While health attributes are emerging as a potent new selling point for nuts in food product development, food formulators and chefs continue to focus on their functionality as an ingredient. Nuts offer recipe developers a range of flavor, texture and appearance advantages, attributes that can subtly transform the ordinary into special treats and upscale fare.
For some things, there is no substitute for nuts.
It's no surprise nuts are emerging as a popular food formulating agent. They are a tasty, easy and often inexpensive solution for enhancing the fat, fiber and calorie profile of food products. While their crunchy texture and rich flavor add value to the eating experience of a wide variety of products, their healthy oil and fiber contents help enhance satiety.
When consumers see nuts in a foodservice product, they expect a nutty taste and crunchy texture. Those hopes are dashed when the heat lamp or chafing dish turns the gourmet, slivered or sliced nuts in the plated side dish or pilaf into a soggy, pasty mess. Diners and foodservice operators alike are disappointed when the nut toppings on desserts and inclusions in ice cream lose the crisp, snappy consistency associated with toasted nuts in desserts.
When nuts such as almonds, pecans and walnuts are processed, the blanching, slicing and cutting steps open up the cell structure in the nuts. The increased surface makes nuts ideal targets for water migration and the associated decline in texture.
Moisture barrier coatings are one way to minimize this. For savory applications - typical for foodservice - water migration into the particulate can be prevented by coating the pieces with a bland coating that is impervious to water. Nuts such as almonds and pecans may be roasted or coated or toasted with oil to prevent them from absorbing water and getting soggy. Roasting enhances the flavor profile and generates a characteristically stronger flavor, which can become a part of the taste profile of the finished product.
They may look like real nuts, but the coating around this apple is really nut-free Wheat Germ Nuts from Anacon Foods.
For recipes and formulations aimed at individuals with allergies to nuts, there is Wheat Germ Nuts from Anacon Foods Co., Atchison, Kan. The company has unique patented technologies to manufacture an extensive line of flavor particulate products that food processors can use as replacements or cost-effective extenders for natural nut pieces.
Wheat Germ Nuts essentially are nut analogs that can impart the appearance, taste, texture, color and aroma of their natural counterparts to a wide array of processed foods. By duplicating the essential sensory characteristics of nuts in products such as ice cream, cookies and nut pies, they open the range of foods available to those who cannot or should not eat nut-containing foods.
Wheat Germ Nuts contain absolutely no nut derivatives, offer consistent availability, are competitively priced and have a minimum shelf life of 12 months without use of any preservatives.
Kerry Ingredients, St. Louis, offers a line of nut-free particulates that have flavors and textures that closely simulate peanuts and other nuts. Kerry's Custom Food Industries has focused largely on sweet applications and has several particulates formulated to be cost-effective alternates for the more expensive real nuts.
Some nut processors add an aqueous coating solution of water and dextrin. The water is absorbed by the nuts while the dextrin coats the surface of the nuts and serves as a binder to improve the shelf life of the nuts. The dextrin coating also enhances the nut surface for application of dry coatings of powdered flavorings.
Others treat nuts with polyhydric alcohols, including glycerol, and with esters of glycerol as a way to preserve the flavor and moisture content of nuts such as Brazil nuts. One processor coats nuts with a film of pectinate or pectates mixed with glycerol.
Processors are known to apply a molten bonding agent such as glycerol monostearate and other higher fatty acids to the surface of nut meats to solidify the bonding agent.
Heating the nuts in molten sorbitol for a thin coating of sorbitol also has been used to prevent the development of undesirable flavors and odors, especially in broken nuts and pieces. Crispness, hardness and chewability of peanuts can be enhanced by using certain additives such as antioxidants, flavoring compounds and water-soluble organic humectants, including glycerol, sorbitol and propylene glycol.
Peanuts treated this way retain their crunchiness even after extended standing in warm, moist applications, such as Kung Pao Chicken - a spicy stir-fry dish served in some 800 Panda Express restaurants nationwide. The dish is prepared with marinated diced chicken, diced and sliced vegetables and crunchy peanuts, and the peanuts maintain their crunchiness even after an hour in the heated serving trays at the consumer counter.
Bruce Kotz, vice president of Golden Peanut Co., Alpharetta, Ga., attributes good positive press on the health benefits of peanuts as a driver for new and creative ways to incorporate peanuts and peanut-derived ingredients into recipes.
Peanuts and nine tree nuts (specifically almonds, Brazil nuts, cashew nuts, hazelnuts, macadamia nuts, pecans, pine nuts, pistachio nuts and walnuts) received a qualified health claim from the FDA in July 2003 linking them with reducing cholesterol and heart disease: "Scientific evidence suggests but does not prove that eating 1.5 ounces per day of most nuts as part of a diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol may reduce the risk of heart disease."