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Nuts: Satisfying the Nuttier SideNuts: Satisfying the Nuttier Side

May 1, 1996

14 Min Read
Nuts:  Satisfying the Nuttier Side

Satisfying the Nuttier Side
May 1996 -- Applications

By: Laura Brandt
Contributing Editor

  Industry sources indicate that approximately 8% of the new products introduced over the last two years contained some type of nut. Besides adding visual appeal, nuts contribute texture and crunch, and their unique flavor profiles enhance many foods. As part of a well-balanced diet, nuts provide protein, minerals, vitamin E, fiber, unsaturated fatty acids and phytochemicals. The nutritional benefits include reduction of heart disease and certain cancers.  Food Product Design has covered various aspects of nuts. In some cases, the emphasis was on peanuts because their relatively low cost often encourages their use. Now, however, improved production has made many tree nuts more accessible to food designers. Here is a look at the origins and applications of some popular tree nuts.  Hazelnuts have been on the tip of consumers' tongues in recent years, with the rise in popularity of hazelnut-flavored coffees and coffee creamers. Although these products incorporate hazelnut flavors and no real nuts, "the coffee industry has done a lot to promote not only awareness of hazelnuts, but to educate the palates of consumers regarding hazelnut flavor," says Karen Lobb, promotion manager, Hazelnut Marketing Board, Portland, OR. "These items also make people think about other possibilities for using hazelnuts in their products."  A Frenchman first planted hazelnuts in the United States in Oregon's Willamette Valley in 1876. About 99% of the U.S. hazelnut crop is grown there, with the remainder grown in the state of Washington. Hazelnuts do well in the wet, cool weather of these regions. Although several varieties of hazelnuts exist, Barcelona is the most popular variety grown in this country.  Oregon hazelnuts account for only 3% to 5% of the total world production, behind Turkey, Italy and Spain. Turkey produces about 700,000 tons of hazelnuts annually. In the United States in 1993, 40,000 tons were harvested. In 1994, that figure declined to 19,000 tons, and it is estimated to be about 38,000 tons for 1995.  Hazelnuts, also called filberts, are extremely popular overseas. Europeans consume hazelnuts in various forms, such as in a nut spread for bread or snacks, or in various ground forms in baked goods, confections, and muesli-type cereals.  "Europeans use a lot of U.S. nuts," says Lobb. Oregon-grown nuts are valued for their larger size, higher quality and freshness. Approximately 3,000 tons of domestic hazelnuts are exported annually to Germany and Canada.  Currently, stability studies are being conducted at Oregon State University, and other product development research is needed, according to Lobb. Consumers are most familiar with hazelnuts as part of a mix of in-shell nuts that is available from Labor Day to Christmas in most supermarkets. But with the European influence and future promotional plans, the Hazelnut Marketing Board hopes to change this perception, notes Lobb. "The bakery industry has been targeted over the years for applications of hazelnuts, but consumers will be seeing more hazelnuts in confections in the future," she says.  The applications for hazelnuts are endless. They can be used in fancy tortes, ganaches, mousses, cookies, breads, muffins and croissants. Chocolate and hazelnuts often go hand-in-hand. Many of the European chocolate confections contain hazelnuts. The Board is promoting applications such as cream of broccoli and hazelnut soup au gratin, hazelnut dijon sauce over turkey breast with peppers, hazelnut cream cheese brownies, hazelnut maple bread, apricot-orange hazelnut muffins, and hazelnut chips.  "Besides the gourmet coffee industry, chefs and some food companies have done a lot to increase the awareness of hazelnuts," says Lobb. Chefs have been using the nuts not only as garnishes on entrees, but in fancy desserts. Pepperidge Farm incorporates hazelnuts into three different cookies. Lobb notes that some ice cream manufacturers have been looking at developing a hazelnut ice cream that incorporates a ribbon of hazelnut paste and/or ground nuts into the product.  "Although consumer awareness is on the upswing, our industry will be pursuing new uses for hazelnuts," says Lobb.  Walnuts. Ancient Persia is the birthplace of walnuts. However, they are commonly called "English" walnuts, not "Persian" walnuts, in reference to the English merchant marines whose ships once transported the nuts to various countries.  Spanish missionaries brought walnuts to California in the mid 1700s. Today, 99% of the U.S. walnut crop is produced there, primarily in the fertile soil and temperate climate of the San Joaquin and Sacramento valleys. According to 1994 figures from the Walnut Marketing Board, California produces an average of 224,000 tons of walnuts annually, based on figures from the previous 10 years. Over 30 varieties of commercially produced walnuts exist -- all hybrids of the English (Persian) walnut.  California provides about two thirds of the world's trade in walnuts. More than one-third of the California crop is shipped overseas, primarily to Germany, Japan, Spain and Italy. Foreign walnut producers include China, India, France, Italy and Chile.  The black walnut is another species of walnut sold to consumers and used in food formulations. This nut is native to the United States and is harvested mostly from trees in the wild. Black walnuts are not a significant commercial crop because of their hard shell and poor hulling characteristics.  Not really a snack nut, walnuts are used mostly as a baking ingredient in this country, although their use in salads, rice and pasta dishes has increased. The confectionery industry also is a big user of walnuts. According to a 1990 report from IRI Infoscan, walnuts are the No. 1 consumer ingredient nut, representing almost 60% of supermarket sales of shelled cooking nuts. The average per-capita walnut consumption in the United States is approximately 0.51b.  New product development contests are major tools for expanding the awareness of walnuts in different food applications, according to Nathan Holleman, marketing director for the Walnut Marketing Board, Sacramento, CA. In the United States, for example, the second annual Bake with the Best contest is co-sponsored with the American Egg Board this year. This baking competition invites professional bakers to submit their recipes -- which must include California walnuts and eggs -- in three categories: breads/rolls, scones/cookies/muffins, and sweet baked goods. Winners will be announced in October at the Atlantic Bakery Expo in Atlantic City, NJ. Last year's grand prize winner was a walnut praline cheesecake that incorporated walnuts into the crust, filling and praline sauce.  Overseas, contests are being run in Japan and Korea. This is the seventh year this successful campaign has been run in Japan. Over 100 new products containing walnuts were introduced to Japanese markets last year, according to Holleman. He notes some novel applications of walnuts in foreign markets, such as incorporating ground walnuts into noodles in Japan, into Italian pesto, and into Oriental dipping sauces and tofu-based frozen desserts.  Recipes that are being promoted by the Walnut Marketing Board include Chinese chicken walnut stir fry, walnut raisin pork chops, cabbage salad, fruit salad, walnut meringue, burritos, and meatballs. Walnuts also add crunch to vegetables, crab cakes, cereal, meat, fish and poultry. Numerous healthy, no-cholesterol recipes are listed for walnut muffins and breads.  Current walnut-related research projects at the University of California include varietal improvements, pest management and disease prevention.  Almonds. Just mentioning the words "amaretto" or "almondine" conjures images of elegant entrees or desserts. Almonds are one of the world's most popular nutmeats. They abound in many ethnic cuisines and are found in various entrees, side dishes and desserts.  California is the largest producer of almonds in the world, turning out more than four times the amount of the second-largest producer, Spain. California grows over half the world's supply of almonds and all of the domestic crops. In 1995, a record 730 million pounds of almonds were harvested based on kernel weight, almost double that of a decade before, as a result of research and improvement of production techniques.  Almonds probably originated in ancient China or the Middle East. Later, Spain and Italy became major almond producers. In the mid-1700s, Franciscan Fathers brought almonds to their California missions. Several of today's main almond varieties had been developed by the 1870s, and by the turn of the century, orchards were prominent in the Sacramento and San Joaquin valleys.  Almond trees depend upon the bees that pollinate them during the February bloom period. Extended rainy or cool conditions make this somewhat difficult because the bees prefer to fly during warm, sunny weather. This is one reason for the short crops and increased prices that occur periodically.  Consumption of almonds is up worldwide. Annual almond consumption in the United States practically doubled between 1980 and 1990, with between 11 and 12 oz. per capita in 1990.  "Consumption of almonds has increased tremendously in Asia over the past 10 years," according to Rodger Wasson, president and CEO, Almond Board of California. "The largest consumption is in Japan, with South Korea and Taiwan also showing excellent growth potential. We are currently working on increasing the Chinese market, which has a large growth potential for almonds, especially for use in cakes. Small neighborhood bakeries are becoming very popular in China, and the Chinese like to buy fancy cakes with almonds for all occasions."  Most of the almonds in the United States are consumed as an ingredient, not a snack, according to Wasson. Although the confectionery market has been popular, the largest growth market at this time is probably the cereal category. "This market is still showing excellent growth for almond use. Also, the trend has been very positive in other markets such as dairy and bakery products such as biscotti," Wasson notes.  "Almonds are popular ingredient nuts because of their versatility; you can slice, sliver or dice them," says Richard Meridith, executive vice president, Paramount Farms, Bakersfield, CA.  The thickness of sliced almonds can vary from 0.065 to 0.023 in. Almonds can be blanched, unlike most other nuts. Blanching gives almonds a polished, white appearance that results from processing with heat to remove the skin.  The type of almond used varies geographically. For example, whole brown, unshelled almonds are widely used as a food ingredient in the United States, according to Meridith. Large confectionery companies, such as M&M Mars and Hershey, are big users of this type of almond. Sliced, unblanched almonds are popular in cereals, and diced products are used widely in bakery applications.  In the Pacific Rim, blanched products are very popular, especially in confections. Whole nuts are used a great deal in baking and cooking. In Europe, more blanched almonds are used, especially for the production of marzipan.  Pecans. What do "turtles" and baked goods have in common? They both use pecans, one of America's best-loved nuts. Butter pecan ice cream, pecan pie and pralines are three of the most delectable uses for these nuts, which are native to North America.  Pecans are of the same family as walnuts. They grow mainly in the southern states from Florida to Arizona, with Georgia as the No. 1 producer. Foreign growers include Mexico, Canada, Australia, India, Israel, South Africa and West Africa.  Although over 300 varieties are offered commercially, papershell varieties such as Stuart, Desirable and Western Sky are popular for their thin shell and larger kernels.  Pecan meats sold as halves are premium-priced products that are used for decoration. Broken nut meats are used in baked goods, confections and ice cream.  Pistachios have been grown in the Middle East for centuries. Today, Iran is the largest grower, followed by California. Pistachio seeds were brought to California from Iran in the early 1930s. After 20 years of experimentation, one exceptional variety emerged: Kerman, named after the famous carpet-making city near where the seed was collected. After only 20 years of growing pistachios as a commercial crop, California produced a record number of over 150 million pounds last year.  Over the years, pistachio nuts have been limited to use as a snack item, rather than an ingredient in foods. Today, though, increased supply and lower costs are contributing to the promotion of these nuts as an ingredient. Also, "California has made great strides in pistachio nut production. Now the entire shell can be removed mechanically, which results in improved appearance and a cleaner product," says Karen Reinecke, president of the California Pistachio Commission in Fresno.  "This year will be the first big year for the entrance of pistachios into the ingredient market," says Reinecke. "Based on consumers' perceptions of pistachios, in the next year we will be introducing many line extension possibilities to food manufacturers."  A study done by the Commission in September 1995 showed that consumers view pistachios as adding value to products, especially in combination with chocolate. They also are willing to pay more for pistachio-containing products. Consumers in this country are most familiar with almonds, walnuts and peanuts as food ingredients pistachios are viewed as a more exotic nut.  "Many food manufacturers are reluctant to develop a totally new product concept for pistachio nuts, but they are open to suggestions regarding line extensions," notes Reinecke.  Markets in the Middle East also are looking closely at the ingredient segment. So far, California has been targeting the confectionery market, based on the high probability of success that this industry offers for pistachios. Confectioners in Europe have successfully marketed chocolate products containing pistachios over the years.  Ice creams are also a good possibility. "Remember that wonderful green, Howard Johnson pistachio ice cream?" muses Reinecke. With the low and variable supply of pistachio nuts and higher prices, pistachio ice cream formulations had gradually phased out pistachio nuts, replacing them with almonds or walnuts, additional green food color, and artificial flavors.  In their native Iran, pistachios often are used as a snack or in dishes such as shirin polo -- a sweet combination of rice, pistachios, almonds, orange peels and spices together with chicken or meat. They also are commonly used in ice cream or topically to dress up many dishes. On the Persian New Year (Noruz) -- which is celebrated March 21, the first official day of spring -- a bowl of pistachios or other nuts is usually found on a special table containing foods that symbolize the roots of life and a bountiful harvest in the year ahead. Middle Eastern and Greek baklava may contain nuts such as pistachios, almonds and walnuts.  Macadamia nut trees were introduced to Hawaii from their native Australia in the early 1900s for ornamental purposes. In the 1950s, commercial growers started planting macadamias in Hawaii. Ten species of trees exist, but only two produce edible nuts. Most commercial macadamias are of the Macadamia integrifolia species, a smooth-shelled variety that has superior roasting and shelf life qualities.  Although Hawaii once produced more macadamia nuts than Australia, today Australia produces about 43% of the total macadamia nut crop while Hawaii produces about 36%, according to Larry Carr, vice president of sales and marketing services, MacFarms of Hawaii, Sacramento, CA.  Because of Hawaii's small land mass, future growth is likely to continue to come from Australia. Other sites for potential growth include South Africa, Costa Rica, Kenya, Guatemala and Brazil. "Right now, the best quality comes either from Hawaii or Australia," notes Carr.  In the United States, macadamia nuts are popular in cities on the East and West Coasts. "The biggest markets are Hawaii, California, New York, Florida and New England," says Carr.  Two new markets for consumption include China and Europe. Ten years ago, macadamia nuts were a scarce commodity in these areas, but over the last three or four years their growth has increased. In China, the foodservice area is a growth market. ("Macadamia nuts are a status symbol here; in China, these nuts are called 'Hawaii nuts,' " says Carr.) Europeans are eating them as a roasted, salted snack.  The major force behind the increased popularity of macadamia nuts as an ingredient and not just as a snacking nut comes from the upscale cookie segment, such as those from Mrs. Fields and Pepperidge Farm, according to Carr.  Macadamia nuts are still viewed as upscale nuts because of their short supply and high cost. Annual production of macadamia nuts is only 30 million pounds worldwide, notes Carr. Part of the reason macadamia nuts are so expensive is related to the growing and harvesting techniques. In Hawaii, many of the nuts are hand-harvested.  "The volcanic soil does not lend itself to mechanical harvesting," says Carr. "Machinery cannot run well on the volcanic terrain. Workers must hand-pick the nuts out of cracks in the lava. However, mechanical harvesting is a useful tool for growers in Australia, where the nuts are swept off the ground after they fall.  This imbalance between supply and demand is temporary, says Carr. "With the quantity of trees being planted worldwide and the increased awareness of the nuts, macadamias should experience growth in segments such as confections, snacks and bakery foods," he says.  Nuts continue to add pizazz to a variety of food products -- whether they are natural or roasted; whole, ground, diced or sliced; meal, paste, butter or flour; in or out of the shell. And that's "nuttin" but the truth.Back to top

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