Cashews are delicious, and they have a number of health benefits, too. But there are a few interesting facts about the cashew that may surprise you, including where it’s from. The cashews consumed in the US mostly come from India and Africa. They differ from other nuts, though, in how they’re grown. Let’s take a look at how cashews are grown and the journey our cashews take from where they’re grown to your table.
Cashews Are Actually Classified as a Fruit
As you would expect, cashews grow on trees. However, what you might not know is that cashews are actually fruits, not nuts. Cashew trees, which are evergreens, produce red and yellow fruits that look somewhat like apples. The juice from these fruits is often added to drinks, and the cashew apple itself can be eaten.
While these cashew apples have their own uses, they don’t actually contain cashew nuts. Those are found in the small stem-like formation on one end of the apple. These are called drupes, and they’re toxic to eat if not processed first. One of the toxins found in the drupe is anacardic acid, the same acid that makes poison ivy so irritating to the skin. Because of this, even products that are marketed as “raw cashews” are not truly unprocessed. All cashews sold for consumption have, at minimum, been boiled or steamed to remove the toxins.
Where Do Cashew Trees Grow?
The cashew tree, scientifically known as Anacardium occidentale, is native to Brazil. However, the tropical climate in parts of India and Africa are ideal for these trees, and by the sixteenth century, cashews had spread around the world. Today, while native to South and Central America, these areas are no longer the major producers of cashews. Instead, most come from the Ivory Coast in Africa, India, and Vietnam.
How Are Cashew Drupes Processed?
The cashew drupe itself is filled with toxins, so eating them is not healthy. Once roasted, however, the toxins are destroyed. The drupe then turns from its gray-green color to the familiar brown of a cashew. The process of creating roasted cashews has to be done in a very controlled environment because the smoke the drupe gives off can be very harmful to the lungs.
While cashews are mostly grown in India and Africa, they aren’t usually processed there. That’s because it’s cheaper to process them in other countries. While some processing is done in a safe and controlled factory environment, unfortunately that’s not always the case. Some cashews are processed by very low-paid laborers in unsafe conditions.
This is one specific part of the cashew process that we sought to change. Instead of purchasing cashews that were processed by what is virtually slave labor or child labor, Beyond the Nut brought cashew processing jobs back to the source. We worked with the community in Benin, West Africa, to create a local cashew processing factory. This brought jobs to the area while also providing a safe environment for laborers. This sustainable cashew industry keeps the community thriving, ensures workers are paid fairly, and allows us to offer customers ethically sourced snacks.
How Were Cashews Traditionally Harvested and Processed?
Traditionally, cashews were carefully harvested by hand. The acid in the drupe could actually burn the farmers, so extreme care had to be taken. Once harvested, farmers often left the drupe out for several days in the sun in order to dry out some of the acid and other oils. Another alternative to leaving them out in the sun is to freeze them. Once dried or frozen, the drupe can actually be kept for around two years before they are processed. However, they aren’t yet ready to be eaten at this point.
Next, the nuts are shelled. This process involves removing the drupe shell. While some of the oils and acids have been dried out, they are still dangerous and can cause severe skin irritation. Workers wear gloves, long sleeves, and even goggles during this process.
After the nuts are shelled, they are roasted. This was traditionally done outdoors to avoid breathing in the fumes. The nuts need to be roasted for at least 20 minutes. Once they have been heated for this long, farmers remove them and wash them down with soap and water. Protective gear must still be worn while washing the nuts in case any acid remains.
While we use new technology to make this process easier and safer, we still take the basic steps of carefully picking cashews, shelling them, and roasting them.
Cashews are graded depending on their size. Whole cashews can range from inexpensive, small kernels to large and costly ones. Generally, you won’t find cashew ratings on the packaging when you buy cashews. However, if you see a package that is more expensive than most others, it’s safe to assume it contains larger cashews.
The W-450 cashews are the smallest and the least expensive. Because of this, it’s likely you’ve eaten a lot of W-450 grade cashews. There’s nothing different about the taste or quality, though. W-320 grade cashews are also highly abundant.
Moving into a slightly higher, but still reasonably priced level, the W-240 grade is considered a mid-level cashew. They’re still on the small size, but they have a very aesthetic look to them. Cashew prices begin to rise above average with jumbo nuts. These cashews are graded W-210 and are fairly large. The largest cashews, however, are graded W-180. These large nuts are the most expensive cashews, and some refer to them as the king of cashew nuts.
In addition to purchasing whole cashews, you can also find broken cashews for sale. These cashew pieces are cheaper in price than whole cashews and can be found in snacks and for cooking.
Adding Cashews to Your Diet
Now that you know where cashews come from and have an idea of how they go from part of a fruit to the healthy snack you enjoy, it’s time to add some to your diet. Cashews can be a healthy snack, of course, but you can also include them in meals. It’s easy to add cashews to a salad, for example, or a dessert. Beyond the Nut has a range of different cashews, including cashew pieces, whole nuts, and even jumbo cashews. Check out our selection.