Cashew Nuts | How It’s Made
Brought over from Brazil, nurtured in India and commercialised all over the world, the cashew nut has grown to become an emblem of globalisation. Read on to learn more about this cosmopolitan nut, how cashews are processed and how Vietnam came to overtake India as the world’s leading supplier.
Cashew Nuts Aren’t Really Nuts
If I were to ask you how cashew nuts are grown and harvested, or what they look like in their shell, would you know? The funny thing is, most of us couldn’t pinpoint where our food comes from, or even what it looks like in its natural form. The cashew nut is a particularly interesting example of this.
Cashew nuts come from fruit producing trees. The fruit, or ‘cashew apple’, which resembles a bell pepper, is what is called a ‘false fruit’. A master of deception, the real fruit dangles from the bottom of the cashew apple, guarding within it a single seed, known to us as a cashew nut.1
A Brief History of Cashew Nuts
The cashew tree, Anacardium occidentale L, was first introduced to India in the 16th century by Portuguese explorers sailing from Brazil, who first planted it in Goa to prevent coastal erosion. Cashew nut trees are used to mitigate soil erosion because of their extensive root system, which keeps the soil beneath them firmly in place. The trees’ expansive branch system which extends horizontally also serves as a natural umbrella, shielding the soil from rain.2
Once the tree had set down roots in India, it soon came to conquer India’s entire coastal region. Greedy elephants were largely responsible for propagating the nut – after eating the trees’ fruit and dispersing its seeds across the country’s peninsula in their droppings, in states such as; Maharashtra, Goa, Karnataka, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Odisha, and West Bengal.3 This was the beginning of what would grow to become a multibillion dollar global industry today.
Cashew Nuts are an Important Export
It wasn’t until some 400 years after the Portuguese first planted cashew trees on Indian coasts that the nuts’ commercial value was realised. Today, cashew nuts have grown to become one of the most valuable processed nuts in global commodity markets, with a market value of 6.27 billion US dollars.4 India plays a big part in this exchange as the world’s second largest supplier after Vietnam, supplying cashews to over 60 countries world-wide.5 In fact, cashew nuts are in the country's top four agricultural products, alongside basmati rice, spices and tea, generating nearly 1 billion USD in foreign exchange.6 The cashew nut industry also has significant social value, providing vital employment to millions of people, especially women. A combination of cashew nut farming, processing and exporting can create employment for local farmers and communities all year round.7
How Cashew Nuts are Processed
Since whole nuts fetch a prettier price at market, in India, processing has traditionally been done by hand to ensure the highest output of unscathed kernels.8 What many people don't realise, is that cashews go through an extremely elaborate processing system before they arrive neatly packaged at our supermarkets. Nazneen Kanji, author on the subject, described this to me;
‘Cashews are expensive because there is just one nut per fruit. Cashews trees have to be farmed, harvested, separated from the false fruit, roasted, cooled, cracked open, peeled, sundried and sorted – and only then can you sell them as raw nuts. The amount of value added is incommensurate to the amount of labour that goes into it’.
The most difficult step in how cashew nuts are processed is extracting the kidney-bean-shaped nut from its shell, which is labour intensive and requires a skilled workforce - 90% of whom are women and paid negligible wages. When cracked open, the shell oozes a highly corrosive oil referred to as CNSL or ‘cashew nut shell liquid’. This oil, when in contact with skin, causes burns and sores which often present health risks for workers.9
Mechanising The Process
Now you’re probably thinking, ‘haven’t they got machines to do this?’, and you’d be right.
Machines have existed to shell cashews since the 1960s, but mechanical shelling comes with its own drawbacks. These machines, designed to mirror the natural curvature of the nut, use curved blades to split the nut’s hard shell in one swift motion. However, given that the shells often vary in size and shape, there is no “‘one-blade-fits-all”, which means these machines often produce a high number of broken kernels, or kernels contaminated with CNSL. On top of this, machines are expensive and require a constant stream of nuts to be cost-effective. With these odds stacked against factory owners, manual processing is typically favoured.
Machines Are the Way Forward
India was the first country to develop the cashew processing industry, and for a long time it enjoyed its hay-day as the world’s leading supplier, before it was recently overtaken by Vietnam. Today, Vietnam reigns as cashew king, far surpassing India in cashew nut exports. One reason for this leap is the country’s success in mechanising the process. High-tech machines, developed in Vietnam, have increased production rates and decreased labour force. These days, Vietnam’s cashew factories employ far less people than they used to. For example, a modern plant with just 30 employees can process over 50000 kilos of the nuts per day. This allows Vietnam to spend less on wages and pass on this saving to consumers, giving Vietnam a bigger piece of the global market pie.10
The Future of Cashew Production
While a movement to machines might seem like the obvious solution, switching to mechanisation requires huge investment and state support, which in India is lacking. Political leaders have also discouraged mechanisation because of the amount of work local communities would lose. To protect employees, local laws have prevented factories from laying off workers, cancelling out any cost savings machines would provide.10 The state is aiming to increase cashew cultivation to nearly double by 2025 in an effort to maintain a position as the second largest supplier – but unless Indian factories adopt a more mechanised system, it’s unlikely they’ll be able to compete with their rivals.11
Does knowing how much work goes into extracting a single cashew nut make you value them differently? Let us know in the comment section below!