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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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."

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