The cashew has lately become one of the world’s most popular nuts. As of 2013, world production was 4.4 million tons and increasing. A strong demand, especially in Western countries, has fuelled a cashew boom that has revitalized several countries in Asia and Africa.
Yet, the public’s knowledge about the cashew is often found to be lacking. For one thing, what is commonly known as the “cashew nut” is actually the seed of a fruit that grows on a tropical evergreen tree in the mango family. Meanwhile, when one attempts to discover a bit more, the terminology can be misleading. For example, the price of raw cashew nuts is currently quoted at about US$1.50 per kg, yet the retail price of cashews sold in-store is more in the area of US$15 per kg in some cases. What accounts for the 1000% markup?
In order to get to the bottom of some of these issues, it’s important to understand the constituent parts of the cashew fruit and to know which prices apply to which components.
First, the cashew fruit is comprised of a fleshy, fibrous part known as the cashew apple and a small hard shell known as the cashew nut, which contains a kernel. The cashew nut is actually the real fruit of the Anacardium occidentale L. plant; the cashew apple is called a “false fruit” in botanical terms. When the “nut” is separated from the apple, shell and all, it is known as the raw cashew nut. Contained within the raw cashew nut is the cashew kernel, which is the seed of the plant. This is what is commonly known colloquially to the public as “cashew nuts” or simply “cashews.”
This partially helps to resolve the mystery of the markup between the raw cashew nut price and the retail prices. Only about 25% of a given volume of raw cashew nuts is made up of kernels, so 1 kg worth of kernels at retail accounts for about 4 kg of raw cashew nuts. The spread is therefore more like 250%.
While this is a higher spread than found in some similar crops, another contributing factor is that the processing required to get the cashew to an edible state is labour-intensive. The shell of the raw cashew nut contains a highly caustic liquid that can cause burns. Thus, farmers who harvest cashews rarely do any work beyond picking them and handing them off to traders.
While the kernels are the main product of the cashew plant, also of interest is what happens to the rest of the cashew fruit. First, the cashew apple has several potential uses. In Goa, India, it is used mashed up by foot to make the popular “feni” liquor. Some of it is also used as jam, and there has recently been interest in using its juice in commercial beverage products. Unfortunately, the apple spoils quickly and requires careful packaging and transportation. As a result, the large majority of cashew apples are discarded on the spot by the farmer.
Second, the cashew nutshell liquid (CSNL) itself is useful for industrial purposes such as creating resins and developing certain kinds of drugs.
The flowchart below gives a rough idea of the processing stages of the different parts of the cashew fruit.