Nuts are all over the media lately. Open any magazine -- including this one -- and you're bound to see them. Page through papers like the New York Times and you'll find articles such as "Pass the Nuts, Pass Up the Guilt" pithily promoting the health benefits of nuts. Nuts, or rather Diamond of California walnuts -- even sponsored a recent Bowl Game.
Why the sudden push? Because like never before, people want to take control of their bodies to prevent disease and improve their health. And they are turning to food for help.
"Healthy You! 2002," an online survey sponsored by ingredient supplier Haarmann and Reimer, found that 94 percent of some 7,000 respondents believe that foods can prevent the onset of disease. This is no bandwagon or passing fad.
The health benefits of nuts are real, and nut manufacturers -- many of whom fund clinical studies -- want people to know it. The good news is that the strategy seems to be working, if consumption trends are an indication. According to the International Tree Nut Council, consumption of California almonds has increased 37 percent since 1996, while walnut consumption increased 13 percent over the same period. Worldwide production is also keeping up, with the amount of shelled almonds, hazelnuts, walnuts, pecans, macadamias and in-shell pistachios having increased by 30 percent since 1996 -- good news if you want to incorporate nuts into your products.
The good side
Most nuts have about 17 grams of fat in a 1-oz. serving. That's a good thing. Why? Because the fats contained in nuts are good fats. Research shows that it's no longer about the total amount of fat; what really matters is the type. There are bad fats -- saturated and trans fats -- that raise the risk for certain diseases, just as there are good fats -- mono and polyunsaturated -- that lower those risks. Epidemiological studies have consistently shown the beneficial effects of nut consumption on coronary heart disease (CHD) morbidity and mortality among varying population groups. Unsaturated fats are essential to the body and help reduce the risk of heart attacks and sudden death. In June 2002, a prospective study of over 21,000 U.S. male physicians showed that dietary nut intake was associated with a significantly reduced risk of sudden cardiac death. According to the study, men who consumed nuts two or more times a week were more than 50 percent less likely to suffer sudden cardiac death than those who rarely or never consumed nuts. These results confirmed earlier research results, including the Adventist Health Study (31,000 Seventh Day Adventists, published in 1992), the Iowa Women's Health study (34,000 Iowan women, published in 1996), and the Nurses Health Study (83,000 women, published in 1998), all of which demonstrated a correlation between frequent nut consumption and decreased CHD risk.
Though varieties differ in nutrient composition, all nuts are rich sources of unsaturated fat, and contain many bioactive components such as fiber, micronutrients (including vitamins and minerals such as copper, magnesium, vitamin E, B vitamins), protein, plant sterols, and other phytochemicals. Currently, almonds and walnuts are both subjects of several studies. The California Almond Board, for instance, is funding clinical trials to determine whether almond consumption may decrease the risk of cardiovascular disease and certain cancers. The Board is also funding trials to study the effects of almond consumption on glucose metabolism and insulin regulation, and on dietary lipids, absorption, and satiety. A recent cohort study showed that women who regularly eat peanut butter and nuts may significantly reduce their risk of Type II diabetes.
This positive clinical data has been a boom for nuts. In the Healthy You! database, 54 percent of the Healthy You! nut-eaters consume nuts as frequently as once a week or more, and 88 percent said they purchase nuts several times a month or more. Based on their purchasing habits, the majority of nut consumers appear to be snacking -- on peanuts (80 percent checked Planters), almonds (50 percent checked Blue Diamond), and walnuts (25 percent checked Diamond of California). In the Healthy You! study, conjoint measurement was used to better understand the drivers of consumer interest. For nuts, health attributes are most desired, comprising 43 percent of the total element scores (Figure 1).
The other side: allergens
Because nuts are allergens, they require careful handling by processors. Although less than 3 percent of the population has a food allergy, allergic reactions to food can be deadly. Not surprisingly, concern about rising allergen-related product recalls has spawned numerous programs and government initiatives to protect those who are at risk. Many processors, for instance, have put rigorous system checks in place to minimize the risk of cross contamination during production. Many have also added more informative labeling to their packaging.
For purposes of allergen control, Dr. Steve Taylor of the University of Nebraska's Food Allergy Research & Resource Program (FAARP) points out that it's important to distinguish between peanuts, which are legumes, and tree nuts, which include walnuts, almonds and hazelnuts. While both are common allergens and reactions to either can be severe, peanut allergies tend to be more common.
The Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network (FAAN), one of the nation's premier advocacy groups, is not only working to raise public awareness about these and other food allergens, but also advance research on behalf of those affected by food allergies. FAAN has also worked with the Food Allergy Issues Alliance (FAIA), a consortium of food companies, trade associations and consumer groups, to help industry members understand the challenges faced by allergic consumers. FAAN has even helped food companies develop more effective labeling and allergen control programs.
FAIA, meanwhile, has issued the following labeling guidelines to food companies in May 2001:
- Identify major food allergens that cause more than 90 percent of all food-allergic reactions (crustaceans, eggs, fish, milk, peanuts, soy and wheat).
- Put terms in plain English
- Disclose the presence of major food allergens when they are an intentional part of a food, regardless of the source (e.g., as part of a flavor, or incidental additive or processing aid)
- Establish guidelines for conditions when the use of supplemental allergen statements is appropriate
In 2002, The Grocery Manufacturers of America (GMA) surveyed its food industry members to determine their progress in implementing the FAIA guidelines. They found that:
- 100 percent of respondents were in the process of implementing the guidelines.
- 60 percent planned to complete implementation by the end of 2002.
- An additional 25 percent planned to complete implementation by the end of 2003.
FAIA is now working on an Allergen Awareness Education Program for employees of food manufacturing facilities.
It was expected that the Senate HELP Committee will soon reintroduce legislation for food allergen labeling. Changes negotiated by GMA and other food industry groups were:
- A Federal preemption/national uniformity provision for the new allergen labeling requirements
- Clarification that the Committee's intent is to name the specific member of the food class (walnut, shrimp) as the declared allergen, not he broader class name (tree nuts, crustacean)
- Recognition that good manufacturing practices and other methods used by the food industry could be used to manage food allergens without requiring dedicated equipment.
The majority of academic research on food allergens is focused in two areas: development of analytical methods to detect trace residues of allergenic proteins, and identification of the proteins in tree nuts that cause an allergic response. The University of Florida, for instance, is pursuing development of polyclonal and monoclonal antibodies to tree nut allergens for use in testing suspected foods for allergen contamination. FARRP is similarly focused on developing assays to detect allergenic food residues that might contaminate other foods. Resulting ELISA tests are currently available for almond, egg, milk, peanut, whey, and walnut. A soy test developed by FARRP is available for experimental use only, while tests for cashews, clams, hazelnuts, pecans and sesame are currently under development.
Recombinant allergen research is being conducted on peanuts, which could be used to create vaccines that would "cure" individuals of their allergies. While some clinical research is underway for a peanut allergen vaccine, FAARP's Taylor doesn't expect the vaccine to be ready for humans for several years -- assuming that it's proven to work.
If research progresses, it will only lead to greater nut consumption and, by extension, a healthier population. The allergen issue has presented the industry with unique challenges. In time, we will hopefully see a cure for allergic reactions , perhaps some form of genetic modification that disarms the bad allergens while preserving all of the goodness.