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.

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