Cashews are tasty, nutritious mood boosters. But not all of them can be snacked with a good conscience. A pleasant crunch unveils a soft consistency before a mild, nutty, and somehow buttery taste inspires the palate: cashews are a joy to eat. And with their content of of high-quality vegetable proteins, B vitamins, magnesium, potassium, phosphorus, and unsaturated fatty acids, they are especially interesting for those who like to snack healthy. On top of that, cashews are among the food with the highest tryptophan level, an amino acid that is required to produce serotonin. In short: cashews a tasty, healthy – and make us happy!
Where do cashews come from?
Over the last years, they have evolved from being ‘just a snack’ to serving as key ingredients for sweet and savoury spreads and are even the basis for some plant-based milk, yoghurt, and cheese substitutes. Whilst production volumes have been rising consistently, Europe has become its major importer, accounting for about 40 percent of all global cashew imports.
The cashew tree originates from Brazil. Already in the 16th century, the Portuguese brought them to Africa and Asia. But not because of their kernels. What rose interest in the trees was their pronounced root structure which helps to prevent erosion – and their juicy apples. It was only in the 20th century that the first processing structures for cashew nuts were established. Today, Brazil produces only 4 percent of the world’s nearly four million tons of cashews per year. 59 percent come from Africa and 37 percent come from Asia.
Cashew trees are ideal for organic small-scale farming
The cashew tree is a very modest plant that can even grow on nutrient-poor, degraded soils. It requires little water and fertiliser to grow, and the few pests – mainly insects and larvae – are relatively easy to control. Cultivation by small-scale farmers is usually more sustainable than large-scale cashew plantations. They can grow the trees in their gardens together with fruits and vegetables. A win-win situation: The trees provide shade and protect the soil from erosion, the cashew apples can be eaten raw or processed into juice, jam, vinegar, or liquor, and their kernels allow their growers to earn an extra income. However, productivity is rather low, as each apple produces only one nut. It grows outside the fruit and is protected by a wooden shell. And this is where the dark side of cashews lies within.
The smallest splash of urushiol oil can cause serious skin irritation which can go as far as to eradicate the workers’ fingerprints
Cashew processing: better steamed than roasted
For cashews, it is usually not the growing conditions, but the processing that raises most social questions. Their shells contain the poisonous oil urushiol, which must be extracted by roasting or made harmless by steaming. The extracted oil can be used for both medical and industrial purposes — for example for the production of paints and plastics. During roasting, however, a dense, black smoke develops, which irritates the mucous membrane. Steaming, on the other hand, renders the sharp oleic acids harmless without the release of toxic vapours. Therefore, steaming cashews is better for the health and safety of those who process them. Still, both procedures are allowed — even according to organic and fair-trade standards.
Cashew nut shell oil can cause severe skin irritation
While the cracking of cashew shells is increasingly carried out by machines, the subsequent steps are still mostly done by hand. The kernels have to be removed from the shells before they are dried, skinned, sorted by size, and packed. Although most of the poisonous oil gets removed during roasting or steaming, safety measures, such as wearing gloves, are still essential. Only the smallest splash of urushiol oil can cause serious skin irritation which can go as far as to eradicate the workers’ fingerprints. Especially for illiterate people in developing countries, this can have dramatic consequences, because for many of them, their fingerprints serve as a signature. Without it, they become practically incapable of identifying themselves and doing business.
Cashews have evolved from being ‘just a snack’ to serving as key ingredients for sweet and savoury spreads
This is why some cashews have a bad carbon footprint
The complex processing and the increasing demand for cashews has led to an almost absurd globalisation of their value chains. Even though most cashews today are harvested in Africa, only a small amount of these quantities is processed locally. 95 percent of African cashews are exported to India and Vietnam for processing. This is not only disadvantageous for the African economy, but also adds to the carbon footprint of the nuts. From Ivory Coast to Vietnam, they cover almost 11,000 nautical miles, before they are processed and then sent to Europe and other countries. Consequently, a cashew, that has only been grown 4,500 miles away from our doorstep, may have travelled three or four times this distance before it ends up in our shops. Unfortunately, not all manufacturers reveal where their cashews have been grown and processed.
To conclude, despite their great taste and nutritional value, it is recommendable to consume only organic and fair-trade certified cashews. Furthermore, consumers can try to find out how processers deal with the poisonous urushiol oil, remembering that the steaming process is safer for workers than roasting. And last but not least, it is worth investigating where the cashews have been grown and processed, to identify their carbon footprint.
Author: Ina Hiester, freelance journalist for the organic sector
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