Real Food Encyclopedia | Cashews
The cashew, Anacardium occidentale, is a fixture of any mixed-nut medley — however, it’s not really a nut at all, but rather the edible seed of the cashew fruit.
The word “cashew” is derived from the Tupian language family of South America, where the cashew tree originated, and specifically the language of the Tupi people, who were indigenous to the Brazilian coastline before Portuguese colonization. The Tupi word for the edible seed, “acajou,” means “nut that produces itself,” most likely in reference to the way it dangles below the fruit. The cashew fruit is sometimes called the “cashew apple” because it resembles a small, elongated apple, with smooth, waxy skin in shades of pale yellow, green and pink. It is safe to eat, and its taste is described as distinctly fruity, vegetal and nutty. But it is also highly perishable, which restricts cashew apple consumption to areas of the world where the cashew tree is cultivated.
During the late 16th century, Portuguese missionaries brought cashew trees from Brazil to West Africa — and later to India — and these areas are still leading centers of commercial production. Today, the cashew is most commonly enjoyed as a quick, nutritious snack, but it is also used as a component of sweet and savory dishes, or as the foundation of non-dairy milks, cheeses and creams. Cashews can be purchased at a low cost almost anywhere, from street corners to markets to gas stations to airports, and are a globally recognized ingredient. However, the ubiquity of cashews obscures some serious human rights concerns within the industry, a problem that’s only expanded as they grow in popularity.
Fun Facts About Cashews
- The top cashew-producing country varies from year to year, with Ivory Coast ranked the top producer in 2021 with 837,850 metric tons exported, followed by India and Vietnam.
- Cashew shells are covered by a layer of poisonous oil, anacardic acid, that can irritate the skin, and are always roasted, boiled or steamed to eliminate it before being shelled.
- The cashew is related to poison ivy and poison sumac, and consumption and handling of raw cashews can cause an allergic reaction in some people due to trace amounts of anacardic acid and other compounds.
- The resinous brown liquid within the shells of the cashew fruit was traditionally used as an insecticide and is used in the production of paints, epoxies and plastics.
What to Look for When Buying Cashews
When shopping for cashews, first consider the intended use. If you’re planning to cook, roast or blend them into a dairy alternative, opt for the raw variety. If you’re just looking to snack, roasted cashews are often preferred for their flavor. Consider buying in bulk (rather than pre-packed containers) to save money, especially if you need a large quantity — but remember, cashews can go rancid if not used or stored properly.
To determine the quality of a cashew, first look at its size. Larger, intact cashews tend to be more flavorful, while mass-manufactured cashews may contain halves and fractured pieces. Color is another indicator: Roasted cashews with a golden-brown hue are more flavorful than those that are pale or white; however, a rich brown may indicate that the cashew was roasted in a fatty oil, so avoid deep, dark colors. You can also tell a lot from taste and texture. A slight sweetness implies a fresher cashew, while a stale cashew may have an off-putting fishy taste or burnt flavor. Cashews should have some crunch; anything too soft potentially indicates production issues.
Look for brands of cashews that are ethically sourced or labeled as being fair trade. This designation indicates that the importer works directly with the producer of goods, which cuts out the middleman and allows a greater percentage of the profits to stay with the producers themselves — in the case of cashews, usually small-scale growers. Both major fair trade labels available in the U.S. (Fairtrade and Fair Trade Certified) include provisions to protect workers from on-the-job hazards, which is important for workers in the cashew industry considering its poor track record for health, safety and human rights.
Sustainability of Cashews
Ethically sourced cashews tend to be more expensive than other tree nuts because of the labor and time required to shell them by hand. And like with many agricultural crops and commodities, exploitation is typical along multiple nodes of the supply chain.
That being said, cashew farming is relatively sustainable. Although tree nuts are fairly water-intensive as a group, cashews have a smaller footprint than other popular nuts, such as walnuts, hazelnuts, almonds and pistachios, and are typically grown and harvested from trees in their natural environment. Cashew farming in Vietnam, Thailand and India typically occurs on small or plantations that use minimal fertilizers or pesticides.
Half of the world’s cashew production is done in Vietnam, India and Ivory Coast, where there have been reports of dangerous harvesting conditions and poverty-line wages. The anacardic acid present in the exterior of cashew shell is caustic and can burn the skin if workers aren’t provided with the proper protective equipment. Because of the extremely low price farmers and processors get for their cashews on the global market, workers usually aren’t provided with up-to-date equipment by their employers or able to purchase it themselves, exposing them to serious injury and constant pain as the work must be done by hand. A 2011 report from Human Rights Watch suggested that, in Vietnam, some of the cashew production and processing was performed by people imprisoned in forced-labor rehabilitation camps for addiction and drug use, under the threat of electric shock, isolation or food deprivation.
While the supply chain for most cashews is fairly opaque, fair trade certifications do require some level of protections for workers and a more transparent supply chain, and cashews with these certifications are generally produced by workers who are afforded higher-than-average wages for their work.
Cashew season differs from country to country, enabling the availability of raw nuts year-round. For India, Vietnam and Ivory Coast, the growing season begins in February and ends in July. In Brazil, the season starts in November and concludes in February. Planting methods and weather conditions may impact the quality and quantity of the harvest.
Cashews can go rancid if not stored properly. Avoid direct sun exposure and heat, and make sure cashews are stored in airtight containers to extend shelf life. Cashews kept at room temperature will maintain their quality for up to six months, while storing them in the freezer can help them last more than a year.
Cashews are a global ingredient, found in a number of different cuisines from a variety of regions. Indian, Chinese, Thai, Vietnamese and Brazilian cooking all utilize the cashew in both savory and sweet applications. In South Asian cultures, the cashew is often ground into a paste and used to thicken and flavor curries or kormas. In India, the cashew is the primary ingredient in kaju katli, a confection made with milk, raw cashews and rose water; the dish is less sweet than many other Indian pastries, and is a common treat served during weddings, festivals and other special occasions. In Indonesia, roasted and salted cashews, called “kacang mete” or “kacang mede,” are popular street foods.
In the 21st century, cashews have become a popular ingredient for making dairy alternatives, with cashew products used as a substitute for milk, cream or cheese. Cashew milk is creamier than most other nut milks and has a neutral, lightly cashew-y taste. It’s also simple to make at home: Unlike almond milk, for example, which requires straining through a cheesecloth, you can make your own cashew milk by simply blending pre-soaked raw cashews with water.
The cashew apple is also safe to eat, though highly perishable. In regions where cashew trees are cultivated, it is consumed raw or used in any number of curries, chutneys, jams, vinegar, liquors, candies, syrup and juices. In Brazil, the cashew apple is used to make cajuiña, a non-alcoholic, non-carbonated beverage. The cashew apple is also used to make feni, a distilled spirit popular in the Indian state of Goa.
Although they are technically seeds, cashews are nutritionally comparable to other tree nuts, such as almonds, hazelnuts and pecans. One ounce of cashews contains 157 calories, 5 grams of protein, 12 grams of fat and 1 gram of fiber.
Cashews are a good source of unsaturated fats, which research shows can improve blood cholesterol levels and ease inflammation. They are also rich in antioxidants — specifically polyphenols and carotenoids — compounds that can help neutralize the damage-causing molecules known as free radicals.
The cashew has a robust nutritional profile, including minerals like copper, magnesium, manganese and zinc, and significant amounts of vitamin K and vitamin B6.
Top photo by thanin/Adobe Stock.