When it comes to healthy eating and weight management, snacking has found itself on the minds — and plates — of American consumers. Rather than having three large meals a day, many people are turning toward eating more meals, more frequently and in smaller portions. In fact, the Sterling-Rice Group, Boulder, CO, recently reported that North American and European consumers are snacking twice a day, and snack introductions reached an all-time high of 7,895 total new products worldwide from 2009 to 2010, according to Sterling-Rice research.

Health-conscious consumers are looking for snacks that not only fill them up but also give them energy and taste great — all important qualities in healthy snack foods. This doesn’t mean that baked goods are off-limits; it simply means that smart snackers are turning toward foods that fit the bill. Incorporating almonds into products can transform the perception of a baked food into a better-for-you snacking option.

Almonds are cholesterol-free and low in saturated fat. In 2003, the Food and Drug Administration approved a qualified health claim for use on packaged foods that links daily consumption of 1.5 oz almonds with lower risks of heart disease.

This actually presents opportunity for bakers and snack manufacturers, and almonds, which contain about 6 g protein, 3 g fiber and 9 g monounsaturated fat per 28-g serving, are aiding in that opportunity. In fact, ­according to the Sterling-Rice Group, the number of snack products that contain almonds increased 68% between 2008 and 2010.

“Consumers are seeking bakery products that can help their families enhance their diets. They are staying away from rich, sugary and calorie-laden products,” said Kantha Shelke, PhD, founder and principal of Corvus Blue LLC, a Chicago-based food science research firm. “Whether toasted, blanched, diced, sliced or crushed, almonds help bakers substitute for part of fat, sugar and even refined flour to create a product that will satisfy quicker and longer.”

From granola and cereal bars to clusters, almonds’ sweetness, crunch and chew provide a variety of opportunities to up the appeal of baked snacks. For example, substituting almond flour for part of the wheat flour in cake, cookie and pastry formulations can add flavor and mouthfeel and improve their health-and-wellness quotient.

When replacing flour with almond flour or almond meal, it is best to reduce the amount of liquid. “Almonds do not absorb water in the manner that wheat starch and protein do,” Dr. Shelke said. “Additionally, the fat content of almonds tends to plasticize the dough and will likely shorten and tenderize the texture of the finished product. Expect a slight decrease in volume when substituting almond flour or meal for wheat or any other grain,” she noted.

Adding diced or crushed almonds into products like scones or biscuits adds a rich taste without the need for additional fat. In this application, Dr. Shelke said, “It is important to ensure that the foundational structure of the product is conditioned and strong enough to hold the pieces without collapsing under their weight. Fortunately, almonds are pretty light and will not make the finished product too dense,” she added.

The Almond Board of California provides extensive information about the nutritional aspects of almonds — and the research supporting the heart health claim — at its website, www.almondboard.com.