Nuts are filled with nutritive components that have made them important staple foods since the first tree grew in the Garden of Eden. And this fact has not been lost on food processors. Moreover, with the growing consumer understanding of healthful fats, nut use has been on a steady and welcome upswing.
The years 2008-2013 saw a 59 percent global increase in food products that contain nuts as an ingredient, according to multiple sources. That figure translates to more than 9,000 new products worldwide. And while the majority of the new nut products are relegated to snacks and desserts, nuts continue to gain respect as overall contributors to a healthy diet. This becomes particularly important as modern staples come into question.
The most popular nut presently is the almond. Other nuts, especially pistachios and cashews, have seen a boom in popularity in the past few years. While some of this is due, in part, to bumper crops and engaged marketing, the overall consumer interest in all things nutty — a favorite food that nutrition experts gave the nod to after decades of misinformation — also drives the pursuit of new flavors and formats to satisfy nut cravings.
A study published earlier this year in the journal Nutrition investigated the effect of pistachios on body composition in residents of India who had been diagnosed with Metabolic Syndrome. Parts of India are undergoing a rapid dietary transition, shifting from traditional high-fiber, low-fat and low-calorie staples to a more westernized style of eating, low in fiber and rich in refined carbohydrates and fats. This trend has been accompanied by an increase in obesity, type 2 diabetes and the aforementioned Metabolic Syndrome. Also increasing is the constellation of associated metabolic abnormalities that includes: abdominal obesity; elevated blood lipids, blood pressure and blood sugar; and increased risk of coronary heart disease.
It has been estimated that about 33 percent of the urban Indian population now has Metabolic Syndrome. In the 24-week, controlled trial, the experimental group consumed 20 percent of its calories as unsalted pistachios, substituted for other fats and some refined carbohydrates. Even without a change in body weight, the experimental group saw a statistically significant decrease in mean values for waist circumference, fasting blood glucose, total cholesterol, LDL cholesterol, free fatty acids, C-reactive protein (a marker of inflammation) and markers of oxidative stress.
“Pistachios are not only versatile as a recipe or snack ingredient, but they also pack a wide range of health benefits,” says Kathleen Kissee, project manager-nutrition for American Pistachio Growers. “One serving of pistachios has just 160 calories but is packed with 6g of filling protein. What’s more, a serving of pistachios is equal to 49 nuts, which is more than any other tree nut.
"The predominant fat in pistachios is heart-healthy monounsaturated fat, and studies show that pistachios can be part of a heart-healthy diet and promote healthy blood lipid profiles," she continues. "Emerging research also suggests pistachios may help with blood-sugar management, even when eaten with a high-carbohydrate meal. Additionally, a recent study found eating pistachios raises the level of antioxidants in the body, which may lead to lower levels of oxidized LDL cholesterol.”
Over the past few years, the results of several epidemiologic studies have linked frequent nut consumption to decreased risk of a variety of chronic diseases, including cardiovascular diseases and cancer. Epidemiologic studies and clinical interventions as well have associated frequent nut consumption with stable body weight or even weight loss. This is despite the high fat content of nuts.
There are several suggested mechanisms for this often-observed result. Nuts are rich in fiber, protein and healthy fats that can provide satiety. Also, frequent nut consumption can substitute for less healthy fast foods heavy in refined fats and sugars. The resulting increased energy and increased activity among frequent nut consumers also could be part of this beneficial result of enjoying a handful of nuts every day.
Nuts are complete foods. The fat is stored in lipid-containing granules associated with various fiber components inherent in the nuts. Therefore, even with complete chewing, access to calories from fat might be less than that available from refined fats used in processing. The link between healthy weight and frequent nut consumption has been observed with virtually all nuts, including peanuts, which botanically are classed as legumes.
Food processors also have an array of nut-derived ingredients to apply to new products. Nut “bran,” from the skin of almonds, is interesting to processors as a way to add nutrient-rich fiber to products.
Technology also has caught up to cashew skins. Karma Nut Co. devised an innovative method of processing cashews to render the normally unpalatable skin edible. Termed “wrapped” cashews, they function in formulations as do regular cashews, but the skin adds a “more intense, nutty and flavorful taste experience,” according to Lisa Dean, a research food technologist and associate professor of food, bioprocessing and nutrition sciences at North Carolina State University.
“Studies have shown that, by leaving the skins on, the health benefits of cashews increase exponentially,” Dean adds. “Fruits and vegetables contain polyphenols that are reported to reduce oxidative stress and prevent chronic diseases. The ORAC [oxygen radical absorbance capacity] test indicates that nut skins are a rich source of antioxidant compounds such as polyphenols. And in unblanched cashews, the ORAC value of the nut is increased by almost 10 times over the level of blanched cashews.”
Dean notes that one ounce of wrapped cashews has an ORAC value equal to, or slightly higher than, one half cup of healthy berries, such as blackberries and raspberries.