It's Nuts How These 6 Nuts Look Before Processing

By: Laurie L. Dove  | 

cashew
An apple's an apple, except when it's a cashew apple (Anacardium occidentale), from which cashew nuts dangle as they grow on the tree. Eric Royer Stoner/Getty Images

Nuts are high in calories and fats, but don't let that dissuade you from adding them to your dietary regimen. They're also nutritional powerhouses, with mounting research-driven evidence that eating nuts and seeds every day can do everything from lower your risk of diabetes and heart disease to add more time to your lifespan. Perhaps the most surprising thing about nuts is not their many benefits, but the unusual ways they are found in nature and the lengths required to harvest them. Here are six of our favorite nuts and how they are found in nature:

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1. Cashews

If you like nuts and also don't want to have $12 anymore, a handful of cashews may be for you. So why are cashews so expensive? It has everything to do with how they are found in nature. Cashews, which are native to tropical locales all over the world, grow on trees and are attached to the bottom of a large fruit that tastes like a cross between a spicy mango and a citrusy grapefruit.

The cashew itself appears almost as an afterthought at the bottom of this large red fruit called a "cashew apple." The cashew nut is encased in a tough double shell that is full of acids and resins that cause skin irritation and, alarmingly, can be used as an insecticide. The entire cashew nut must be heated to destroy these toxins, and then it can be cracked to reveal the tasty, creamy cashew "meat" inside. This means that even cashews marketed as "raw" have been heated. This labor-intensive harvesting and processing process contributes to the cost of cashews.

Cashew
Cashew nuts typically grow on clusters of "apples" in trees that are native to tropical locales all over the world.
Wikimedia Commons (CC By-SA 3.0)

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2. Pistachios

Imagine a 300-year-old tree, its gnarled branches dotted with thick clusters of salmon-colored pods set in high relief against the gold hues of its desert environment. The pistachio tree is a highly prized tree that originated in the Middle East, but pistachio trees have been successfully transplanted to many other semi-arid regions, such as portions of California, Arizona and New Mexico.

After a long, hot summer in the sun, pistachios are ready for harvest — but they don't yet look like the tasty little cracked nuts that can be purchased in stores. That's because pistachios are covered in a hull about 1/16 of an inch (0.4 centimeters) thick that clings to a hard inner shell. This hull, called an epicarp, only begins to loosen after the nut is ripe. This ripening is evidenced by changes in color, with the hull going from pink to yellow as the nut matures. When the pistachios are harvested by shaking them off the tree and onto tarps below, the epicarp is still on the nut. It is typically removed within 24 hours to prevent staining the interior shell and — et voila! — the pistachios we've come to know and love are revealed.

Pistachio
Pistachio fruit ripening at a pistachio orchard in the village of Maan in west-central Syria.
LOUAI BESHARA/Getty Images

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3. Almonds

With a fuzzy exterior covering what looks like fleshy fruit, almonds start life in disguise. These little shape-shifters look surprisingly like apricots when they are hanging from trees in their unripe state.

As the green almond pods mature throughout the spring and summer, they darken and crack open while still on the branch, revealing almonds inside. As the pods continue to dry, the hulls turn straw-yellow and fully open when the almond is ready for harvest in the fall. In the U.S., where 80 percent of the world's almond supply is grown in California's Mediterranean-type climate, the almonds are shaken from the trees and left on the ground for a week to 10 days to dry. Once collected, the almonds pass through a mechanized roller to remove the nut from the hull and shell before packaging. The almond shells are used as livestock bedding, and the hulls are ground and fed to dairy cattle. For people who enjoy the taste of almonds, this tasty nut is packed with nutrients like vitamin E, manganese, magnesium and antioxidants.

Almond
Almonds ready to be harvested in an orchard in the province of La Rioja in Spain. Spain is the second largest almond producer in the world after the U.S.
David Silverman/Getty Images

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4. Butternuts

Butternuts may be the most buttery, sweet and mild nuts you've never heard of. Cousins to the well-known black walnut, butternuts grow on deciduous trees throughout the Northeastern United States, roughly from Mississippi to Maine, and are cultivated in other regions as well.

The butternut, also known as a white walnut for its pale color and walnut-like taste (without the bitter finish), is prized for its flavor. Foragers search for ripening butternuts still on the tree in late summer. Unlike their black walnut cousins, which are round, butternuts are elongated and look more like pears covered in a green, fuzzy husk. Others wait for the butternuts to completely ripen and fall to the ground, where they continue to dry throughout the autumn months. Either way, the husks must be removed to reveal a deeply ridged, hard shell, which in turn must be removed to get to the nut.

Although the onset of disease in recent years brought a sharp decline in the number of butternut trees growing in the wild, there are increasingly widespread reports of surviving trees, as well as gardeners who are cultivating butternut specimen trees at home.

butternut
Cousins of the black walnut, butternuts take a bit of work to harvest through the husk and then the inner shell.
Wikimedia Commons (CC By-SA 3.0)

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5. Peanuts

Unlike the rest of the nuts in our roundup, all of which grow on trees, the peanut grows under the ground. Peanuts sprout from the roots of low plants that produce flowers above ground and must be planted annually because the plants die off each year. They're actually legumes, a classification that includes soybeans and peas, and refers to an edible seed grown within a pod.

Peanut plants are planted annually, grow to about 18 inches (46 centimeters) tall and then sprout small yellow flowers near the ground. These flower buds, once pollinated, drop their leaves and trend toward the soil, where they burrow and become root-like structures on which peanuts grow and mature for the next five months or so. After the peanuts are mature, a specialized mechanical digger upends the plants to reveal the once-underground peanuts. The peanuts, still attached to the plant, are left in a windrow (a row of harvested plants laid in rows and exposed to the wind) to dry for several days, then combined (or processed) to separate the peanut from the vines. Some peanuts are sold in the shell, while others are de-shelled for market.

Peanuts
Peanuts are legumes, grown underground and harvested after the whole plant is pulled up and laid out to dry.
Michel RENAUDEAU/Getty Images

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6. Pine Nuts

Perfect little pine nuts ... we see you, topping silky paprika-covered hummus or adding texture to fresh spinach salads. You're subtle, sweet, just a little nutty — and really, really good for us.

Nutritionists point to pine nuts' high magnesium content as a way to prevent certain types of cancers, ease weight loss, boost energy levels and smooth out mood swings. Another prominent trace mineral found in pine nuts is zinc, which helps strengthen immunity, and pine nuts are rich in vitamin E and B-complex vitamins. In addition, pine nuts are gluten-free.

Pine nuts are edible seeds found inside an inedible shell nested inside a pine cone. Pine cones, and therefore pine nuts, grow on certain varieties of pine trees, most notably the Mexican pinon, Colorado pinion, Italian stone pine and Chinese nut pine. These trees don't begin producing pine nuts until they are at least 15 years old, and it takes many more years for them to produce pine nuts in great quantity. Most pine nuts are still harvested in the wild by hand after maturing inside a pine cone for 18 months. The pine cones are removed from trees, then dried in the sun for three weeks before being smashed to remove the pine nuts — and then the pine nuts' inedible pod — by hand.

Pine nuts
An open cone on a pinion pine (Pinus monophylla) in Swall Meadows, California, shows the pine nuts lodged deep inside.
Wikimedia Commons (CC By-SA 3.0)

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