The global market for almonds has grown over 30% in the past decade, and demand is only increasing. But almonds have a rich history dating back over 5,000 years.
Originally from Western and Central Asia, domesticated almonds date back to the fourth millennium B.C. and possibly even earlier. This was attainable for two main reasons: the first is that growers were able to raise delicious almonds from seed, which means they may have been cultivated before the invention of grafting, a technology necessary for most other plant domestication. The second reason that almond cultivation became possible is highly coincidental. All almonds once contained deadly levels of cyanide and were extremely bitter to humans. This was due to the presence of the compound amygdalin. Wild almonds store amygdalin in their seeds to prevent predation. This is still true today: eating just fifty wild almonds can kill an adult. At some point— no one is sure exactly when— a natural mutation occurred in the plant that suppressed the production of this deadly toxin. Suddenly, almonds were both sweet and safe to eat. Once humans discovered the mutated almonds, domestication took off and almonds became a popular food in the Middle East.
By the first millennium B.C. almonds had spread to Greece and become an important ingredient there. Almonds were used to treat various ailments and were even used as aphrodisiacs. From there, they spread into Rome, where almonds were referred to as nut Graeca (“Greek nut”). In the first century C.E., Pliny the Elder, a Roman scientist who famously died in the Mt. Vesuvius eruption, wrote the multi-volume “Natural History” and claimed it covered all existing knowledge about the entire natural world. In it, he wrote that the Romans had discovered how to remove the poison and bitterness from almonds: by piercing the trunk of an almond tree with pine wood. Recent studies suggest that this technique stresses the almond tree into halting the production of the toxins, which in turn produces delicious, safe almonds.
From the end of the first millennium and into the high middle ages (~100 B.C. — 1450 C.E.), almonds were traded along the entire Mediterranean, throughout Asia, and into Northern Africa, via the Silk Road. Most almonds cultivated today, including 100% of almonds grown in the United States, are sweet and completely safe to eat. And just this year, scientists sequenced the entire almond genome and showed that a single genetic mutation halts the plant’s ability to create amygdalin.
Almonds aren’t technically nuts: they’re actually seeds of the almond fruit (called a “drupe”), and are most closely related to peaches. So closely related, in fact, that farmers today often graft almonds onto the root systems of peaches and other stone fruits. And like peaches, almonds don’t produce their fruit until the 3rd year after planting, and almond trees don’t reach full maturity until they’re 5 or 6 years old.
The almond fruit is not frequently consumed in the United States, partly due to its extremely short season: it’s only edible during a few weeks in the spring, and the fruit tastes best the very same day it’s picked (after that, it only lasts around 3 days in the fridge). The second reason that almond fruits are uncommon in the U.S. is their tart, vegetal taste. In parts of the Middle East where the almond fruit is eaten as a snack, it’s usually sprinkled with olive oil and then dipped in either salt or sugar to balance out the sour flavor. But we do use them in other ways in the United States— for instance, almond fruit is sometimes an ingredient in dairy cow feed.
Just as we value almonds today for their protein, fat, vitamin E, calcium, magnesium, and potassium, there is evidence of nomadic tribes using ground almonds as an ingredient in portable, proto-energy bars more than 4,000 years ago. Almonds are also mentioned frequently in the Bible: in the Old Testament, almonds are referred to as one of “the best fruits in the land” and its early-flowering blossoms symbolize hope. The Menorah, the sacred symbol of Judaism, is based on the shape of an almond blossom.
When King Tutankhamen was inhumed in ancient Egypt around 1324 B.C., he was buried with almonds and other foods that were considered high-class. This included loaves of bread, figs, melons, wine, and mummified meats, but did not include other foods that were part of the normal diet (such as fish, pigs, and sheep), seemingly because they were not as desirable.
Today, almond branches are frequently still used to symbolize the birth of Jesus. They’re also considered good luck and represent fertility in several countries, and are traditionally given to guests at weddings in Greece, Italy, and sometimes the U.K. and the U.S. This tradition is based on a very similar Roman custom dating back to the first century C.E. In Sweden, a common Christmastime practice is to place a single almond inside of a pot of rice pudding. There are varying beliefs about the fate of the person who finds the almond in their bowl, but usually it’s considered a good luck charm or a sign of true love in the coming year. Almonds are an ingredient in many culturally significant foods and drinks around the world, including blanched almonds in many desserts in Greece; sweet almond paste and as an ingredient in tagine dishes in Morocco; as a base ingredient in Pasanda and Mughlai curries in India; in Amaretti cookies in Italy; and in many other places and in many other foods, too.
Though we might think of almond milk as a recent fad, in fact, almond milk was extremely popular among the upper class in the high and late Middle Ages. At that time (between roughly 1000-1500 A.D.) most European Christians followed a decree from the Didache, an early Christian treatise, that prohibited the consumption of animal products on Wednesdays and Fridays. Almond milk became a popular stand-in, eventually becoming an important cooking ingredient. Almond milk shows up in nearly every medieval cookbook, even in recipes that call for meat and other animal products, suggesting that its use expanded far beyond that original two days a week. Other plant-based milks have been used all over the globe for centuries (and for some, possibly millennia), such as coconut milk in Southeast Asia and India, soy milk in China, and tiger nut milk in Spain.
Though Big Dairy is leaning on the FDA to prohibit the use of the word “milk” for nondairy milks, it is not an argument that has basis in history or linguistics: using the same word to refer to dairy milk and plant-based milk dates back centuries and appears in multiple languages. And the argument that it will create “consumer confusion” has been refuted as well, in a response to the proposed legislation.
Almonds were first brought to California from Spain in the 16th century, but the wet, cool weather made them extremely difficult to grow; it wasn’t until almost a hundred years later that they were successfully cultivated. But by the turn of the 20th century, the almond industry was firmly established in California, and several new varieties had been created through crossbreeding.
Over the past thirty years, almond production in California has increased by 400% and currently covers more than half a million acres in the verdant San Joaquin, Fresno, and Sacramento valleys. 80% of the world’s almonds (and 100% of U.S. almonds) are now grown in California: it is the top supplier by a huge margin. And the numbers keep on rising: nondairy milk sales increased by 61% between 2012 and 2017. The global almond industry is expected to have an annual growth rate (CAGR) of 7.1% per year for the next eight years. The United States currently leads as the largest consumer of almonds, but the second largest is India, a country that does not grow any and imports the majority of their almonds from the U.S. Almond consumption in other Asian countries is rising, too. Even E.U. countries like Spain, Italy, and Germany, that do grow some of their own almonds, rely heavily on the United States to supply enough to meet the high demand.
Almonds have played an important role in the lives of human beings over the last 5,000 years, and their importance in so many different cultures and cuisines today (as well as their continued use as medicine in some Asian countries) is a direct result of trade along the Silk Road, as well as knowledge and symbolism derived from the Middle East, ancient Greece and Rome. Their sweetness, crunchiness, and nutritional value have been desirable since sweet almonds were first discovered, and they are still one of the healthiest and most popular foods on the planet.