners and scoop together into a tight bundle. Hold the bundle with one hand and knead the nuts with the other through the cloth to rub the skins off them. Place bundle back on a flat surface and open; lift out the nuts and lightly shake off the skins. (Leave some skin on the nuts – it’s where most of the antioxidants reside.)

If using pre-roasted nuts, start here.

Place the hazelnuts in an electric blender with the cocoa, oil, honey/maple syrup and vanilla extract. Process on “high” for about 30-40 seconds until all the ingredients come together in a coarse paste.

With the motor running, add milk or water (whichever using), a tablespoon at a time, and keep processing until the mixture reaches the desired consistency.

Transfer to a clean glass jar and refrigerate. Keeps for at least 2 weeks.

You can check out Conner’s excellent website, Modern Mediterranean, replete with more recipes and information on the cancer-fighting benefits of the Mediterranean diet,  here. and her You-tube channel here.

Of course, the skeptical cardiologist Heart Nuts project advocates just eating  heartnutsunadulterated hazelnuts along with other healthy drupes, nuts and legumes for snacking and soon we will be distributing these to you using our trademark-pending walnut-auscultating squirrel, Sparky.

Notnutellingly Yours,

-ACP

 

Say Hello To Heart Nuts

The skeptical cardiologist nut project (aka the nutty cardiologist project) now has a logo. Say hello toheartnuts  the world’s only walnut-auscultating promoter of nut consumption. Soon you will see his smiling face on the packets of nuts I’ll be handing out to help defeat cardiovascular disease.

Special thanks to my wonderful Washington University computer-science major and  bass guitar wiz daughter, Gwyneth, for creating the squirrel doctor during her winter break.

I promised 10 bags of nuts and “oodles of glory” to the reader whose name I selected but I can’t identify who proposed Heart Nuts. Let me know who you are and I’ll get the nuts to you.

Now I need a name for the squirrel.

Squirrelly Yours,

-ACP

See here for my post on KIND bars versus Simply Nuts and here for my review of nuts, drupes and legumes and reduced mortality.

N.B. Nuts are recognized as promoting reduced cholesterol, oxidative stress, and insulin resistance thereby reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease.

I’ve focused on their cardiovascular benefits (perhaps mediated by dietary fiber, magnesium, polyunsaturated fats, vitamin E, and antioxidants)  but recent studies suggest  other health benefits that could contribute to improved longevity.

Nuts contain bioactive compounds both known (ellagic acid, anacardic acid, genistein, resveratrol, and inositol phosphates) and unknown which may reduce the risk of cancer or other chronic diseases.

A recent meta-analysis found that consuming one serving of nuts per day was associated with a 15% lower  risk of any cancer and a 22% lower risk of dying from any cause.

Embrace the nuts I say!