In September of 2007 the USDA mandated that almonds grown in California and sold as raw in the USA be sanitized by surface sterilization (pasteurization). (Note that farmers are still allowed to sell unpasteurized almonds directly to customers, but this represents only a small fraction of the yearly harvest.)
The FDA maintains that the “essential characteristics” of the almond are not changed by the surface sterilization of almonds, so these almonds are still allowed to be sold as raw almonds. It is not abundantly clear whether these surface sterilized almonds are really raw almonds or not. Testing is required.
How can you test to see if almonds are still raw? First, by trying to sprout them. If an almond will sprout, then it really is still alive and definitely raw. Second, you can test enzyme levels. If the naturally occurring enzymes of surface sterilized almonds are present in levels seen in unprocessed raw almonds, then you can conclude that the almonds are indeed raw.
How do you test almond butter? This product is made with raw almonds as well, and it is not clear whether almond butter has been heated or not during the processing. Obviously you cannot sprout almond butter. In this case you can test enzyme levels to see if levels are the same as what is seen in whole almonds.
Almonds and almond butter were obtained from various sources. Pasteurized almonds from California and unpasteurized almonds from Spain were tested. Five different almond butters were purchased from an online retailer and tested. The almond butters that were tested are Maranatha Raw, Tree of Life Natural Raw, Tree of Life Organic Raw, Woodstock Raw and Jive Raw Sprouted.
A 5 percent solution of almonds in distilled water was made using a blender. The solution was not strained before doing the testing, so as to not to eliminate enzyme activity associated with the fiber portion of the almonds.
Enzyme activity was measured for 6 enzymes: acid phosphatase, alpha-mannosidase, N-acetyl beta-D-glucosaminidase, leucine amino peptidase, beta-gluosidase and beta-galactosidase. Activities in units/L were normalized on a scale of 100% by scaling each enzyme to the highest reported activity level (which became 100%). Then the normalized activities for each enzyme were averaged together to give a summary activity score. These graphs for almonds and almond butter are shown on the page.
As see in Figure 1, there is very little difference between the surface sanitized almonds and the unpasteurized almonds from Spain. There was some variation in the exact levels of enzymatic activity between the different sources of almonds, which is to be expected for natural food products. There was less than a 30% variation between the lowest and highest average enzyme activity. There was no consistent pattern between the different almond samples based on their processing. One of the Spanish raw almonds had the lowest average enzyme activity while the other Spanish raw almond sample had the highest average enzyme activity.
For comparison, a sample of pasteurized Silk almond milk was tested, which showed no enzyme activity. This is what would be seen if any of the almonds had truly been heated enough to denature the enzymes in the interior of the almond nut.
In Figure 2 you can see that in general, almond butter in a jar has actually been heated to the point that it cannot be called a raw food product. The average enzyme activity of 4 of the raw almond butters was less than 4% of the amount seen in a composite sample of whole raw almonds.
Only one almond butter was actually a raw food product—the Jive Raw Sprouted Almond Butter is enzymatically active. It has a different taste compared to the other almond butters as well, indicating that it really is different. Generally speaking, “raw” almond butter is not actually a raw food product. It is initially made with raw almonds, but there must be processing steps which include heat to deactivate the enzymes in the almonds, so that the final product is not raw.
Surface sterilization of almonds does not fully pasteurize the almonds. Indeed, the “essential characteristics” of the almond are still intact after this surface treatment. This means that you can buy any almonds from California labeled as “raw almonds” and be assured that you indeed have a raw food product.
On the other hand, “raw” almond butter is not raw. It is made with raw almonds, but they are not “raw” in the jar when the consumer buys them. The only almond butter tested that was raw was the Jive Raw Sprouted Almond Butter. Other than the Jive Raw Sprouted Almond Butter, if you want raw almond butter, you will have to make it yourself.