DEAR DR. BLONZ: My question is about the coating often used on nuts and candy. One almond product ingredient label listed “sugar, almonds, flour dextrin, artificial colors and flavors, titanium dioxide and carnauba wax.” The carnauba wax has me concerned -- as does the amount of fat in almonds, although that wasn’t a surprise. Another snack I have looked at uses shellac, which I know gets used on wood. Where do these come from, and are they things I should try to avoid? -- C.V., Washington, D.C.
DEAR C.V.: Carnauba wax comes from the leaves of the South American wax palm. It is used as a wax or a glaze, and it has GRAS status: generally regarded as safe. It is one of a number of such compounds used in foods. Carnauba, by the way, is also used in high-quality car waxes. Shellac is another commonly used wax that comes from an Asian insect; it is also used on candies, jewelry and floor waxes.
Waxes get applied to hard-coated confections, such as the candied almonds you mention. But notice that sugar is the first item on the list, which means that on a weight basis, there’s more sugar than almonds in the product. Waxes are also used with produce, including tomatoes, apples, bell peppers, avocados, cucumbers, sweet potatoes, all citrus fruits, peaches, pumpkins, eggplants, squash and nuts in hard shells. In produce, waxes are used to help retain moisture, slow down flavor loss and enhance appearance. Waxes are not considered harmful, and are only used in small amounts. For example, the Center for Produce Safety estimated that one pound of wax would cover 160,000 pieces of fruit or vegetables.
You mention that you are watching your fat intake, which is all well and good. Please understand that regardless of the sugar in that snack, almonds are a good food. There is a big difference in getting your fats from wholesome food like almonds than getting it from donuts, fries or chips. Aside from being high in protein, almonds are a source of vitamin E, dietary fiber and many of the B vitamins. They contain several minerals, and are one of the best nondairy sources of calcium and magnesium.
About 80% of the calories in almonds come from fat. This might become an issue if you are consuming large quantities, but the actual recommended serving size is 25 to 30 almonds, or about 1 ounce a day. At that serving size -- which contains approximately 170 calories and 14 grams of fat -- the assets from this food far outweigh any “fat” liability. Also, the fats in almonds are predominantly monounsaturated -- a type found to have little effect on the risk of heart disease in an otherwise healthy diet. Studies have reported that the cholesterol-lowering effects of a diet using almonds as the source of fats was comparable to one based on olive oil.
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