Over four million tonnes of almonds were produced in 2020 and the world’s biggest growers are the USA – accounting for over half the total – followed by Spain, Australia, Iran, Turkey and Morocco. Almond trees thrive in a Mediterranean-style climate with cool winters.
One of the most popular food-related questions is ‘are almonds nuts?’ In fact, you might be shocked to know that the big tin of salted mixed nuts you get at Christmas contains very few nuts at all. Peanuts are legumes because they grow inside pods. Pistachios, cashews and walnuts are all seeds, and almonds are drupes.
A drupe is a fleshy fruit that contains a single seed. In this case the seed is the almond. Other examples of drupes are olives, cherries and peaches. So now we know that an almond isn’t technically a nut, let’s get into the nuts and bolts of how almonds are produced.
A Short History of Almonds
The history of almonds dates back thousands of years. It’s likely they grew wild before being domesticated somewhere in the region of 6,000 years ago around western and central Asia.
Like silk and spices, almonds made their way around the world firstly by way of trade routes like the Silk Road, linking the Far East to Europe. They were then introduced to the Americas in the 1700s by explorers from Spain and Portugal.
It’s true to say that almonds have at times represented far more than just a tasty snack. In fact they hold a religious and ceremonial significance around the world. Almonds are mentioned in the Bible many times, including in the book of Genesis where they’re described as ‘among the best of fruits.’
In ancient Rome, newlyweds were showered with almonds as they were considered to be a fertility charm. This tradition continues to this day with many weddings giving out sugared almonds as favours.
However one story often repeated is that almonds were found in the tomb of Egyptian king Tutenkhamun but that appears to be apocryphal. Here, in a nutshell, we’ll answer the question ‘how are raw almonds processed.’
How are Almonds Processed?
When it comes to how almonds are made and produced, it all starts with a shake. Traditional harvest time for almonds is around late August to early September.
Pickers know when they’re ready because the outer husk dries and splits open. The smaller producers usually hand-pick them but the industrial processors will lay a large tarpaulin under the tree and use a tree-shaking machine to shake them free.
This is repeated often hundreds of times and then the many tonnes of raw almonds are taken to the processing plant.
While still encased in their tough outer hulls, the almonds are flowed through a machine that filters out any loose debris such as twigs and leaves. Next, they’re filtered through a machine called a destoner which separates the almonds from any stones or rocks that made it through the gathering process. This is done by air pressure. A jet of air blows through the drupes and the lighter hulls are separated from the heavier stones.
If you want to know ‘how are raw almonds processed’, this is perhaps the most important stage of the process. The almonds are pushed between a heavy rubber roller and a belt and this spins off the outer hulls and releases the seed – the almond – inside. The almonds are sorted using vibrating sieves with holes of varying sizes. At the same time, any empty or broken hulls are vacuumed up.
The almonds – still with their shells intact – are sent to a gravity table for a more precise level of separation. From there, they’re inspected by cameras for imperfections and contaminants. If any are found, a short, sharp burst of air removes them from the batch. There are still a few stages to go before we can complete the answer to the question ‘how are almonds produced.’
Very sensitive machines now grade the almonds according to the conditions of their shells and they’re again inspected for broken shells. For a final check, the almonds are sent along a slow-moving conveyor belt where technicians hand-pick any that aren’t perfect.
Next it’s time for another sieve-like conveyor belt and another round of separation. This time the almonds are separated by size. Small specimens fall through holes and the large ones continue forward. Consumers pay a premium for the biggest ones.
Only perfect almonds make it through to the final stage of the process. Any almonds with superficial chips are sold to manufacturers of chocolate bars, almond butter, almond milk and breakfast cereal.
This answers the question ‘how are raw almonds produced’ and the final stage is to pack them into large boxes of up to 25kg. They’re transported to a variety of other facilities where they’ll be processed into other products such as roasted and salted almonds, flavoured almonds, sugared almonds and almond pieces to use for baking or cooking. This is the final step in the process of how almonds are made.