Going Nuts for Nut Ingredients

Nuts are breaking out of their shells as a premium treat and gaining deserved recognition as a viable ingredient for many food and beverage formulations.

By Mark Anthony, Ph.D.

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His unit surrounded by Germans at Bastogne during the World War II "Battle of the Bulge," General Anthony McAullife issued his famous one-word written reply to General von Luettwitz's surrender demand: "Nuts!"

Defiantly, McAullife's 101st Division held on until reinforced by General Patton. The rest, as they say, is history. In a much less dramatic fashion, health-conscious consumers have emerged from shackles of the "fat makes you fat" era with the same defiant reply: Nuts!

"Gone are the days of everyone thinking nuts are fattening. Now people know nuts contain good fats," says Aaron Anker, co-owner and "Chief Granola Officer" at GrandyOats Granola (www.grandyoats.com), Brownfield, Maine. Housed in a restored 100-year-old dairy barn, GrandyOats has been cranking out organic granola, along with trail mixes, and flavored nuts in bulk since 1979.

"GrandyOats has always featured nuts in their products. Granolas traditionally have nuts for aseveral reasons. Nuts are tremendously healthy and people like the flavor. Nuts accompanied by our whole-grain, lightly sweetened granolas give our cereal a balanced nutrition. In the past few years we've been featuring more stand-alone nut varieties. We do roasted nut blends, sweet and savory," says Anker.

Nuts in a name

Botanically speaking, a nut is a "hard shelled seed," like almonds, walnuts, hazelnuts, and pecans. But that's botany; the culinary definition -- "an oily kernel encased in a shell and used as food" -- is much more useful if we are concerned with a healthy diet and tasty food. This more liberal definition includes the seeds of plants like pumpkin, squash, sesame, sunflower, and even hemp seeds. Peanuts, although from the legume family, also are classed as nuts.

 

Note To Marketers
The growing evidence that nuts are linked to protection from cardiovascular disease, insulin resistance, type 2 diabetes and weight control presents a healthy picture for nuts. This gives products with nuts a smart, healthy image. Eating natural foods containing nuts is an investment that brings rewards in energy, satiety and health.

 

Unlike grains or most legumes, which store energy for the growing plant as starch, nuts store their energy as fat in the form of oil. Starch yields four calories per gram compared to nine for fat. Cooked starch swells with water to three times its dry weight, making a cup of cooked grain even lower in calories, compared to nuts. That bit of physics, combined with the "calorie is a calorie" mentality made it easy to jump to the conclusion that nuts would indeed make us fat. But numerous studies tell a far different story; an investment in nutty calories goes a long way.

A review in the September 2003, American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, points to epidemiological studies that associate increased consumption of nuts with a decreased body mass index. Controlled feeding trials, as well as studies of free-living subjects, resulted in similar findings: Diets containing nuts are associated with significantly lower body weights.

According to Marie-Pierre St-Onge American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, July 2005 many studies designed to look at the beneficial effect of nuts (almonds, cashews, pistachios, and walnuts) on blood cholesterol levels have reported weight control help as a byproduct.

In some of these studies, subjects either lost or maintained weight although calorie and fat intake increased. This surprised researchers, who anticipated weight gain with increased calorie intake. In "Edible nuts and metabolic health," a review in January's Current Opinion in Lipidology, Alison Coates and Peter Howe present evidence nuts may help prevent insulin resistance and "metabolic syndrome," a precursor to type 2 diabetes. It's not clear to what degree satiety and metabolic efficiency play in keeping this energy-dense food from piling on the pounds, but the results certainly say "nuts" to the idea of nuts being fattening.

Nuts take heart

While weight management may be one of the pluses to enjoying nuts, lowering our risk of heart disease could also be highly significant. That was the conclusion of the FDA in response to a petition filed by the International Tree Nut Council Nutrition Research & Education Foundation (INC NREF) in 2002. The FDA issued a subsequent qualified health claim in 2003: "Scientific evidence suggests but does not prove that eating 1.5 ounces per day of nuts, as part of a diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol, may reduce the risk of heart disease."

These benefits could explain the steady increase in the use of nuts by consumers and processors since 1995, as per USDA food consumption data (www.ers.usda.gov). The only question now seems to be, how many ways can we employ this healthy, non-fattening food?

"The combination of nuts with unsweetened fruits we use in our bars provides a naturally balanced and nutritionally beneficial product," says Lara Merriken, CEO and founder of Larabar (www.larabar.com), Denver. In fact, nuts and dried fruit make up nearly the entire ingredient list in Larabar products, which employ the natural variety of nuts to manipulate the taste, texture and character of each raw, organic bar. "The nuttiest bars we make are: Pecan Pie, Cashew Cookie, Cinnamon Roll and Pistachio. While all of our bars vary slightly because of the different ingredients, they all have a similar profile," says Merriken.

Nuts vary more than grains and beans, not only in taste and texture, but also in nutrition. The difference is reflected in protein and micronutrient content, and more importantly in fatty acid composition. As a group, nuts span the entire spectrum of healthful fats, from mono-unsaturated fatty acids, (omega-9, the fat in olive oil) to the essential omega-6 and omega-3. Almonds, cashews, filberts (hazelnuts), macadamia nuts and pecans, have fatty acid profiles similar to olives and avocadoes, with over 63 percent mono-unsaturated fatty acids.

Brazil nuts and walnuts, and hemp, pumpkin, sesame and sunflower seeds are rich sources of essential omega-6 fatty acids, at levels similar to corn and soy oils. Flaxseeds are the richest in omega-3 fatty acids (58 percent of total fatty acids) with hemp (20 percent) second, followed by pumpkin seeds and walnuts (between 6 and 8 percent). Peanuts are rich in both mono-unsaturated fatty acids (47 percent) and omega-6s (29 percent).

A new grind

Peanut butter consumption has remained fairly constant since the early 1970s. It often is erroneously associated with high trans fat content. "Trans fat levels are undetectable in commercially prepared peanut butters, as well as in the natural kinds, a USDA Agriculture Research Service study has shown," says Raffaela Marie Fenn, president and managing director of the National Peanut Board (www.nationalpeanutboard.org), Atlanta. "The study demonstrated you could eat 312 tablespoons of peanut butter in one day -- the equivalent of 156 peanut butter sandwiches -- and still not consume even 0.5g of trans fats, which is the FDA threshold for trans fats to be listed on a product label."

 

Marketing peanut butters fortified with omega-3 fatty acids, Smart Balance hopes consumers are getting the message about "good fats."

 

Recently, peanut butter has taken on a new, even healthier look. New Smart Balance Peanut Butter joins other Smart Balance foods to boost omega-3 fatty acids in the diet; including Smart Balance Omega PLUS Buttery Spread, Light Mayonnaise, and cooking oil under the Smart Balance Omega Brand," says Robert Harris, president and CEO of GFA Brands Inc. (www.smartbalance.com), Cresskill, N.J.

"The American diet is woefully inadequate in omega-3s, (which come) from both fish and plant sources. We provide both types; we not only balance fats to help improve blood cholesterol, we also balance omega-6 to omega-3 ratio," continues Harris. "The balance in Smart Balance comes from the addition of flaxseed and palm oil. The result is an all-natural, trans fat-free, omega-3 rich peanut butter that resists separation."

There are more choices in nut butters than ever. "(We have) no data, but it seems health-oriented cook books in recent years increasingly included nuts and nut butters as ingredients for recipes," says Amy Rosen, media manager for nSpired Natural Foods (www.mspiredfoods.com), San Leandro, Calif.

"Nuts add crunch and texture to salads and pasta dishes, while nut butters add body, smoothness and pleasing flavors to sauces, marinades, muffins, dressings and smoothies," continues Rosen. The company provides a variety of organic nut butters, such as almond, cashew and sesame, under its Maranatha label. "Certain nuts are high in micronutrients that promote good health," states Rosen. "Peanut butter is high in niacin, a B vitamin that reduces LDL and blood pressure, plus resveratrol, a (beneficial) phytochemical. Almonds are higher in calcium than other nuts; cashews are high in minerals, including iron, zinc and copper, all essential for good metabolism."

Ground sesame seed -- tahini -- is a Middle Eastern staple, along with hummus (ground chick peas, also known as garbanzo beans). "Consumer interest in hummus and tahini has been steadily increasing for the last 10 to 15 years of so," says Jesse Norris, quality control manager at Tribe Mediterranean Foods (www.tribehummus.com), Taunton, Mass.

"Much of this popularity can be attributed to the fact that it is healthy and nutritious, and in such a way that it fits into most health fads which otherwise come and go," continues Norris. "It's certain hummus and tahini are not going to go out of style with health-minded consumers.

Fresh from the trees

For many processors, nuts other than peanuts have been considered specialty ingredients. "Walnuts, with their unique shape and ridges, offer a crunch and texture different from other nuts. We think that's what makes them the No. 1 nut for cooking and baking," says Vicki Zeigler, public relations manager for Diamond Foods Inc. (www.diamondnuts.com), Stockton, Calif. The company has been supplying a full line of in-shell and ingredient nuts since 1912.

By launching a new line of nut snacks (Emerald of California) and sponsoring such prestigious athletics events as the 2006 Ing New York City Marathon, the City of Los Angeles Marathon and its own Emerald 12K and 5K walk/run events, Diamond promotes nuts as sources of daily health and stamina.

Pine nuts are traditional in some Eastern cuisines, but haven't achieved attention for their benefit as a health ingredient. Penny Frasier, founder of Goods from the Woods (www.pinenut.com), Licking, Mo., is out to change that. "In the first 11 months of 2006, the United States imported 8.6 million pounds of pine nuts valued at nearly $45 million," says Frasier. This isn't much above the nearly eight and a half million pounds of wild pinion pine nuts processed in New Mexico in 1936 and shipped as "Indian nuts" to consumers on the East Coast.

There are 28 species of pines producing commercial viable seeds, and each species is different. For example the pine nuts from Colorado P. edulis are small, with a hard shell and an oil-rich meat, whereas P. monophylla from Nevada are extremely large and sweet.

"People benefit by consuming almonds," says John Wagaman, account manager for Blue Diamond Growers (www.bluediamond.com), Sacramento, Calif. "Almonds are amazingly shelf stable, adding texture contrast, and visual interest to food formulations. Consumer interest in almonds has never before been as great as it is today, both in the U.S. and globally, as evidenced by industry shipments worldwide."

 

Peanut butter may be America's favorite nut butter, but alternatives from almonds, cashews and other nuts are making inroads in the market.

 

"Almonds not only are being consumed at record levels here in the U.S., more than 1 pound per capita almonds have become the number one agricultural export from California," adds Wagaman. "Reasons for the growth in almond use are many, chief among them the growing awareness of their healthful contribution to our daily diet." Growers in California are planting thousands of new acres of almond trees to keep up with demand.

High on the possibility

Described as "one of the healthiest, hottest and most controversial ingredients to hit the market" hemp seeds have joined the healthy parade of choices for getting good fats into the diet. In 2001, The French Meadow Bakery (www.frenchmeadow.com), Minneapolis, introduced its healthy hemp bread line, which features shelled hemp seeds, flax and pumpkin seeds; three rich plant sources of omega-3 fatty acids.

Hemp seeds have a healthy balance of both omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acids, too. Plus they contain a high percentage (up to 31 percent by weight) of high-quality protein. What they don't have is tetrahydocannabinol (THC), the phychoactive substance that gives marijuana its reputation.

"Although hemp suffers from a 'mistaken identity,' it's not a drug, nor will it get you high," says Lynn Gordon, president and founder of French Meadow. This year, French Meadow will introduce a line of Healthy Hemp bagels with the same fiber and essential fatty acid-rich formula as its Healthy Hemp bread. Meanwhile, Living Harvest Inc. (www.livingharvest.com), Portland, Ore., keeps expanding its line of hemp-based products, all kosher- , non-GMO and organic-certified.

Out of the shell

Nuts are a healthy and satisfying addition to any diet unless you have a specific allergy to them. About 90 percent of all food allergies arise from eight sources: milk, fish, shellfish, eggs, wheat, soy, tree nuts, and peanuts. And for some, nuts can offer relief from one or another of these allergies. For those who are allergic to milk or are lactose (milk sugar) intolerant, nut "milks" offer a tasty vegetarian alternative.

 

Nut milks are becoming an alternative to the alternative, displacing soy milk for some people who cannot consumer cow's milk.

 

Blue Diamond's Almond Breeze brand of beverages fits perfectly this important niche. Pacific Natural Foods (www.pacificfoods.com), Tualatin, Ore., offers milks from both almonds and hazelnuts. Each of these milks has a distinctive nutty flavor and is free of wheat, gluten, casein (milk protein). Soymilks have become popular alternatives to milk, but many are allergic to soy, and others simply prefer a different taste. Nut milks are becoming a popular alternative to the alternative.

As processors consider walnuts, almonds, pecans, hazelnuts (and the legumes and seeds that fall under the same ingredient umbrella) as solutions to add bulk, flavor and health to food and beverage formulations, marketers can take advantage of the overwhelmingly positive reputation nuts have with consumers. Perceived negatives, such as high caloric content, have thankfully fallen by the wayside thanks to more complete research on human nutrition.

The image of nuts has gone from high-fat food to protective, "healthy fat" food, and from being a specialty ingredient item to daily staples. With more nutrition research in the works, especially regarding nuts and weight control, the future indeed looks nutty.

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