The History of the Macadamia Nut

Written by Sarah Moore
on September 20, 2019

Everyone loves rich, creamy macadamia nuts. So much the better when they are smothered in chocolate or whipped into a nut butter, full of healthy fats and brain-boosting potential. But while we all love the smooth crunch of a nut or the finger-licking goodness of a nut butter, not many of us are familiar with the history and benefits of macadamia nuts.

Well, we are... and we’re here to share all we know with you. Keep reading to learn more about where the hallowed macadamia comes from and what it can do for you!

Macadamia Nuts

Macadamia Nut Biology and Native Habitat

Macadamia nuts are part of the family Proteacea, which also contains such species as firebush, silver tree, Australian honeysuckle and silky oak. If many of these plants are unfamiliar to you, that’s because most of the plants in this family are native to the Southern Hemisphere, and few are commercially important up north. Relatives in the Northern Hemisphere, however, include plane trees, sycamores and buttonwood.

According to New World Encyclopedia, macadamia nuts hail from Australia, especially the economically important species Macadamia integrifolia and Macadamia tetraphylla. Other (noncommercial) species can be found native to New Caledonia and Sulawesi, while Hawaii has become a major growing hub of these nuts in recent decades – as anyone who has ever returned from the islands will tell you.

In 1857, German-Australian botanist Ferdinand von Mueller gave the genus (nut) the scientific name Macadamia – named after von Mueller’s friend Dr. John Macadam, a noted scientist and secretary of the Philosophical Institute of Australia, according to Wikipedia However, the macadamia plant was first discovered back in 1828 by Allan Cunningham.

A year later, in 1858, Walter Hill of the Brisbane Botanical Gardens in Australia reportedly witnessed the first non-indigenous person eat the kernal of a macadamia nut without issue, setting us up for future enjoyment of the nut.

In fact, macadamias arrived in the New World sooner than you might think. The Hawaii Ocean Project explains that “the first macadamia tree was planted on the Big Island in 1881 by William H. Purvis. The Jordan brothers followed up with their own trees in 1892. Known for their sweet, rich flavor, macadamia nuts quickly became popular among sugar barons who came to the Islands to start the sugar industry.” From there, many of the “sugar barons” at the time began to leverage the financial viability of macadamias.

Macadamia Nut Farm

In the Old World, macadamias continue to thrive in Australia. As one popular company, Down Under, proclaims, macadamia nuts first evolved there 60 million years ago. Today, the climate, knowledge and market make them just as well suited as they ever were, and many of the nuts in the United States are imported from there.

The first plantations and commercial orchards and processing plants specifically for the macadamia nut took hold in the early 1900's, with Ernest Van Tassel founding the Hawaiian Macadamia Nut Co in 1922, and opening a massive 75 acre macadamia nut seed farm in Honolulu. 

Other areas that have jumped on the bandwagon include, according to New World, “South Africa, Brazil, California, Costa Rica, Israel, Kenya, Bolivia, New Zealand, and Malawi.”

Growing, Harvesting and Processing

Macadamia nuts are actually the tree’s seed. They grow inside tough, woody husks that look a bit like limes when they’re still green on the tree. The husk turns brown when mature, and it contains a shell inside. Inside that, you’ll find the kernel – what you know as the macadamia nut. The shell is very hard to crack and requires significant force from a blunt or sharp instrument. Some varieties do crack more readily, explains New World, including the Arkin Papershell type.

Harvesting macadamia nuts

Commercial macadamias are grown from planted seedlings, explains the University of Hawaii Extension, adding that “macadamia nut trees can start bearing a small crop in the fifth year after planting, and full production is reached in 12 to 15 years.” Once mature, the nuts are harvested, husks removed, shells fried and cracked open, and the kernel extracted. It is then dry- or oil-roasted and used in a variety of foods, from chocolates to ice creams to nut butters, or sold plain for snacking.

The Rise in the Popularity of Macadamia Nuts

While aboriginal people have enjoyed macadamia nuts for millennia, they only became popular in the Western Hemisphere in the 20th century. The first major macadamia farming efforts got underway in Hawaii in the early part of the century, while the introduction of the Royal Hawaiian variety “is credited with popularizing the nuts in the United States,” according to New World.

More recently, macadamia nut growers have joined the sustainable movement. Farms have started using sustainable power from solar and water. They can also use the husks and shells from the nuts to create fertilizer and compost, mulch the grounds to outcompete weeds without herbicides that damage the environment, and burn the refuse for fuel to process the kernels.

Some popular current brands of macadamia nuts include: Mauna Loa (Hawaiian-based) and Kirkland.

Health Benefits: Fat, Fuel and Fitness

One of the best things about macadamia nuts is how healthy they are. Many people mistakenly think that fat is bad for you, when in fact, it is an essential nutrient – one your body can’t live without. When you deprive yourself of fat, the body’s long-term energy supply, you feel more tired, less healthy and less satisfied by the food you do eat. As Harvard Health Publishing at Harvard Medical Schoolexplains, “Fat is needed to build cell membranes, the vital exterior of each cell, and the sheaths surrounding nerves. It is essential for blood clotting, muscle movement, and inflammation.”

Recent research shows that it’s not fat that’s bad for you, but rather, the wrong kind of fat. Trans fats (the kind that fries and donuts are often cooked in) are terrible for you. Polyunsaturated fats are OK, but monounsaturated fats are best. The chemical structure of these fats allows the body to fight bad cholesterol most effectively. The fat that comes from macadamia nuts is particularly good, since it also contains Omega-3 fatty acids (awesome for the brain!), which your body cannot manufacture itself and is therefore essential.

Overall, recommends the American Heart Association: “For good health, the majority of the fats that you eat should be monounsaturated or polyunsaturated. Eat foods containing monounsaturated fats and/or polyunsaturated fats instead of foods that contain saturated fats and/or trans fats.”

Why is this fat better than other types of fat? For one thing, because it’s so pure. The fat you find in other foods is often combined with unnecessary sugars and carbohydrates (which quickly turn to sugars as well), and is generally low in other nutrients. That means you’re consuming calories, but not getting the nutrition your body needs. For another, those fats are often the unhealthy kind, which only makes you gain weight rather than giving you the kind of long-term energy you’ll find in healthy nuts.

Plus, these fats are an incredibly long-burning fuel. While the same calories of carbohydrates or proteins might last you around 120 minutes of moderate to intense exercise, fats will last you twice as long. That’s twice as much fuel, making macadamia nuts a perfect choice for people who want to lose weight, maintain a healthy physique and stay active for life.

Other Uses for Macadamia Nuts

Macadamias are also used for a wide variety of other products, says the University of Hawaii. These include oil sources for shampoo, sunscreen, soap and cosmetics. Nuts are also used for animal feed (including some from the other species of macadamia nuts that aren’t as popular with humans).

The shells also have a variety of uses. They are often turned into mulch, perfect for gardens and landscaping projects, or as composting fodder. Once they break down, they make for extremely rich soil. (The same is true for the outer husks.) The hard shells, pulverized, can also be used for sandblasting, and also, as discussed above, can be burned for fuel.

As you can see, macadamia nuts are not only healthy for those who consume them, but are also a commodity in which the entire fruit has value. This makes for a lighter environmental footprint, especially combined with the fact that they grow quickly and can be harvested frequently. So why wouldn’t you eat them all day long?

If you’re ready to give the health benefits of macadamias a try, we invite you to try our macadamia nut based nut butters. Our team is always happy to answer questions or guide you toward healthy choices, so feel free to get in touch as well. We can’t wait for you to join the SuperFat family!


Author: Sarah Moore

Published:  Sept. 20, 2019

Sarah Moore is a nut nut, and writes about health and fitness in a number of online publications.

Written by Sarah Moore

Published: September 20, 2019