Many dairy processors welcome peanuts and tree nuts, despite being major allergens, into the manufacturing environment, providing there’s a proper allergen plan in place. This accommodation is because not only do nuts add flavor and texture to many dairy products, they are a powerhouse food loaded with protein, fiber and antioxidants, just what many consumers are seeking.

Ninety per cent of consumers agree that certain foods have health benefits beyond basic nutrition, according to the International Food Information Council (IFIC), Washington. Queried for the “2013 IFIC functional foods consumer survey,” those surveyed said they recognized that certain foods may reduce the risk of disease or other health concerns.

When survey respondents were asked on an unaided basis what the first food or food component was that came to mind that is thought to have health benefits beyond basic nutrition, the No. 1 response was fruits/vegetables. Fish/fish oil came in second, followed by vitamins/supplements. Nuts were in the sixth slot in the ranking.

Dairy foods formulators are at an advantage because they are starting with a base material intrinsically recognized as healthy. When any of the other functional foods may be combined with dairy, consumer appeal increases.

“Nuts are a nutritious addition to all types of foods, in particular dairy, which already has a healthful halo in the eyes of most consumers,” said Lu Ann Williams, director of innovation for Innova Market Insights, Duiven, The Netherlands. “Exotic nuts, such as Brazils, macadamias, pistachios and pecans, are increasingly being used to add value and interest to otherwise plain dairy foods. Technological improvements allow for the development of much more complex and sophisticated flavors and coatings, which adds another flavor dimension to many foods.”

Formulating with nuts

Peanuts and tree nuts are among the top eight food allergens found in foods in the United States. Peanuts are the No. 1 cause of food allergen incidents, according to Penn State Berkey Creamery’s Food Allergen Awareness Plan. Located on campus in the Food Science building in University Park, Pa., the plan explains to creamery employees that some people may be allergic to peanuts and not to tree nuts and vice versa. Thus, it is important to use the correct nut as an ingredient in products and to be sure labeling is accurate.

With all allergen plans, it is critical employees have a thorough understanding of all ingredients, including the ingredients used in the processing of the nuts.

“Of particular importance is the use of nut oils,” said Thomas Palchak, manager of Berkey Creamery. “Many of our nut ingredients are fried or baked in a process using nut oils. It is not uncommon to process almonds and pecans in peanut oil.”

Mr. Palchak said it is important to check the labels of incoming nut ingredients. All known allergens, including nut oils, must be properly identified on finished product labels.

“I highly encourage that allergen-containing products be packaged on separate days from non-allergen-containing products, or, at the very least, they must be the last products run on a production day that also packages non-allergen products,” Mr. Palchak said. “Proper sanitation, of course, is a must. Measures must also be in place to prevent cross contamination, and, if rework is permitted in the manufacturing operation, it must be closely monitored and segregated.

“The Creamery declares allergens on all food and ice cream labels. Signage about allergens is posted throughout the salesroom and a book with all labels and ingredients is made available to anyone who requests it.”

Dairy, do you take thy nut?

Nuts are the perfect partner to many types of dairy products, including cheese spreads, ice cream and yogurt. Although nuts pack in fat and calories, research indicates that a handful a day may help keep the doctor away. This is because the fats found in nuts contain primarily unsaturated fatty acids — both monounsaturated and polyunsaturated — and have been shown to lower the risk of heart disease and reduce low-density lipoproteins.

This benefit is well recognized and the basis of the 2003 Food and Drug Administration-approved health claim for seven different nuts — almonds, hazelnuts, peanuts, pecans, pistachios, walnuts and some pine nuts — all of which complement one or more dairy food applications. The claim reads: 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.

Further, the unique combination of “good fat,” protein and fiber positions many nuts as a natural appetite suppressant. Add that to the protein found in milk and products made from milk, and it is the foundation of a great partnership.

Most consumers do not realize nuts are antioxidant-rich foods. Walnuts rank as one of the most antioxidant-rich nuts. Pecans are also rich in antioxidants. A 2004 study from the U.S. Department of Agriculture published in the Journal of Agriculture and Food Chemistry ranked the antioxidant capacity of 100 foods and found that pecans are one of the top-15 sources of antioxidants. Compared with other nuts, pecans also have one of the highest levels of phytosterols, a group of plant chemicals that has been directly proven to help reduce cholesterol.

Other claims to fame include the fact almonds provide 35% of the Daily Value for the antioxidant vitamin E. Pistachios are a source of beta-carotene and lutein, antioxidants shown to protect eyes from macular degeneration. Hazelnuts have the highest nut level of folate, a B vitamin known to reduce the risk of birth defects.

Innovative nutty applications

Consumer education and outreach provided by various nut boards has raised awareness of the health perception of all types of nuts, which is driving a great deal of creative product development. Further, nut ingredient suppliers are making it easier to liven up dairy foods by offering nuts in all types of shapes and sizes, as well as with flavor. For example, nuts may often be coated with ingredients to add an extra layer of flavor to finished products.

“The coating type depends on the application,” said Jennifer Eastman, senior food scientist, Blue Diamond Almonds Global Ingredients Division, Sacramento, Calif. “In dairy applications, a layer of chocolate creates an ideal moisture barrier for nuts so they will not become soggy over time. In products such as yogurts, nuts that are coated with a glaze or flavor dusting are then mixed in by the consumer prior to consumption, so it is not necessary to coat the nuts with a moisture barrier.

“If nuts are going to be added by the manufacturer into a high-moisture application such as ice cream, the nuts require a moisture barrier such as chocolate to fully cover them. If this is not done, moisture will migrate from the high-moisture system into the nuts until moisture equilibrates, making the nuts soggy.”

Confectionery compound coatings are another option.

“They come in a vast array of flavors and can also be customized for a product,” Ms. Eastman said. “Product developers are limited only by their imaginations.”

On the sweet side of the business, High Road Craft Ice Cream & Sorbet Inc., Chamble, Ga., manufactures chef-inspired frozen desserts, many of which rely on nuts for flavor and texture. With recent introductions such as Bake Sale (vanilla ice cream, chocolate chip cookies and pecan brownies), The Jokester (malt ice cream, milk chocolate chunks, handmade nougat, caramel and salted peanuts) and Mr. Butterpants (milk chocolate ice cream, dark chocolate chunk and peanut butter ganache), joining mainstays such as Bitter Chocolate Hazelnut, Pistachio Honey Ricotta, Praline Chocolate Tart and Toffee Toasted Almond, there’s a nut for everyone.

Coolhaus, Culver City, Calif., introduced a line of dipped ice cream bars at Natural Products Expo West in Anaheim, Calif. One of the three varieties is chocolate hazelnut ice cream dipped in salted milk chocolate and almonds.

Müller Quaker Dairy, Chicago, has two nutty options in its Müller Corner yogurt line. The most recent addition is dark chocolate with pecan granola, which is low-fat yogurt blended with dark chocolate shavings and a side compartment of crunchy clusters. This joins last year’s roll-out of Müller Greek Corner with caramelized almonds.

The Dannon Co., White Plains, N.Y., offers YoCrunch Zone Perfect with chocolate peanut butter pieces. The vanilla-flavored, protein-enhanced (16 grams per 6-oz container) yogurt comes in a container with a dome top that holds the mix-ins.

Tillamook, a farmer-owned cooperative based in Tillamook, Ore., has given Greek yogurt a new spin with the roll-out of authentically strained Farmstyle Greek Yogurt. To make this Greek yogurt distinctively “Farmstyle,” Tillamook slow churns fresh milk with seven active yogurt and buttermilk cultures. The latter is responsible for a less tart yogurt than most Greek yogurts. The one nutty variety in the product lineup is cinnamon hazelnut, which includes a hazelnut paste made with Oregon hazelnuts that have been “toasted to bring out their ‘hazelnuttiness,’” according to the company.

Batavia, N.Y.-based Alpina Foods markets Alpina Greek with Artisan Granolas. The certified gluten-free granola mix-ins include an almond berry option.

Ehrmann, Irvine, Calif., takes the concept of mix-ins to a new level with its unique trio-compartment. New Ehrmann Mixim is packaged in a distinctive heart-shaped container, and each serving of plain yogurt is paired with two topping combinations to let consumers create their own taste sensations.

Two of the six flavors include nuts. They are mango pineapple with coconut and almonds; and honey with coconut and almonds.

On the savory side of the dairy business, Point Reyes Farmstead Cheese Co., Point Reyes Station, Calif., has turned its award-winning namesake blue cheese into a line of dips. One of the options is port, cherry and pistachio, which is sweet and nutty with port-soaked Bing cherries and toasted pistachios.

In beverage, Cacique Inc., Industry, Calif., offers nuts in a drinkable format. The company’s namesake line of yogurt smoothies includes a pecan with cereal variety. The ingredient legend indicates the use of dry-roasted pecans.

And here’s a beverage that tastes like nuts, but achieves this through the use of natural flavors. In late 2013, Hiland Dairy Foods Co., Springfield, Mo., introduced a line of lactose-free milks. Besides the traditional chocolate and white offerings, the company included a fat-free vanilla- and almond-flavored variety. The proposition here is many consumers who avoid lactose may have been drinking nut milks, such as almond milk, which is often flavored vanilla. To bring these consumers back to the dairy category without shocking their taste buds, the company is offering them a taste they have grown accustom to: vanilla with almond. The product recently received the All Star Dairy Association 2014 Innovation Award.

With so many ingredient options, dairy processors should welcome nuts into their plant.