In the past, nut consumption has been hindered by nuts' high levels of fat and calories, the latter mostly a result of the former. But in recent years, there has been a slowly growing recognition among consumers that some fats are good, and that's especially true of the fats in nuts.
Most of the fats in nuts are monounsaturated fats, plus some omega-6 and even some omega-3 polyunsaturated fats. And while nuts do contain some saturated fat content, most also have a number of vitamins and minerals, including magnesium and vitamin E, plus good quantities of fiber and protein.
As a result, nuts are considered good for you, and are especially helpful in reducing risk factors for heart disease. And as a further result, they're an attractive ingredient in many food products in many categories.
Research has uncovered benefits to eating dietary fats such as polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats, found in foods such as nuts, salmon and avocados. The strong evidence led to changes in recommendations of dietary fat consumption in the 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans.
However, consumers’ understanding of the differences between dietary fats and their role has not evolved at the same pace. To understand where the confusion lies, the California Walnut Commission (walnuts.org) conducted a survey of more than 1,000 American adults to look at their perceptions of fat and knowledge of the different types of dietary fats.
The survey found 89 percent of respondents are just as worried or more worried about consuming dietary fat than they were five years ago, and nearly two in three Americans (64 percent) believe dietary fat is their enemy. One quarter of Americans admit the word “fat” has a negative connotation for them. The word “fat” influences people’s ability to embrace good dietary fats, says the California Walnut Commission.
More than four in five people (81 percent) recognize that some fats may be good for them. When it comes to being able to identify good dietary fats, Americans are most familiar with omega-3s. While 72 percent identify omega-3s as being good for them to consume as part of a healthy diet, fewer say the same for polyunsaturated fat (26 percent) and monounsaturated fat (12 percent).
Interestingly, only 11 percent of Americans know omega-3s are a type of polyunsaturated fat. In fact, only 19 percent say they know which dietary fats are good and which are bad. "This shows there is an awareness of different types of dietary fats, but there is a gap when it comes to understanding which fats those are," the walnut commission concluded.
"The first step to embracing good dietary fats is to encourage people to focus on a diet of nutrient-dense foods, and to replace saturated fats typically found in meat and dairy products, with unsaturated fats, found foods such as in salmon, walnuts and avocados," said the California Walnut Commission.
Kind plays a key role
Give some credit to snack bar maker Kind Snacks. What started with an FDA warning letter to the company resulted in the regulatory agency changing its mind about what foods are "healthy."
Kind received the FDA violation letter in early 2015, saying its bars were mislabeled for using the word "healthy" (as well a handful of other labeling violations). While Kind backed down on claims for "antioxidant-rich" and "good source of fiber," it pushed back on a 20-year-old agency definition that "healthy" products could not contain more than 3g of total fat or 1g of saturated fat per serving.
"Nuts ... contain nutritious fats that exceed the amount allowed under the FDA's standard," the company said in a blog post. "This is similar to other foods that do not meet the standard for use of the term healthy, but are generally considered to be good for you like avocados, salmon and eggs."
On the other hand, "the regulation … allows items like fat-free chocolate pudding, some sugary cereals and low-fat toaster pastries to carry the healthy designation," Kind wrote on its website.
Nuts were the source of the saturated fat, but they also are high in nutritious unsaturated fats, which, when eaten instead of refined carbohydrates and sugar, can lower cholesterol and the risk of heart disease, according to the Harvard School of Public Health.
In December 2015, Kind — with the support of nutrition and public health experts — filed a citizen petition urging the FDA to update its requirements related to the term healthy to emphasize the importance of eating real foods and nutrient-dense ingredients as part of healthy eating patterns."
A year after the warning letter, the agency told Kind it could use the term healthy to describe its bars. And a year after that, in 2017, FDA completed a public comment period on how it should define the term. It's a thorny job, the agency acknowledged, and there's no timetable or deadline for an FDA definition of healthy. But recent indications are the agency is closer than it's ever been to defining healthy.
“Since 2004 Kind has been committed to creating snacks that are both healthy and tasty. That’s why the first and predominant ingredient in all of our snacks will always be a nutrient-dense food, like nuts," says Stephanie Perruzza, a registered dietitian and health and wellness specialist expert at Kind Snacks.
"Nuts have always been a centerpiece of our innovation; one of our first products was our Almond & Apricot bar, with whole almonds as the first ingredient," she continues.
"Since then, nuts have remained an anchor in all of our snacks. Nuts offer an array of nutrients such as protein, fiber and healthy unsaturated fats that help keep you energized and satisfied. Plus, we think they’re delicious.”
The Almond Board of California, not surprisingly, agrees. "Based on what we see in our consumer research, I would say consumers have completely changed their tune on fat in the past five years especially," says Molly Spence, Director of North America for the Almond Board of California (www.almonds.com/food-professionals).
"In focus groups, our health and wellness-focused consumers overwhelmingly see almonds’ monounsaturated fat as a positive rather than a negative, and they discuss how it makes almonds satisfying and good for the heart. There have been some skin-related benefits discussed in groups as well."
Spence also points out almonds have a qualified health claim from the FDA that says: "Scientific evidence suggests but does not prove that eating 1.5 ounces per day of most nuts, such as almonds, as part of a diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol may reduce the risk of heart disease."
Spence adds: "Based on their nutritional profile, the American Heart Assn. has certified whole almonds to display the Heart-Check mark, making it easy for consumers to identify almonds as a heart-smart option."