Cracking into nuts' potential

by Jeff Gelski
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They add flavor and nutrition to gluten-free items, snacks, drinks and indulgent treats.

Pecan pie remains a welcome sight on kitchen counters. Walnuts still add taste and crunch to brownies, and almonds continue to appear in a certain chocolate candy bar.

However, the food industry, and the beverage industry as well, may wish to explore using nuts as ingredients in other applications. Nuts may add protein, fiber and minerals to gluten-free items and savory snacks. Also, almond milk is common, but would consumers consider a juice or tea product with nuts in it?

Nuts have numbers on their side. Nuts and seeds accounted for more than 37% of snack foods launched globally in 2013, according to Innova Market Insights, Duiven, The Netherlands. Consumers ranked nuts, at 64%, as the most popular replacement for meat protein, according to a report called “The personalization of protein” and released in October by Acosta Sales & Marketing. Nuts were followed by beans/lentils (63%), dairy/eggs (56%), rice/pasta/quinoa (50%) and supplements such as bars and shakes (21%).

The ‘forgotten nut’

While almonds increasingly appear in bars, alternative milk products and cereal, pecans might be known as the “forgotten nut,” said Margaret Lisi, brand manager at the Georgia Pecan Commission, Atlanta.

“You kind of associate it with your grandma and your grandma’s pecan pie,” she said.

Ms. Lisi hopes to expand the use of pecans. The Center for Pecan Innovation, which was established by the Georgia Pecan Commission, reaches out to research and development teams about testing pecans in food and beverage applications, she said.

“A pecan has an incredible flavor,” Ms. Lisi said. “It has a really nice texture in your mouth. If you roast it, it’s even better.”

A recent acquisition might lead to further awareness of pecans. Golden Peanut Co. L.L.C., a subsidiary of Chicago-based Archer Daniels Midland Co., in October announced it was changing its name to Golden Peanut and Tree Nuts after acquiring certain assets of the Harrell Nut Co., a processor and sheller of pecans.

Consider premium markets

Food and beverage companies will need to consider prices for nut inclusions. Grower prices per lb on Oct. 17 were $1.90@2.30 for almonds, California; $2.80@2.90 for filberts, Oregon; $3.20@$4 for pecans, Georgia; $6.39 for pistachios, California; and $2.80@3.20 for walnuts, California, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“Pecan is a premium nut,” Ms. Lisi said. “It is like a pistachio. It is like an almond. Prices fluctuate.”

Such premium ingredients may work well in products designed for a premium market, like one that recently has experienced double-digit compound annual growth rates.

“The big thing about price is the gluten-free market,” Ms. Lisi said. “I mean, gluten-free is a premium market.”

Pecans may work in gluten-free protein coatings for chicken fingers, she said. The Georgia Pecan Commission promotes product prototypes for gluten-free cheese jalapeño crackers and gluten-free graham crackers, each with a flour blend of 70% pecan flour and 30% rice flour.

The Almond Board of California, Modesto, has developed gluten-free recipes for almond cake with strawberries, skillet almond granola, almond
brownies and rosemary crackers.

“Almond flour is particularly useful as a gluten-free alternative for baking and batter development, both of which are used in numerous processes for product development,” said Molly Spence, regional director of North America for the Almond Board of California. “Almonds have the balanced flavor profile to play a key role in the formulation of batters for anything from light and crisp coatings for fish or vegetables to cakes, cookies, waffles and bread.”

Besides gluten-free items, nuts also may boost nutrition levels in snacks. Almonds contain 6 grams of protein per oz and feature 12 vitamins and minerals. Walnuts contain 2.5 grams of alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), an omega-3 fatty acid, per oz as well as 4 grams of protein. A 1-oz serving of pecans contains 3 grams of dietary fiber and more than 19 vitamins and minerals.

The Almond Board of California has promoted the use of almonds in bars. At 27%, almonds were the most desired ingredient in bars by U.S. consumers, according to a study released this September by the Sterling-Rice Group. Almonds were followed by granola (26%), peanut butter (25%), dark chocolate (24%) and oats (19%).

The Almond Board of California has developed a savory almond spice bar concept that combines four different types of almonds (toasted, sliced, butter and flour) with oats, pumpkin seeds, spices and cocoa nibs, Ms. Spence said.

More than milk alternatives

Almond milk made an inroad into food service this year. Dunkin’ Donuts partnered with Blue Diamond Growers, Sacramento, Calif., to add almond milk to its menu.

About eight or nine vendors at the Institute of Food Technologists’ annual meeting in June in New Orleans inquired about pecan milk, Ms. Lisi said. She said she believed pecans have a future in natural juice drinks as well.

John Csukor, a chef with culinary and marketing agency KOR Food Innovation and the resident culinary expert at the Almond Board of California, has created a brewed almond tea as a non-caffeinated beverage alternative, Ms. Spence said.

“The tea is created by combining roasted almonds with spices, which are then ground and steeped into boiling water,” Ms. Spence said. “A dark roast on the almonds will result in a tea with caramel and coffee notes while the shorter, lighter roast will brew a nutty flavor similar to chai tea.”

Pecan butter may be used as a basis for certain beverages, Ms. Lisi said.

“There is so much oil in a pecan,” she said. “It turns into butter very quickly.”

Pecan butter also may be used in confections, she said.

The Turkish Hazelnut Promotion Group, Seattle, promotes the use of hazelnuts in confections. Eighty per cent of the world’s hazelnuts, also known as filberts, are produced in Turkey, which has growing conditions that benefit from the climate around the Black Sea.

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