Cashew nut - Benefits and Side effects

The article covers the different uses and benefits of cashew nut. Cashew nut is widely used in cuisines & for medicinal purposes.


One of the most curiously shaped fruits known to us, the cashew fruit is botanically known as 'Anacardium', in which the 'cardium' refers to the upside-down heart shape of the fruit. Cashews are related to mangoes, pistachios, poison ivy and poison oak. The English name 'cashew' derives from the Portuguese 'caju' which is further obtained from the indigenous Tupi language 'akaju' (literally translating as 'yellow head').

The cashew tree and fruit

Cashew Tree

A cashew tree

The cashew tree is small and evergreen, growing up to an average of 32 feet with elliptical shaped leaves of up to 22 cm long and 15 cm broad, arranged in a spiral manner. Flowers appear pale green in colour slowly turning to a reddish hue and have five thin petals, 7 to 15 mm in length. From the flowers, something known as the 'false fruit' grows. This is the yellow or red pulpy flesh that we call the cashew fruit. It is actually the cashew apple. It has a strong sweet flavor making it a good ingredient in alcohols (covered later on). The real fruit is what hangs from the apple – a kidney shaped drupe with the cashew nut (or botanically, the seed) within.

Fruit and Nuts

The history of cashew fruit

Cashew trees grow in harsh environments where other trees can't, so they help farmers make use of otherwise unstable land. Cashew orchards provide a home to many different varieties of birds, animals and insects. The trees serve to break harsh winds that can destroy other crops. Since the apples have a fragile skin, their transportation is tedious, if not entirely impossible. They are best consumed locally because of their short shelf life.

The cashew tree is native to Brazil, in the area between the Atlantic and Amazon rainforests. The trees prefer places with a distinct wet and dry season like in Brazil, India and East and West Africa. The Portuguese discovered the cashew in 1578 and soon brought it to India and Africa. They first planted cashews in India to reduce soil erosion and not for the fruit and nut. The United States was the first country to import the cashew nuts from India in 1905.

Cashew based sweets & snacks

Cashew nuts are a healthy snack and they contain 54 % monounsaturated fat, 18 % polyunsaturated fat (the good fats) and 16 % saturated fat. Roasted cashew nuts can be coated with salt, pepper, masala or eaten plain. They can be found in chocolates, but tend to be priced higher than almonds and some other nuts. In Brazil, in Fortaleza, cashews are inexpensive and salted in plastic bags at the time of buying. These nuts also figure greatly in Thai, Chinese and Indian cuisine either in their whole form or ground and then used to form the base for curries like 'shahi korma'. They are also found as an ingredient in sweets like 'kaju katli', 'chikki' and as a garnish as well. Cashew nuts in their tender form (when the shell is still soft and green in colour) are also used in some cuisines like 'avial' of Kerala which also contains other vegetables, grated coconut, turmeric and green chilies. However, here, the kernel has to be soaked in turmeric water first, to remove the corrosive materials, one of which is a toxin found in poison ivy. In Malaysia, the young leaves are used raw in salads or in shrimp paste mixed with chili and lime. For vegans (people who don't consume meat and even dairy products), cashews are important. They are used to make nut milk (in a manner similar to the production of almond milk), sauces and gravies and even in cookies and frostings.

Kaju Mithai

Cashew recipes - Kaju Katli and Cashew Chikki

In Goa, the cashew apple is mashed, its juice is extracted and then allowed to ferment for a couple of days before going through double distillation. From this procedure, we get the ever popular 'Kaju Feni'. In some parts of Tanzania, the apple is dried and stored and later mixed with water, fermented and distilled to produce the alcohol 'Gongo'. In Mozambique, the liquor made from the false fruit is called 'Agua Ardente' (burning water).

Medicinal use of Cashew nut

When cashews are processed, cashew nutshell liquid or CNSL is obtained which contains some helpful anacardic acids that fight against tooth abscesses because they are powerful against Gram-positive bacteria. However, the effectiveness in removing abscessed teeth requires more research to be proved true. Among the Patamona of Guyana, the bark of the tree is scraped and either soaked overnight or boiled as a treatment for diarrhea. The seeds are ground into powder which serves as anti-venom for snake bites. The oil of the nut is used to heal cracked heels. In the Philippines, cashew nuts have also been used to produce creams that treat moles, warts and other skin growths.

The bark of the cashew tree yields a sap used as varnish and anacardic acid is used to produce cardanol which is used in resin and coating in the chemical industry.

Health benefits of cashew nut

A quarter cup of cashew nuts provides 37 % of monounsaturated fats which protect the heart and reduce risks of heart attacks. In general, one serving of cashew nuts contains less fat than other nuts. Due to the high concentration of monounsaturated fats in these nuts, they help to regulate healthy levels of the good cholesterol.

Cashew nuts are sometimes called 'Nature's Vitamin Pill' as they are packed with a lot of protein and minerals like iron, phosphorus, manganese, magnesium, zinc and copper, making them good for diet foods. Cashew apples also contain more vitamin C than oranges. A quarter cup of cashews also contains 38 % copper (which is responsible for developing bone and tissue, eliminating free radicals, production of the skin and hair pigment melanin and increasing energy), 22 % magnesium (leads to strong healthy bones and lowers blood pressure). Magnesium also prevents muscle spasms, migraines, soreness, tension and fatigue. Moderation is an important factor in determining the effectiveness of cashew nuts in affecting health. Too many nuts can lead to weight gain in people and those with gallstones and kidney ailments can develop further problems because of the crystallization of cashew oxalates in the body fluids.

The percentage of monounsaturated fats in cashew nuts helps in reducing the levels of triglyceride in people with diabetes, protecting them from further health problems. Raw cashews may also lower the risk of developing Type 2 diabetes.

Most nuts and so, the cashew nut (in moderate amounts) has been found to reduce the risk of developing gallstones.

Side effects of Cashew nut

While eating cashew nuts in moderation can prove very healthy, some people suffer from a serious allergy to the nut ('Tree Nut allergy'). Mild reactions include an upset stomach, vomiting, nausea, a pinkish rash on the skin and itching in the eyes, the palate of the mouth and throat to the more severe and sometimes fatal swelling of the face and throat and difficulty in breathing because of closed airway passages (anaphylaxis). People with this allergy should keep away from cashew nuts and in almost all cases, the fruit, as well as all items that may contain traces of this or other nuts.

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