Almonds are widely accepted as being one of the healthiest nuts available to consumers, and their growing popularity has increased not only their availability, but also the availability of derivative products like almond oil and almond butter. Touted as being a heart healthy alternative to peanuts, the most often cited health-related reason for recommending almonds is the oil. The proposed benefits of sweet almond oil range from improved heart health, to using it to treat acne and hair loss. Do the claims hold up?
Sweet Almond Oil Benefits
Almonds are members of the peach family, and produce a kind of fruit known as a drupe, which is distinguished from nuts by the fleshy outer layer surrounding the seed (or pit). Known by the scientific name Prunus amygdalus, almonds are native to the Middle East and South Asia, but their popularity has prompted their global cultivation. In the United States, where the majority of almonds are grown in California, the edible dulcis (sweet) crop was worth an estimated $2.3 billion in 2010. Almonds are pollinated almost exclusively by bees, so the ongoing problems with colony collapse disorder and honey bees disappearing is a direct threat to the almond industry in the U.S.
There are two varieties of almonds, the amara (bitter) and dulis (sweet) almond. Sweet almonds are those edible by humans, while the bitter variety contains a compound known as amygdalin, which decomposes into hydrogen cyanide when eaten. Once known as prussic acid, cyanide is lethal to all mammals in small quantities. The oil from both varieties are viable sources of oil, since the amygdalin in bitter almonds can be destroyed during processing. But the vast majority of almond oil sold in the United States is derived from the dulcis variety.
Oleic acid ester is the most prevalent fatty acid in sweet almond oil.
Almond oil is comprised of nearly 74% monounsaturated fat, with the majority being oleic acid, while the remaining fats are linoleic acid (18%) and palmitic/stearic acid (8%). Almond oil is also free of cholesterol and trans fats, has a smoke point of 430°F, and is a good source of vitamin E, vitamin K and phytosterols. Widely touted for a variety of health benefits, it’s one of the few oils that has had this fact acknowledged by the US FDA, as demonstrated by their 2003 release of the following statement.
The claim states: Scientific evidence suggests, but does not prove, that eating 1.5 ounces per day of most nuts, such as almonds, as part of a diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol may reduce the risk of heart disease. In addition to the Qualified Health Claim, nine clinical studies to date indicate that almonds can help you maintain healthy cholesterol levels as part of a diet low in saturated fat. You can read all about the studies here.
Studies have shown that both monounsaturated fat and phytosterols have potential health benefits, which could include lowering cholesterol levels, regulating LDL, increasing HDL, and reducing high blood pressure. Consuming almond oil may also help regulate blood sugar, and vitamin E is suspected to protect against oxidation.
Almond oil has a higher monounsaturated fat content than peanut oil, but a similar smoke point, which makes it a solid contender to replace peanut oil in cooking applications. In particular, it works well in high temperature applications, like frying. Unfortunately, it is substantially more expensive than peanut oil, and its not available in large quantities, which restricts high volume uses. It is used in specialty salad oils where it imparts a light almond flavor in recipes.
Both almond and olive oil are rich sources of oleic acid, so it stands to reason that they would share similar uses outside the kitchen. Almond oil has become popular in topical applications as a skin moisturizer and as a mild skin cleanser for the treatment of acne, where it has an advantage over olive oil of being nearly odorless. It has also become popular as a shaving oil, an emollient in cosmetics, and as an emulsifier in lotions. Naturopathic practitioners use it in combination with essential oils in topical applications, as demonstrated by its use to enhance the benefits of tea tree oil. Like other oils, it also exerts a mild laxative effect.
While the majority of benefits of almond oil can be reaped by consuming the fruit of the almond tree, its use in cooking and topical applications has been shown to approximate those of olive oil. As its health benefits become more apparent, I wouldn’t be surprised to see this oil become more widely available on store shelves.