The case for nuts

by Laurie Gorton
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People like the flavor and crunch of nuts. Many ethnic and regional favorites depend on these versatile ingredients for their unique taste, texture and appearance. And no self-respecting granola or trail mix would go nut-less. Now, scientific evidence gives nuts an extra edge with consumers: They’re good for your health. Really good.

Nuts offer tasty packages of protein, fiber, vitamins, minerals and unsaturated fats and support a qualified heart health claim. There’s evidence they may assist blood sugar management. Most recently, consumer trends have recast nut flours to star in gluten-free foods.

Consider almonds. “Our consumer research has found that the most compelling attributes about almonds are their overall health halo, their protein, fiber and association with heart health,” said Molly Spence, regional director, North America, Almond Board of California, Modesto, CA. She cited the 2013 Global Perceptions Report from Sterling Rice Group, Boulder, CO, that revealed more than 75% of consumers believe almonds to be great tasting and nutritious. “When you include them in your ingredient repertoire, you’re satisfying both sides with that distinct, flavorful crunch and a variety of nutrients,” she added.

As Polly Owen, director, Hazelnut Marketing Board, Aurora, OR, said, “With their health benefits, nuts provide ‘a wealth of health.’ ”

Probe the evidence

Because nuts are seeds, they carry nutrients essential to sustain seedlings, the most vulnerable stage in a plant’s life. Their minerals, vitamins, fiber, protein and fats do a good job nurturing humans, too. And unlike cereal grains, nuts contain comparatively low carbohydrate levels and no gluten whatsoever. Just as nut varieties differ in flavor, they also differ in nutrient content.

Almonds, for example, provide enough magnesium to qualify as an “excellent” source, according to Ms. Spence. Their potassium and iron content is high, with 1 oz providing 6% of the Daily Value (DV) for each. The phosphorus in the same amount of almonds analyzes at 15% DV.

“Calcium is present in all nuts,” Ms. Spence said, “and raw almonds top the chart at 264 mg per 100 g. Hazelnuts are rich in copper, almost 17.3 mg per 100 g. Most nuts are also high in zinc, with cashews at 5.8 mg per 100 g and pecans at 4.5 mg per 100 g. All nuts are very low in sodium.”

Casting a different light on the significance of calcium, Bill Morecraft, general manager, Blue Diamond Almonds Global Ingredients Division, Sacramento, CA, said, “The calcium story is an interesting one because many people might not associate nuts with this nutrient. Usually associated with dairy and dark leafy greens, calcium works with vitamin D to build bones and keep the body’s systems running at peak performance.”

Almonds and pistachios rank highest for fiber among nuts, according to Ms. Spence. “Every ounce of almonds contains 4 g fiber and 6 g protein,” she said. That same ounce has vitamins measuring 7.4 mg vitamin E, 0.3 mg riboflavin and 1 mg niacin.

Peanuts lead the way in protein content at 7 g per oz, according to the Peanut Institute. “Peanuts, in a variety of formats, readily provide protein supplementation. In nutrient density, peanuts are at the top of the list,” said Patricia Kearney, MEd, RD, spokesperson for the Peanut Institute, Albany, GA.

In vitamin content, hazelnuts are second only to almonds in vitamin E, but above all other nuts, according to Ms. Owen. “People are very interested in vitamin E for its antioxidant properties,” she observed. “The folate content is also high, which is important to fetal health.”

Digging deeper, formulators will find the phytochemicals in nuts to be increasingly relevant to today’s health-and-wellness consumer. The Georgia Pecan Commission reported that pecans are a rich source of many phytochemical substances, including ellagic acid, vitamin E, beta-carotene, lutein and zeaxanthin.

“Almonds are an excellent source of alpha-tocopherol vitamin E (35% DV), a powerful antioxidant that may help neutralize the damaging free radicals in the body,” Ms. Spence said.

The concentration of antioxidants — phenols, flavonoids and phenolic acids — in almond skins and kernels is comparable to that of many fruits and vegetables, according to Mr. Morecraft. “A 1-oz serving of almonds contains a similar amount of total polyphenols as a cup of green tea or steamed broccoli,” he said.

Equipped with so much nutritional power, nuts are earning new respect. “A formulator can use peanut flour to pump up the nutritional aspects of many baked foods,” said Ali McDaniel, sales and marketing manager, Golden Peanut Co., LLC, Alpharetta, GA, a wholly owned subsidiary of ADM.

Make qualified claims

A ready-to-use energy source is also necessary to support seedling growth, and nuts contain plenty in the form of fats. Mother Nature endowed nuts with high levels of unsaturated fatty acids, the ones recognized as heart-healthy for humans.

Because of nuts’ profile of “good” fats, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recognized a qualified health claim in 2003. The claim stated, “Scientific evidence suggests, but does not prove, that eating 1.5 oz per day of most nuts, as part of a diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol, may reduce the risk of heart disease.” It applies to peanuts and nine tree nuts — almonds, Brazil nuts, cashews, hazelnuts, macadamias, pecans, pine nuts, pistachios and walnuts.

As with other nutrients, nut varieties differ in fat levels, but none contain cholesterol.

“Hazelnuts are a leader in lipid profile,” Ms. Owen said. “Yes, they are high in fat, but that fat is high in unsaturated fatty acids, being 88% unsaturated.” Specifically, the fat profile for this nut is 17 g per oz (13 g monounsaturated and 2 g polyunsaturated).

Almonds have a similar fat profile. “ ‘Considerable nutritional advantages’ is an apt description of the impressive nutritional benefits of almonds,” Mr. Morecraft said. “When it comes to fats, a 1-oz serving has 13 g of ‘good’ unsaturated fats, just 1 g of saturated fat and is always cholesterol free.”

Cite healthy precedents

The time is right for nuts with their healthy eating image coming to the fore. “Due to their many beneficial properties, nuts are foods that not only provide nutrients but also improve health significantly and reduce the risk of chronic diseases,” observed Jordi Salas-Salvadó, chairman of the Reus, Spain-based International Nut & Dried Fruit Council (INC) World Forum for Nutrition Research and Dissemination.

Mar Bayo, INC’s marketing and communication specialist, cited several studies showing that nuts reduce the glycemic index, prevent blood clots and provide more fluid blood, improve endothelial function of blood vessels and have an anti-inflammatory effect. Also, INC recommends regular consumption of nuts in order to reduce “bad” cholesterol (low-density lipoprotein) between 7 and 10%.

Many research studies confirm the science behind the health appeal, according to Alisa Petitt, spokesperson for Georgia Pecan Commission, Atlanta. She described a long-term study done at Harvard. After tracking participants for 30 years, scientists found that people who eat nuts regularly (seven or more times a week) were 11% less likely to die of cancer and cut their heart disease risk by 29%, compared with people who never ate them.

Testify to health

FDA’s qualified health claim for nuts is based on their high unsaturated and low saturated fat content, but now researchers are looking at nuts’ bioactive components to document additional benefits. Studies concern various types of nuts in different ways. For example, there’s evidence that the high calcium, magnesium and potassium content of nuts optimize their nutrient density and protect against bone demineralization, arterial hypertension, insulin resistance and overall cardiovascular risk.

“We are excited about the body of current and pending research surrounding the benefits of walnuts on cognitive health and prostate health, as well as research supporting the positive impact of alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) on heart health,” said Ellen Kutscher, spokesperson for the California Walnut Commission, Folsom, CA.

“Research from the American Medical Association and Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease suggests that regular consumption of walnuts is associated with maintaining and improving cognitive health and may help reduce the incidence of Alzheimer’s disease,” she said. A recent review paper pointed to the beneficial, synergistic effects that eating nuts, such as walnuts, and berries in combination may have on preserving cognitive health.

Ms. Kutscher noted that new research linking ALA, an omega-3 fat found in walnuts, and heart health was just published in October. In fighting cancer, animal studies with walnuts have been promising, showing both tumor prevention and slowing of tumor growth. A recent review paper suggested walnuts’ antioxidant profile as the key to suppressing inflammation that may contribute to cancer development, she said.

Research studies suggest that antioxidants like those in pecans help the body remove toxic oxygen-free radicals and, thus, shield the body from diseases, cancers and infections. A nutrition fact sheet from the Georgia Pecan Commission reported that ellagic acid, for example, has the ability to inhibit DNA binding of certain carcinogens such as nitrosamines and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, thus protecting the human body from cancers.

A recent study cited by Ms. Petitt tested the bioavailability of pecan antioxidants in humans. It also verified the absorption of these bioactive components into the bloodstream, which contributes to postprandial antioxidant defenses.

Blood sugar effects were the focus of a Spanish study of pistachios, which were found to be a safe nutritional strategy, when included in a balanced diet, to reverse the risks associated with prediabetes, according to INC. “More specifically, the study determines that a ­pistachio-rich diet has a beneficial effect on glucose metabolism, insulin resistance, inflammation and other related markers,” Ms. Bayo said.

The Peanut Institute reported recent research with children to gauge the influence of peanut butter on prediabetes and weight control. “We found very positive responses,” Ms. Kearney said. “Peanuts also play a role in satiety. If you start off your day with peanut butter at breakfast, its satiety aspects can last up to 12 hours.”

The Hazelnut Marketing Board works closely with the Turkish Hazelnut Promotion Group. A number of studies into this nut’s health effects found benefits from the nut’s high levels of folate and proanthocyanidins (PACs), according to Ms. Owen. Folate is a B-vitamin necessary for normal cell function while PACs demonstrate antioxidant effects.

Such constituents give hazelnuts the profile of a superfood, popularly defined as one that contains two or more nutrients at high levels. According to Stephanie Kazan, the Seattle, OR-based spokesperson for the Turkish Hazelnut Promotion Group, Gýresun, Turkey, they contain more PACs than any other nut, comparable on a per-serving basis to dark chocolate or Concord grape juice. Keep the skins intact, and the PAC level triples over that of blanched nuts.

“Hazelnuts deserve to be right up there on the list of dietary antioxidant sources,” Ms. Owen observed. “Nutrition researchers continue to find new benefits from hazelnuts to prevent birth defects, reduce cardiovascular risks and even stave off certain cancers.”

Witness gluten-free uses

Consumers’ current fascination with ­gluten-free foods opens an additional door for nuts. As particulate inclusions, they lend flavor and eye appeal; as nut flours, they partially stand in for cereal flours and boost nutritional content.

“We know that 60% of gluten-free sales are in the bakery category,” Mr. Morecraft said and predicted the category would grow 44% between 2014 and 2018, according to a recent study commissioned by Blue Diamond. “Because almonds in their many forms are naturally gluten-free, they can leverage consumers’ interest in a gluten-free, or gluten-restricted, diet. This includes products made with almond flour.” Almond flour and meal can be used to formulate batter and breading systems or as thickening agents.

Honeyville Grain, Rancho Cucamonga, CA, acted on gluten-free opportunities and launched almond flour a decade ago. “It has grown exponentially, larger than we could have ever expected,” said Tim Devey, corporate marketing director. Starting by blanching almonds naturally to remove the outer skin, the company grinds the almonds into a very fine flour, certified organic, non-GMO and kosher.

“The downside to most gluten-free flours is that they lack substance and, thus, have to be blended with several flours,” Mr. Devey observed. In bakery applications, almond flour provides structuring bulk, nutrition and texture along with sweet flavor.

Mr. Morecraft confirmed the importance of almond flour as an ingredient growing in importance. “Unlike almond meal, which has a more textural grind, almond flour can be used in a wide range of artisan-like bakery applications,” he said.

Formulators can use peanut flour in ­gluten-free applications, too. “Typically peanut flour is substituted for one-third of the regular flour,” Ms. McDaniel said. “It will enhance the roasted peanut flavor and helps with the nutrition content of the finished product.” Two forms are typically used, one that’s 12% fat and 50% protein, with the other being 28% fat and 40% protein.

Nut flours have a strong draw for followers of the so-called paleo diet, according to Mr. Devey. The company added coarse hazelnut and walnut flours to its offerings.

Judge the allergy load

Despite all their health benefits, nuts can pose allergy risks. About 15 million Americans have food allergies, according to Food Allergy Research & Education (FARE, formerly the Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network). One in every 13 children under the age of 18 has a food allergy. Nut allergies affect 3.3 million individuals; however, four times as many people are allergic to seafood than to peanuts, the Peanut Institute observed.

Some evidence indicates childhood allergies might be outgrown as individuals reach adulthood, but the safest course is to avoid such risks. This creates a significant market for nut-like ingredients that don’t carry the nut allergy risk.

Dennis Reid, vice-president, sales and marketing, Inclusion Technologies LLC, Atchison, KS, described the search for alternatives, noting development of the company’s “disruptive technology” based on wheat germ. “The growing awareness of nut allergenicity … is making developers look for nut-free alternatives,” he said.

Based on proprietary technology, the company’s nut-like pieces extend and partially replace nuts to provide the desired sensory attributes but at lower cost and fewer allergy consequences. (Wheat allergy, different from wheat intolerance or celiac disease, is rare.) Originally developed in the 1970s, the ingredients are “a perfect case where a technology was invented and commercialized well before its time,” Mr. Reid observed.

Another choice to get around nut allergen problems are inclusions developed by QualiTech, Chaska, MN, based on stabilized corn germ. “They are all-natural, allergen-free and cost-effective,” said Ron Heddleson, senior director of R&D. They contribute nutty, whole-grain flavor and visual appearance and carry 19% natural dietary fiber and 18% protein. “This ingredient can also be blended with peanut flour to extend usage and deliver cost savings,” he added. “We can provide inclusions that can deliver the texture, appearance and flavor of blends of nuts such as pecans and peanuts.”

Even though bakers have long used nuts in their foods, there’s still more to learn about their taste and eye appeal. Even more compelling are the functional benefits that improve the texture and stability of finished goods. And today, emerging science adds another factor — their nutritional value — to the case for nuts. All told, it’s good to be on the winning side.

 

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