Long revered for their flavor, but also maligned for their fat and sodium content when salted, nuts are starting to be seen in a new light both as a snack food and a food formulation agent.

Nuts have risen to an enviable position on the list of trendy ingredients for a number of reasons. First and foremost, myths about nuts as being unhealthy are being debunked, as a better understanding of their true nutritional composition emerges. Producers are parlaying that information into more savvy marketing pitches to consumers and food technologists. The latter, of course, are focused on the ever elusive, great-tasting, yet healthful food product.

While nuts of all kinds are drawing more attention, a few of the more popular types that have long offered a particularly good fit as ingredients stand out. Almonds and walnuts are enjoying an especially strong surge in recognition for properties deemed valuable in today's food processing climate. From nutritional content to sensory properties to functional versatility, almonds and walnuts offer a grab bag of reasons for food formulators to tap them as role players.

Playing the Nutrition Angle

Of all the reasons for nuts' surge in popularity, improved knowledge and leveraging of their nutritional profile, along with a new appreciation for the dietary value of their unique nutritional qualities, may be the most notable. And, in that respect, almonds and walnuts are good proxies for how well positioned the entire category is today.

Thanks largely to aggressive research and positioning by the almond industry's chief promotional body, the Almond Board of California, almonds are basking in the glow of new findings about their healthful profile.

“We have more than 10 years of nutritional research showing that almonds offer outstanding health benefits, from the possible control of cholesterol to a good source of vitamin E to being very nutrient-dense,” says Guangwei Huang, the almond board's technical manager. “As a result, more food technologists are now trying to enhance products' nutritional profile by adding almonds.”

Over the last decade, the board has spent some $7.5 million studying almonds' possible impact on controlling risk factors for heart disease, diabetes and cancer. Its biggest success, to date, has been securing a U.S. FDA-approved qualified health claim for almonds—relating to their “heart-healthy” qualities.

The claim allows marketers of foods containing at least 11g of almonds per serving, and which also meet standards for saturated fat and cholesterol content, to state on packaging that “scientific evidence suggests, but does not prove, that eating 11/2oz 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.”

Newer clinical research developed after the FDA claim was secured appears to bolster the view that almonds fit into a group of foods that can lower cholesterol.

A University of Toronto study profiled in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found a diet of almonds, soy, lean meats and fish—in combination—may be as effective in reducing cholesterol as the cholesterol-lowering class of drugs called statins. After a year on the diet, more than 30% of study participants had reduced their cholesterol levels 20% or more, a rate comparable to a group that took statins.

Flavonoids and vitamin E are thought to be the mechanisms behind almonds' abilities to lower cholesterol. Some 20 flavonoids—plant nutrients with antioxidant qualities—have been identified in almonds.

Skins in the Game

In line with that, the almond board is playing up new research at Tufts University that suggests flavonoids concentrated largely in almond skins, and vitamin E in the almond meat work synergistically to prevent LDL cholesterol from being oxidized.

It is thought that oxidization makes such “bad” cholesterol stickier and more likely to clog arteries. The Tufts research suggests ingesting almonds and the skin together produced a cholesterol-lowering benefit twice that of ingesting them separately. The findings may be most helpful in promoting whole almonds as snacks.

Yet the apparent concentration of flavonoids in almond skins has heightened the almond industry's interest in promoting wider food-processing usage of that nut component. Routinely discarded or turned into animal feed after almonds are blanched, the skins may have greater value than once thought, says Huang.

“There have been some inquiries from ingredient companies interested in possibly using the bran to develop a powder that could be incorporated into baking mixes and promoted as a high-fiber, antioxidant-rich ingredient,” he states. “We're studying some different applications along those lines here that would allow producers to harvest the skins and sell them rather than throw them away. One of the challenges is how to make it easier to mix them with dough.”

Another almond attribute intriguing food formulators is nutrient density. While all nuts pack a powerful nutrition punch, almonds are considered the most nutritionally dense on a per-ounce basis.

That quality is becoming more relevant as food companies react to growing consumer concerns over issues of weight control and overeating. By incorporating protein- and fiber-rich nuts into smaller-portioned, reduced-calorie or low-carb foods, processors can tout their products as more filling, but waistline-friendly. And the industry also has a ready answer for those who correctly say almonds contain fat: 70% of its 14g-per-oz of fat content is of the friendlier monosaturated variety.

The same satiety quality also is enjoyed by walnuts, a nut that, like almonds, has a steady following in some time-tested food applications. Like the almond industry, walnut producers are playing up the nutritional profile of the product as part of a pitch to encourage more inclusion in foods.

A Walnut Coup

Perhaps the greatest food formulation coup of late for the walnut industry is the decision by fast-food icon McDonald's to make walnuts a central ingredient in its highly successful walnut and apple salad. Paired with apple slices, vanilla yogurt and grapes, walnuts were selected partly because they are a nutrient-dense, “filling product.”

“Although walnuts are part of the traditional Waldorf salad McDonald's tried to emulate, McDonald's decided to include walnuts partly because they wanted to give it a more balanced nutrient profile,” says Amy Myrdal, marketing director-North America, for the Walnut Marketing Board. “By contributing protein, fat and fiber, walnuts add to the effect of feeling satiated.”

Like almonds, walnuts have their own unique nutritional profile. Their biggest claim to fame is having the highest concentration of omega-3 fatty acids in the broad family of nuts. With growing recognition of the role that omega-3s play in warding off a host of diseases and promoting development, walnuts have a card to play in the healthy ingredients game.

“Omega-3s are key components for food producers interested in nutritional content, and walnuts' big point of difference is that they're the only nut that has it,” Myrdal points out. “We're in the very early stages of looking at the positive impact that omega-3s have on preventing breast cancer and boosting metabolism so more calories can be burned.”

Like almonds and other nuts, walnuts contain the flavonoids and related phytochemicals thought to lower “bad cholesterol” and act as an anti-inflammatory. Walnuts also are notably high in vitamin B6 and folic acid, and contain levels of a broad mix of other essential vitamins and minerals consistent with other nuts.

Functionality Still Key

While health attributes are becoming a potent new selling point for nuts in food formulation, marketers continue stressing their functionality as an ingredient. Capable of being delivered in many forms, nuts offer the food formulator versatility and flexibility of form and function, as well as flavor, texture and appearance, attributes that can subtly enhance foods.

Almond producers, for example, stress the broad range of forms the nut can take when sliced. From slivers to slices to chopped pieces, almonds can be tailored to the demands of specific food applications, whether processing- or appearance-related.

“The texture of almonds is a key consideration for food processing applications,” states Huang. “They have a unique cellular structure that allows them to be cut very thin and smooth, something that can't be duplicated with other nuts. In many ways, they're very food formulation-friendly. Because they can be cut into very small pieces, foods can be made to look like they contain a high volume of almonds with a small amount.”

That is important considering almonds are evidently highly prized by consumers as a food ingredient. Recent consumer attitudes research done for the almond board found 63% would pay more for a product with almonds, while 80% said almonds add interest and appeal to food products. Awareness of health attributes appears to account for those attitudes; similar percentages said they thought almonds were healthy and nutritious.

As those factors drive increased usage, there is a good chance almonds will be showing up in more foods in forms other than sliced. Currently, almond flour is the second most common form almonds take in processed applications, behind sliced and diced, Huang informs. In addition to the emerging possibilities with almond bran, other time-tested forms with limited applications include almond paste and butter.

Capable of being very finely ground, almond flour is being touted as a viable replacement for wheat flour in some applications. With favorable viscosity and elasticity qualities, almond flour has performed better than wheat flour on some key benchmarks in cookie, cake, pasta and breading applications, according to almond board data.

Walnuts, too, may have an opportunity to find their way into more processed foods in different forms. While most applications involved chopped, diced or otherwise cut forms, a flour-like product also can be derived from whole walnuts. Termed walnut meal or “double dice,” the product has found a niche especially among European formulators of baked goods, says Duane Lindsey, a technology consultant for the California Walnut Commission.

“European producers buy millions of pounds of it annually and use it as a secondary flour source for cookies and cakes primarily,” Lindsey says. “The consistency is not as fine as almond flour; it's more a finely chopped product that can be seen as pieces in a mix.”

Although the product has been produced for many years, Lindsey says demand is growing for that and other chopped/nugget formats as processors look for ways to leverage the unique flavor, texture and health benefits walnuts offer. “Processors are able to go through the whole litany of particle sizes that are available, and they're picking and choosing what they need for their specific applications.”

Indeed, the simple chopped form is likely to continue satisfying the needs of most processors looking for ways to incorporate walnuts into their products, says Dick Wolf, vice president of ingredients and foodservice for Diamond Foods Inc., a leading supplier of walnuts in North America. While most of the walnut industry's growth is currently coming from snack nut applications, Wolf says there is room for some growth in processing applications.

“A couple of emerging categories are in bagged salad kits and snack and trail mixes,” Wolf says. “Higher-end cereals have been one of the biggest growth areas in the past, but that category isn't as healthy as it's been. Another area that's growing, though, is baked goods sold by fast food companies with artisan bread selections like Panera Bread.”

However, one of the hurdles to greater use of walnuts in processing applications is cost, Wolf explains. “It's probably one of the most expensive ingredients you can buy,” he says. “That will always be an issue, and that's probably going to limit the opportunity for walnuts to gain mass appeal.”

Cost notwithstanding, nuts like almonds and walnuts are ideally positioned in today's food formulation climate that prizes the ability to differentiate products using subtle enhancements that convey value and caché. And with a rehabilitated nutrition profile and a marketing program retooled to reflect it, nuts stand a good chance of becoming one of the best new “old” ingredients available to processors.

Website Resources:

www.almondboard.com — A large amount of information about almonds
www.fda.gov/bbs/topics/news/2004/ NEW01044.html — Qualified health claim for walnuts
www.vegan.org.nz/nuts.php — Many health reasons to eat nuts