Experts Officially Agree: Nuts Are Healthy

Nuts benefit from nutritional and consumer trends.

By Claudia Dziuk O’Donnell, Contributing Editor

"Warning Letter!" Thus started a March 2015 letter from the FDA to Daniel Lubetzky, the CEO of Kind LLC. The communication involved a popular line of the company’s health bars that included its Almond & Coconut and Peanut Butter Dark Chocolate+Protein varieties.

A key FDA request to bring those products into regulatory compliance was the removal of the word “healthy” from product labels. Fat – any kind of fat -- had been a chief nutritional concern when the regulations were implemented over two decades earlier, and they specified that snack foods making a “healthy” nutrient content label claim could not contain more than 3g of total fat or 1g of saturated fat per serving. Nuts, primary components in the bars, pushed them over this allowed standard.

Kind complied with labeling changes, but also pushed back arguing FDA’s standards were outdated. David Katz, director of Yale University's Prevention Research Center and nutrition adviser to Kind, noted, “The current regulatory definition of healthy is inconsistent with federal guidelines and scientific research, as today we know it’s advisable to prioritize eating whole foods, including nuts, plants, whole grains and seafood.”

The story turned out well for Kind. In an FDA email, the agency agreed that, in Kind’s case, “healthy” was not a nutrient content claim but rather a corporate philosophy. (2-fortune) The FDA also acknowledged its nutrient labeling regulations should be re-evaluated as nutrition research advanced.

“A true success will come when the healthy standard is updated, empowering consumers to better identify the types of food recommended as part of a healthy diet,” said Lubetzky in a press release. “Our recipes include nutrient-dense, simple and premium ingredients like whole nuts, seeds, whole grains and pieces of fruit.”

The culinary term “nuts” covers a range of foods such as true tree nuts (hazelnuts and pecans), seeds (almonds, cashews and Brazil nuts) and legumes (peanuts). Whatever their botanical category, their nutrient composition, taste and other attributes dovetail with current consumer and health trends. Their simplicity and “whole food” status assist with clean label formulations; many are paleo friendly; and peanuts, as a legume, have nitrogen-fixing properties that provide soil sustainability benefits. All assist a “plant-based” diet.

Their protein, fiber and total sugars content are in overall harmony with today’s dietary trends, although it depends on the nut under consideration. For example, the USDA database pegs Spanish raw peanuts at about 26.2% protein, 49.6% lipids and 9.5% fiber; unroasted almonds at about 21.2% protein, 50.0% fat and 12.5% fiber; and raw macadamia nuts at 7.9% protein, 75.8% lipids and 8.6% fiber. All such nuts are generally under 5% total sugars. 

It should be noted that, although certain protein levels appear comparable to animal sources, their nutritional quality (e.g., PDCAAS values) are lower. This can impact the Nutrition Facts panel for the percent daily value declaration, which is required if any protein claims are made, says Lauren Swann of Concept Nutrition Inc.

Although fat has been a traditional source of dietary caution, it is no longer considered the prime dietary evil, especially when types and sources are considered. For example, on July 24, the FDA granted a Qualified Health Claim Petition for macadamia nuts and their ability to reduce risk of coronary heart disease. As FDA response to the claim petition explains, “FDA concurs with the current 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans that dietary patterns characterized by the regular consumption of nuts (among other foods) may be associated with beneficial cardiovascular disease health outcomes.”

A march of recently published articles supports the healthfulness of nuts. One example is a July industry-supported study published in the Journal of Nutrition by Berryman CE, et al., which indicated almond consumption may assist with cholesterol management. Another is an April 2015 British Journal of Nutrition article titled “Nuts and CVD,” which notes epidemiological studies associate nut consumption with a reduced incidence of cardiovascular disease and that “contrary to expectations, epidemiological studies and clinical trials suggest that regular nut consumption is not associated with undue weight gain.”

The message is getting through to consumers. For example, although sales in the Diet and Nutrition category grew only 1.1%, plant-based high protein products grew 56.5% according to Nielsen Product Insider, powered by Label Insight (52 weeks ending 7/8/2017).

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