Crazy for nuts

Consumers love their taste and nutritional benefits, but nuts like other food allergens present unique challenges to processors

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Nuts are all over the media lately.  Open any magazine -- including this one -- and you're bound to see them. Page through papers like the New York Times and you'll find articles such as  "Pass the Nuts, Pass Up the Guilt" pithily promoting the health benefits of nuts.  Nuts, or rather Diamond of California walnuts -- even sponsored a recent Bowl Game.


Why the sudden push?  Because like never before, people want to take control of their bodies to prevent disease and improve their health. And they are turning to food for help. 


"Healthy You! 2002," an online survey sponsored by ingredient supplier Haarmann and Reimer,  found that 94 percent of some 7,000 respondents believe that foods can prevent the onset of disease. This is no bandwagon or passing fad.  


The health benefits of nuts are real, and nut manufacturers -- many of whom fund clinical studies --  want people to know it. The good news is that the strategy seems to be working, if consumption trends are an indication. According to the International Tree Nut Council, consumption of California almonds has increased 37 percent since 1996, while walnut consumption increased 13 percent over the same period.  Worldwide production is also keeping up, with the amount of shelled almonds, hazelnuts, walnuts, pecans, macadamias and in-shell pistachios having increased by 30 percent since 1996 -- good news if you want to incorporate nuts into your products.


The good side

Most nuts have about 17 grams of fat in a 1-oz. serving. That's a good thing. Why? Because the fats contained in nuts are good fats. Research shows that it's no longer about the total amount of fat; what really matters is the type. There are bad fats -- saturated and trans fats -- that raise the risk for certain diseases, just as there are good fats -- mono and polyunsaturated -- that lower those risks. Epidemiological studies have consistently shown the beneficial effects of nut consumption on coronary heart disease (CHD) morbidity and mortality among varying population groups. Unsaturated fats are essential to the body and help reduce the risk of heart attacks and sudden death. In June 2002, a prospective study of over 21,000 U.S. male physicians showed that dietary nut intake was associated with a significantly reduced risk of sudden cardiac death. According to the study, men who consumed nuts two or more times a week were more than 50 percent less likely to suffer sudden cardiac death than those who rarely or never consumed nuts.  These results confirmed earlier research results, including the Adventist Health Study (31,000 Seventh Day Adventists, published in 1992), the Iowa Women's Health study (34,000 Iowan women, published in 1996), and the Nurses Health Study (83,000 women, published in 1998), all of which demonstrated a correlation between frequent nut consumption and decreased CHD risk.


Though varieties differ in nutrient composition, all nuts are rich sources of unsaturated fat, and contain many bioactive components such as fiber, micronutrients (including vitamins and minerals such as copper, magnesium, vitamin E, B vitamins), protein, plant sterols, and other phytochemicals. Currently, almonds and walnuts are both subjects of several studies. The California Almond Board, for instance, is funding clinical trials to determine whether almond consumption may decrease the risk of cardiovascular disease and certain cancers. The Board is also funding trials to study the effects of almond consumption on glucose metabolism and insulin regulation, and on dietary lipids, absorption, and satiety. A recent cohort study showed that women who regularly eat peanut butter and nuts may significantly reduce their risk of Type II diabetes.


This positive clinical data has been a boom for nuts. In the Healthy You! database, 54 percent of the Healthy You! nut-eaters consume nuts as frequently as once a week or more, and 88 percent said they purchase nuts several times a month or more.  Based on their purchasing habits, the majority of nut consumers appear to be snacking -- on peanuts (80 percent checked Planters), almonds (50 percent checked Blue Diamond), and walnuts (25 percent checked Diamond of California).  In the Healthy You! study, conjoint measurement was used to better understand the drivers of consumer interest.  For nuts, health attributes are most desired, comprising 43 percent of the total element scores (Figure 1).

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