Red Pistachios, Where Did They Go and Why?

Red pistachio nuts

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Not long ago, you could find bright red or pink pistachios in almost every country store or grocery market. In fact, in some areas, these unnaturally red pistachios were the only pistachios available. But if you're under the age of thirty, you may have never seen a red pistachio. So what were these red pistachios and where did they go? It's a more interesting story than you may think.

What Are Red Pistachios?

The pistachio nutshells that surround the naturally pale green nutmeat are naturally a creamy light beige color. So where did that deep reddish-pink color come from? Food historians have conflicting explanations, but they all start with red food coloring.

One story says that the tradition of dying pistachios originated with a Syrian importer named Zaloom, who dyed his pistachios red to distinguish them from his competitors. Another story holds pistachios were dyed to mask mottled markings, a natural result of the drying process, and other imperfections to make them look more palatable to consumers. Today, this story is the one most food historians agree upon. While the mottled, naturally-dried shells have no effect on the flavor of the nutmeat itself, consumers are known to judge a book (or pistachio) by its cover. As a result, there is a long history of food merchants altering their products and produce to make them more palatable. The tradition remains alive and well today in other areas of food sales.

What Happened to Red Pistachios?

The disappearance of red-dyed pistachios can be directly traced to the growth of domestic pistachio production in the United States. Before the 1970s, pistachios were imported from Iran and other Middle Eastern countries to the United States. In addition to mottled markings on the pistachio shells from drying, these imported pistachios generally had a host of unappetizing stains and discolorations due to traditional harvesting methods in which the pistachios were not hulled and washed immediately after harvest. So Middle Eastern producers and exporters took to dying their product red. The few American pistachio producers at the time followed their imported counterparts and began to dye their product as well, if only because Americans were used to seeing these bright red-pink nuts.

But the 1980s saw a decline in imported pistachios as an embargo on Iranian pistachios was enforced, and further economic sanctions on Iran levied on and off for years. The number of American pistachio producers increased in response and began to increase the domestic supply of pistachios quickly. The new mechanized harvesting processes used by American producers now pick, hull, and dry the nuts before the shell can become stained, rendering the need to dye the nuts to hide imperfections unnecessary. Today, 98% of pistachios sold in the United States are produced in California, and the U.S. is the second-largest producer of pistachios after Iran.

Can You Still Find Red Pistachios?

Though most millennials have never seen a red pistachio, they do still exist, but generally as a novelty item or during the Christmas holidays. But we're perfectly happy to stick to the more natural pistachio color palette. Not only can we avoid red-stained fingers and mouths, but it is on trend with the movement to avoid unnatural additives and dyes in our food. We say that it's a win-win.