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Another popular use of nuts is in ready-to-eat breakfast cereals. The most popular nut is the almond, often sliced into thin slices and sometimes glazed along with flakes or clusters. The flakes are fairly dry, so there is little moisture transfer, and the carton liner may be treated with antioxidants to prevent off-flavors. There is little additional fat, so interactions that might occur between lipid ingredients are minimized. In some products, cereal clusters are made with nuts added to nuggets and flakes, and coated with a light sugar coating.
Nuts have always been a popular addition to cookies. Now they're playing a role in low-carbohydrate reformulations. Both almonds and hazelnuts are being ground into flour to replace part of the wheat flour in products that claim reduced carbohydrates, says Alex Flyntz, American Almond's national sales manager.
Parco Foods, Blue Island, Ill. (www.parcofoods.com) a manufacturer of frozen cookie dough for in-store bakeries, is using nuts to make healthier cookies. "We're looking at lower carbs and high fiber content, too, and nuts help," says formulator Carol Sinople. "We're careful about which nut is used in formulas we are developing with zero trans fats to be sure the flavors remain good there."
Parco Foods is partial to nuts that have more natural resistance to rancid flavors, including almonds, peanuts, and pecans. Since the company's products include frozen cookie dough, the temperature helps protect the flavors of nuts in the dough.
Partly because of the healthy fats in nuts, they have been popular in foodservice. Because the shelf life is not an issue with freshly prepared foods, nuts are added to sauces, vegetables, meats, salads, desserts and appetizers.
In the move toward more exotic foods, almonds and walnuts are appearing on salads, pecans in pecan-crusted chicken, and pistachios and macadamia nuts are being added to recipes for desserts. Smaller packages of specially sized nuts are designed for use in the home: sliced almonds sized to use on salads, vegetables and fish almondine are found in just about every supermarket, as well as in foodservice packages.
Just like nuts, chocolate is beginning to get recognition for at least some healthy attributes. Chocolate and nuts is a long-running duet in the candy industry, and new pairings are popping up all the time.
M&M Mars recently extended its Snickers candy bar with an almond version, and sales have grown rapidly. "It's an upscale ingredient that's affordable, and the health aspect doesn't hurt," says Marlene Machut, director of external affairs for Masterfoods, the candy and food unit of Mars Inc., Hackettstown, N.J. Almonds also were added to one of the Kudo's Granola Bars as a healthier ingredient, and that has been effective, as well, she says.
On the other side of the chocolate aisle, Hershey a few years back added almonds to its famous chocolate Kisses -- with spectacular results. Now, insiders tell us almonds are a key ingredient in new products under development at Hershey.
Nuts are healthy: The label says so
Last July, the Food and Drug Administration allowed a "qualified" health claim for peanuts and nine tree nuts (almonds, Brazil nuts, cashew nuts, hazelnuts, macadamia nuts, pecans, pine nuts, pistachio nuts, and walnuts). Responding to a petition from the International Tree Nut Council Nutrition Research and Education Foundation, FDA said there was not sufficient scientific evidence for an unqualified health claim, but did allow the qualified claim.
The qualified claim says, ""Scientific evidence suggests but does not prove that eating 1.5 ounces per day of most nuts [include the name of the specific nut] as part of a diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol may reduce the risk of heart disease."
A separate, similar label statement specifically for walnuts also is permitted. A letter of Enforcement Discretion for the qualified health claim for walnuts, which includes the sources of scientific evidence that the FDA relied on for the claim, is available at www.cfsan.fda.gov/~dms.qhcnuts3.html.
A number of medical studies have increased the nutritional excitement behind nuts. One of the most recent was a study that evaluated the effect of almonds on total cholesterol and low-density lipoprotein (LDL or "bad cholesterol"). Briefly, almond-based diets showed reductions in total cholesterol and LDL, while the high-density lipoprotein (good cholesterol) content was maintained. (Details are available from Gene Spiller at The Health Research and Studies Center, 415-948-8540.)
A study at Pennsylvania State University studied the effects of about an ounce of walnuts a day. Researchers found the diet that included the walnuts, which are rich in alpha linolenic acid, produced lower serum cholesterol while also improving vascular function.
While healthy fats have fueled the interest in nuts, they are also rich in anti-oxidants, such as tocopherols that are precursors of vitamin E (alpha, beta, gamma and delta forms), phytochemicals such as stigmasterol, campesterols, and beta-sitosterol. Carotenoids include beta and alpha carotene, cryptozanthin, lutein, minerals such as zinc, calcium, potassium, and vitamins including folate (see table). Nuts also contain selenium, known for its effect against prostate cancer.
"Now consumers know nuts are good for them, and they know eating an ounce and a half will help their cardiovascular system," says Dennis Balint, CEO of the California Walnut Commission, Sacramento, Calif. "Consumers will be more likely to use walnuts and other nuts in a variety of ways. You're going to see increases (of nuts) in packaged salads, garnishes and other uses. Additionally, nut sales won't take away from other purchases, but will add to the total ring."
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