If I were to ask you how cashew nuts are grown and harvested, or what they look like in their shell, would you know? Since I’ve always been curious about where my food comes from and how it grows, I was stumped when I got this question from one of my grands. However, what we learned together was fascinating.
Cashews are not really nuts in the true sense, but rather a drupe seed. They grow on fruit producing trees which produce a ‘false fruit’ known as the cashew apple. The fruit resembles a small bell pepper being yellow to red in color. At the base of the fruit is a kidney-bean-shaped hard shell with a single seed inside–the cashew nut.
After reading and watching YouTube videos about cashew farming and harvesting, the process of separating the nut from the fruit, and the steps in production, we had a whole new appreciation of the snack we enjoy, so easily purchased at the supermarket and eaten without a thought.
Cashews are gown in many parts of the world with origin in Brazil. However, Vietnam is the largest producer of cashew nuts followed by India; cashews are a valuable agricultural commodity for both counties. The cashew nut industry in these countries (and other producing countries) provide vital year-round employment to millions of people, especially women. Extracting the nut from its shell is labor intense and requires a skilled workforce of which 90% are women who are paid meager wages.
Following harvest, the shells are roasted and dried to make extracting the nut easier. Removing the nut from the shell is the most difficult step in processing. It is either done by hand or machine, but in either case, it is one shell at a time. When done by hand, the workers beat the shell with a mallet in just the right way to release the nut unscathed. If mechanical shelling machines are used, the shells are feed into the machines one at a time to split the shells; however, since the shells vary in size and shape, there is breakage so machines are not a perfect solution. As a result manual processing is generally favored for nut perfection. However, Vietnam has been successful at mechanizing the process and, thereby, have increased production rates and decreased the labor force.
Another concern in cracking the shell, is the reddish-brown oil that oozes from the shell composed of various phenolic lipids. It is an irritant like that found in poison ivy causing skin burns and sores and other health issues if workers come in contact with it. Following splitting, the nuts require tedious peeling and cleaning before moving along to grading, quality control, fumigation, and packaging.
And what about the cashew apple? The apple has a sweet flavor but a limited shelf life so it is not a marketable commodity in its fresh state. However, it is available in local markets and has value as a fresh food, cooked in curries, fermented into vinegar and used to make preserves, chutneys, and jams. In India, it is fermented and distilled to make an alcoholic drink known as feni. The apples are also used for medicinal purposes.
Even though cashews are not technically nuts, we use them as such. Cashews are rich in nutrients, antioxidants, healthy fats, plant protein, and fiber; they may be used interchangeably with other nuts in a variety of culinary applications, including trail mix, stir-fries, granola, nut butter, and nut dairy products. Like most nuts, cashews may also help improve overall health. They’ve been linked to benefits like weight loss by boosting metabolism, improving blood sugar control, strengthening the immune system, and a contributing to heart health.
Cashews are generally a safe addition to most diets. One should keep in mind that roasted or salted cashews contain added oils or salt. For this reason, it may be best to opt for unsalted, dry roasted instead. People with tree nut allergies should avoid them as they are classified as tree nuts along with Brazil nuts, pecans, pistachios, walnuts and hazelnuts. Some people have trouble with bloating; soaking nuts overnight will help with nutrient absorption and digestibility. When eaten in large quantities, cashews can cause kidney damage due to a relatively high oxalate content. However, in moderation (true of all nuts), such is not likely. One serving of cashews is 1 ounce and contains about 18 nuts, 157 calories, and about 9 grams of carbohydrate largely in the form of starch1.
I am so glad the question about cashew nuts was asked! I will continue to enjoy them but with a new and profound appreciation for the people who grow, harvest, and process them.