Nut-Free… and Lovin’ It
Alas, nuts—those popular powerhouses of nutrition, taste and texture—but they’re not for everyone
Nuts long have been considered part of a healthy diet, and they certainly are among the most popular snack ingredients around. But what if you can’t have them? With allergens an increasing concern among American consumers (see “Allergens Update,” PF, September 2016), nuts—one of the leading causes of food allergen-related deaths—have been under attack in some quarters.
Still, nut consumption in the US increased by more than double in a generation, from just under 2lb per capita in 1981 to more than 4lb in 2014. The demand for alternatives also has increased in recent years.
Working with tree nuts and peanuts poses a number of risks and challenges to manufacturers. A high cost-to-spoilage ratio makes nuts an expensive proposition in prepared foods. There also are other considerations, including crop yields, weather (affecting future crop yields), demand, and government regulations or interventions. Consistency of quality and availability further increase the risk.
All these factors are propelling the quest for alternatives that are affordable, durable, and non-allergenic.
Removing or replacing nuts can pose a number of challenges to processors. These impact cost, availability, shelflife, allergens, and affordability to food makers. The rise in allergies and allergen awareness, especially in the peanut and tree nut sectors—and especially among children—propelled the demand for alternatives for nuts. Along the way, this demand also spawned a number of new and innovative solutions.
Depending on the goal of the formulator, as well as the format of the nut ingredient—whole, chunks, pieces, ground, paste/spread, or even for liquid or dry mixes—a replacer typically will be based on a starch or a protein. The former is more common, when texture is the main consideration. For example, seeds from ancient grains and grasses are among the latest ingredients for replacing nuts in formulations, as well as in more general ingredient systems, such as flours.
Bake and Grind
For those formulators who require both the taste and texture of nuts, nut analogs made from stabilized wheat germ can be one of the best options, as long as the formulation is strictly intended to be free of tree nuts and peanuts.
The primary example of these nut analogs, sold on the retail level under the brand name Wheat Nuts, demonstrates they can be the closest thing to real nuts in flavor, texture, and performance on the market.
Wheat-based nut fake-outs not only are available in varieties and flavors to sub for a number of nuts, such as pecans, pistachios, and walnuts, they also possess a nutritional content that mimics that of tree nuts. In this manner, too, they are perfectly suited for products made for consumers seeking alternatives for these ingredients.
The wheat germ-based nut analogs are as versatile as the real thing and can be used in any application where nuts are crucial. This includes such previously indispensable products as, for example, a pecan pie with no pecans…and no disappointment.
In formulations that call for nut pieces, these analogs can closely mimic regular nuts, and the flavor is spot-on. Texture, too, is close, although overcooking them can soften them, so adjustments to the preparation process might be necessary.
The health halo around nuts is inclusive of their protein content and health benefits from unsaturated fats, while their delectable taste and texture profiles have led consumers to think of them as healthful and important to a good diet. Replacing nuts, therefore, requires careful consideration to ensure that the substitute is just as nutritious, if not better—and a truly good stand-in—for the real thing.
“We use a ton of inclusions; however, they are all suspended by nut-based fillings,” says Daniel Herskovic, owner and chief chocolatier for Maya Chocolate LLC. “However, the nut-based filling is a fat-based one, so crispy, crunchy inclusions—such as potato chips, crisped or puffed rice, and pretzels—can stay crispy.
Herskovic points out that if combining such carbohydrate-rich inclusions with caramel or ganache, they could become soggy over time because of the water content in those media. “Instead,” he says, “it’s possible for crunchy, starch-based inclusions to stay crispy in fillings, such as marshmallow or nut-free nougats, depending on the water content of those fillings.”
Herskovic also further explains that by keeping such inclusions crispy, they can substitute completely for nut pieces normally used for a crunchy-meaty mouthfeel. And, adding natural but hypoallergenic extracts or flavorings that replicate nuts can then be used to add that flavor component to the crunch.
Nuts for Crunch
Fake nuts can be as intricate as modified and formed wheat gluten. Or, they can be as simple as artfully toasted whole grains, such as millet, wheat berries, or sorghum. They also can be made from formed and extruded mixtures from plant proteins pea crisps, quinoa puffs, toasted millet or hemp seeds, etc. All these can sit in for nut pieces in various formulations.
Nut replacements such as these have recently been used as ingredients in batters and coatings for nut- and gluten-free foods.
Chickpeas, when roasted, develop a highly friable and crunchy texture that replicate the texture of nuts in batters and coatings. These also have an added bonus of significant reduction in calories.
Moreover, such crisped, puffed, or toasted grains and seeds help improve the taste and nutrition of allergen-free battered and coated food formulations. And, they allow for a cleaner, more consumer-friendly label at better cost.
Tiger nuts (Cyperus esculentus) can be another crunchy nut sub. They have emerged as a new superfood and a viable replacement for nuts in milk analogs and various food applications, such as granola-type cereals, trail mixes, and snacks. An important crop in Spain, tiger nuts are popularly used to produce the traditional Spanish beverage called horchata de chufa. Tiger nuts offer an excellent alternative to nut milks without the risk of allergies, because they are neither a nut nor a legume.
Highly underutilized in this country, tiger nuts actually are the tuber of a sedge and called a nut because of their appearance. They’re rich in complex carbohydrates, lipids, fiber, iron, potassium, magnesium, and vitamins E and C. They also are high in prebiotic fiber and are being recognized for potential weight-loss benefits.
Raw sliced or ground tiger nuts have a texture similar to raw coconut and toasted oats, with a flavor that evokes walnuts.
George Papanastasatos and Mariam Kinkladze, founders of Organic Gemini LLC, have taken creative advantage of the immense potential for tiger nuts with a comprehensive and growing line of snack and beverage products under the brand name TigerNuts.
“Tiger nuts, in addition to being non-allergenic, contain half as much fat as almonds, plus levels of bio-available calcium and iron comparable to those of red meat,” says Papanastasatos. He adds that vegans and vegetarians often are deficient in these two minerals.
Cured meats sometimes include nuts for taste and texture. For this sort of application, tiger nuts not only take away the risk of nut consumption, but also offer substantial reduction in the fat content of the cured meat product.
Nuts and Bolts
“There are several different approaches for replacing nuts in formulations, especially confectionary,” notes Bob Boutin, CEO of confectionary manufacturer Knechtel Inc. “These can be divided according to the basic ingredient components, and their application depends on the goal behind reducing or replacing nuts.”
Boutin first describes flour-based systems that come in a variety of flavors and particle sizes. “They usually are made up of a base mixture of sugar, flour, and fat—baked to achieve a specific texture,” he explains.
“The resulting baked sheet is then ground into smaller, prescribed particle-sized pieces. While generally mixed in as an extender for nuts, they also can be used alone in certain formulations, such as for cake and ice cream toppings.”
When it comes to protein-based replacers, Boutin notes that these are used mostly for nut paste replacers. “It’s possible to use soy and/or pea protein—or whey, if dairy is not an issue. These can be derived from toasted or roasted bases with flavors added. They can be an excellent spread or filling, without the nut issues.” Boutin says that Knechtel used such a solution for the nut paste layer in one of its breakfast bars.
Boutin points out that when the goal in replacing nuts is cost savings, as opposed to allergen avoidance, the options expand considerably.
“One can take peanuts and infuse them with other nut flavors, such as pecan or hazelnut. This can only apply to formulas designed to be free of tree-nut allergens, or when the replacers are called for to address economic challenges. [However,] when used as an extender in small pieces, this approach can be quite successful.”
Another trick for extending existing nut content is the use of carbohydrate-based glazes. These can be applied to nut meats to improve their shelflife, raise flavor impact, and to lower costs. For this approach, typically, a lactose and glucose syrup mixture is cooked at high enough temperature to make a “glass”—which then is flavored and applied to the nut meats as a coating.
This method is used for such confections as butter-toffee almonds, honey-roasted peanuts, etc. Although worthy confections by themselves, when ground into smaller pieces the resulting crunchy bits add a positive attribute to the roasted nut texture and flavor. This approach is frequently used in chocolate bars as ground nuts and provides some cost savings.
“Such sugar formulations can be created to mimic the sensory attributes of nuts, except this is a hard candy glass that is expanded and puffed like a malted milk ball,” explains Boutin.” Various flavors can be included to further imitate or enhance a specific nut flavor, and they still impart a nice, light crunchy texture.
“It takes careful manipulation of flavors and textures to make sure formulas match flavor of the nut desired,” cautions Boutin. “Surprisingly, simple salt can be a great boon in controlling the flavor profile here.”
Almond flour and other nut flours gained popularity and proliferation in recent years, due to the gluten-free trend and the growing demand for wheat alternatives. They have been used to great effect in a number of consumer favorites, such as cakes, muffins, cookies, crackers, and pancakes.
Gluten-free and other bakers, mindful of cost and tree nut allergies, now turn to buckwheat, quinoa, and sorghum flours instead, because they also offer superior nutrition and have the marketing appeal of ancient grains.
The nutty taste of sorghum is useful in baked products like banana bread, while the nut-like chewy texture is useful in non-nut products. Sorghum flour works particularly well as a stand-alone replacement for nut flour in quick breads and muffins.
Peas not only are being used as an alternative to nuts in a liquid form, but also in high-protein crisps. These pellet-like crisps are small and crunchy, and are great additions to yogurts, oatmeal, and even as chocolate-coated toppings for frozen desserts.
Full-fat and defatted chickpea and lentil flours can replace nut flours in gluten-free formulations by delivering comparable color, bulk density, water-holding capacity, and least gelation concentration (LGC). These characteristics are comparable to those of a wheat flour that would have been present in the original formulation. Thus, chickpea and lentil flours closely replicate the appearance, texture, and taste of the original product.
Analogs for the Analogs
The growing focus on plant-based foods that are not only more sustainable than animal-based products, but also less expensive and comparable (or better) in nutrition has boosted the use of plant-based alternatives in the milk, dairy, and frozen dessert aisles. People avoiding dairy reach for almond milk, cashew milk, or hazelnut milk.
Peas are not only being used as an alternative to nuts in crisped, extruded, or puffed form, but also in the liquid medium. Ripple Foods PBC uses protein purification technologies entailing a unique combination of pH, salts, pressure, and temperature to strip pea flour and pea protein isolate of their off-putting color and “beany” flavor to use them in milk analogs.
Ripple has comparatively more protein and calcium than many alternatives on the market, with a consistency and appearance of milk. A big advantage is that these attributes are not lost during cooking.
Good Karma Foods LLC has taken flax seed into the milk aisle. Flax milk is made from cold-pressed, unrefined flaxseed oil and serves as another nut alternative with as much calcium as dairy milk—while delivering 1,200mg of omega-3s per serving.
Milk made from coconut, which is not classified by the FDA as a tree nut, is a good alternative to almond and hazelnut milks, because it is easily digestible and is abundant in calcium, phosphorus, and potassium, and vitamins B, C and E. In addition to high antioxidant activities, the high oleic and lauric acid content of coconut milk can help keep arteriosclerosis and related chronic health issues at bay. The lipids in coconut milk help to emulsify and increase the viscosity, stability, texture, and melting time of non-dairy, nut-free ice cream alternatives.
Coconut milk also is a rich medium for probiotic bacteria. Thus, it is a big plus for formulators seeking to add probiotics into frozen desserts closer to dairy-based products in terms of physical and sensory properties. Coconut milks can improve the rheology of such formulations by increasing relevant physical attributes, such as consistency index, apparent viscosity, and melting resistance.
Pumpkin seeds—pepitas—are a good source of protein, magnesium, vitamin E, and other valuable nutrients. They also offer a non-allergenic alternative to nuts in savory preparations, such as classic Mexican molés. Combined with spices and other coating ingredients, they can substitute for almonds, macadamia, or walnuts in coatings for fish and other proteins.
Pumpkin seeds also add texture and nuttiness to a variety of nut-free applications, and pairing them with other ingredients has the potential to stimulate the snack market in a uniquely different direction. Brad’s Raw Foods LLC leverages the crunch of protein-rich pumpkin seeds, as well as with sprouted buckwheat groats and flax seeds, into snacks for nut-avoiding consumers.
Renewed interest in ancient grains, along with the unique range of functional and nutritional benefits, positions chia as an effective nut replacement ingredient. Used in whole or ground forms, chia seeds offer a mild, slightly nutty taste along with a crunchy texture to help create nut-free versions of traditionally nut-based foods.
Quinoa, a seed related to beets and spinach, also can be prepared to function in place of nuts. I Heart Foods Corp. founders Ravi Jolly and Sarah Chalos have taken this pseudo-cereal grain into applications such as Chocolate Pink Salt Quinoa Puffs.
Toasted millet seeds, while tiny, can make crunchy inclusions that work in place of nuts in formulas, such as bars and confections. Sunflower seeds also are being utilized more and more in allergy-free options for “nut” breads and similar baked items.
Spread the Word
Another growth area has been in the peanut butter alternative channel. While tree nut substitutes for peanuts are expensive, sunflower seed butters, such as that offered by SunButter LLC, feature totally allergen-free alternatives. Sunbutter recreates the flavor, texture, and appearance of peanut butter and comes in a similar variety of options, such as unsweetened, natural, natural crunch, and omega-3 enriched.
Sunflower seeds also recently became another option in the aforementioned “milk analog” line. SoL sunflower beverage, from Sunrich Naturals Inc., is an allergy-free nut milk alternative that resembles the texture of milk to be used as a dairy substitute for raw applications, such as cereals and smoothies, and also for cooking and baking applications.
Hemp seeds are another nut replacement seed prized for both their nutritional attributes and crunchy texture when toasted. And, like sunflower seeds, for the past half-decade, they have been used to make a nut-free milk substitute.
Containing all nine of the essential amino acids, as well as essential fatty acids, omega-3s, and omega-6s in a ratio beneficial to human health, hemp also is a source of magnesium, iron, potassium, vitamin E, fiber, and other nutrients.
Whether using nut replacers for cost considerations, allergen avoidance, or simply as an interesting alternative for variety’s sake, the combination of consumer awareness and acceptance, plus the variety available, means there are many more options than in the past. Outstanding technology makes these swap-outs stand on their own with attractive flavors and textures—as well as performance in formulations.
Kantha Shelke, PhD, CFS, and Peyton Pritikin work at the intersection of science and culinary arts at Corvus Blue LLC, a Chicago-based food science and research firm specializing in new product/ technology development and commercialization of foods and food ingredients for health and wellness. They can be reached at 312-951-5810 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Originally appeared in the October, 2016 issue of Prepared Foods as Nut-Free… and Lovin’ It.