Are Cashews True Nuts? The Botanical Truth

Cashews in the background and the question if they are real nuts

When most people think of cashews, they categorize them as nuts. However, this popular, nutritious snack is not a nut in the botanical sense. In this article, we’ll explore the fascinating journey of cashews from tree to table and uncover why they don’t fit the botanical definition of a nut.

What are Cashews?

Cashews originate from the tropical tree Anacardium occidentale, native to Brazil but now grown in various parts of the world. This tree bears a pear-shaped “cashew apple”, often mistaken as the fruit.

Several cashew attached to the apple hanging on a tree

However, the actual fruit is a small, bean-shaped hard shell that grows beneath the cashew apple. Inside this shell is a single seed, commonly referred to as a cashew nut, which is edible after proper processing.

Since the “nut” is enclosed inside a hard shell that grows out of a cashew apple, cashew nuts are technically drupe seeds. This sets them apart from true nuts, leading to frequent misunderstandings. 

Many times, people also mistake cashews for legumes due to similarities in structure. But since legumes don’t grow on trees and cashews do, we cannot classify cashews as such.

True Nuts and Drupes: What’s the Difference?

In botanical terms, a true nut is a hard-shelled pod that contains both the fruit and seed of the plant. Examples include acorns, chestnuts, and hazelnuts. These true nuts don’t split open to release their seed; the seed and the fruit are one and the same.

Drupes, on the other hand, have a fleshy outer part surrounding a single seed. Examples include plums, cherries, and peaches. By these definitions, cashews are not true nuts but seeds from a drupe. This distinction is crucial for botanists but often overlooked in culinary contexts.

Can You Eat Cashew Apples?

While the seed inside the pod is the star in most Western markets, the cashew apple has many uses.

Cashew apples are edible but rarely available outside local markets due to their short shelf life and astringent taste. They can be used in various culinary applications, from jams and beverages to jellies.

In India, they’re even fermented to produce a unique alcoholic drink called feni. However, the thick shell surrounding the cashew seed is not edible. It contains urushiol, a toxic substance that can cause severe allergic reactions, which explains why cashews are sold without their shells. This is why cashews must undergo meticulous processing first to eliminate such toxic substances.

The Culinary Identity of Cashews

Despite their botanical classification, cashews are often grouped with true nuts in culinary contexts. They share similar nutritional profiles and can substitute for other nuts in various recipes. This includes granola, trail mix, stir-fries, and even nut butter.

It’s interesting to note that cashews are not alone in this misclassification. Other popular “nuts,” such as pecans, walnuts, pistachios, and almonds, are also drupe seeds. This further proves that the culinary and botanical worlds sometimes speak different languages.

Understanding the True Nature of Cashews

As we’ve seen, the world of nuts (and what we commonly call nuts) is more complex than it may appear.

While cashews are commonly referred to as nuts, they are botanically drupe seeds. This distinction may seem minor but has implications for both botanical classification and culinary use. Understanding this difference can be crucial for consumers, especially those with dietary restrictions or allergies.

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