Assorted claims for nuts

by Jeff Gelski
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Trying to obtain multiple health benefits for a new grain-based food might test the patience of food formulators. It might help if they go a little nutty. Really, it might help. Nuts may be a source of antioxidants, fiber, omega-3 fatty acids and healthy fats. Promoting products as heart healthy or gluten-free are two potential options when using nuts as ingredients.

Nuts such as almonds, walnuts and pecans already have a solid place in grain-based food formulation. Among all U.S. product launches in 2009 with nuts as ingredients, snack/cereal/energy bars led the way with 87 launches, according to Mintel’s Global New Product Database. Nuts came in second at 80 launches while sweet biscuits/cookies were third at 63 launches. Cold cereals were seventh at 36 product launches, and cakes, pastries and sweet goods came in ninth at 32 launches.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration allows the following qualified health claim for nuts: “Scientific evidence suggests but not prove that eating 1.5 oz per day of most nuts as part of a diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol may reduce the risk of heart disease.”

The Almond Board of California, Modesto, promotes that almonds became the No. 1 nut involved in new product introductions globally in 2008, according to a Mintel Global New Product Introduction report.

A 1-oz portion (28 grams) of almonds serves as an excellent source of vitamin E and magnesium and a good source of fiber, copper, phosphorus and riboflavin, according to the Almond Board of California. The 1-oz portion also has 13 grams of unsaturated fats, known as healthy fats, and 1 gram of saturated fat.

Grain-based food companies may combine a high fiber or whole grain product with almond or almond meal, said Bob Carroll, marketing director for the industrial division of Blue Diamond Growers, based in Sacramento, Calif., and owned by more than 3,000 almond growers.

“It’s a great way to add protein,” Mr. Carroll said. “So you’re balancing protein and carbs.”

Almonds may cost more than other ingredients in baked foods, he said.

“But consumers value almonds, and they value the health benefits that come with them,” Mr. Carroll said.

Besides retail products, walnuts are a popular addition to restaurant menu items. According to the Mintel report “Nuts and Dried Fruit — U.S. — July 2009,” walnuts were incorporated into 305 menu dishes in the first quarter of 2009, ranking them ahead of all other nut types. Almonds and peanuts tied for second, both at 263 menu dishes.

Walnuts have their own F.D.A. qualified health claim, which states, “Supportive but not conclusive research shows that eating 1.5 oz per day of walnuts, as part of a low saturated fat and low cholesterol diet and not resulting in increased caloric intake, may reduce the risk of coronary heart disease.”

Jennifer Getz, marketing director, domestic, for the California Walnut Board and Commission, Folsom, said, “Additional studies have found walnuts to be beneficial for bone health, weight management and managing diabetes. Recent research found walnuts to decrease breast cancer tumor growth in mice and improve cognitive and motor skills in rats.”

She said walnuts contain 2.5 grams per oz of alphalinolenic acid, a plant-based omega-3 fatty acid, 4 grams per oz of protein and 2 grams per oz of fiber.

“There are few foods that are as nutritiously complete and good for the human body as walnuts,” Ms. Getz said. “For over 15 years, research by highly-respected scientific and clinical experts has continued to reveal that this ‘super food’ is packed with nutrients that positively affect the body on a multitude of levels.”

Research published in the British Journal of Nutrition found a diet containing as much as 6% walnuts was able to reverse age-related motor and cognitive deficits in aged rats.

“Considering the numerous compounds found in walnuts — essential fatty acids, the plant-based omega-3 alphalinolenic acid (ALA), polyphenols and antioxidants — these results are not surprising,” said James Joseph, a researcher and neuroscientist at the Jean Mayer U.S.D.A. Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University in Boston.

Heart health is a strong selling point for pecan inclusion in grain-based foods. Pecans contain vitamin E, a natural antioxidant that protects blood lipids from oxidation, according to the National Pecan Shellers Association, Atlanta. When L.D.L., or “bad,” cholesterol is oxidized, it is more likely to build up and result in clogged arteries. Pecans contain more than 19 vitamins and minerals, including vitamin A, vitamin E, folic acid, calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, several B vitamins and zinc.

One oz of pecans provides 10% of the recommended Daily Value for fiber. Monounsaturated fat, known as a healthy fat, makes up nearly 60% of the fats in pecans. Another healthy fat, polyunsaturated fat, makes up another 30%.

Gluten-free is another potential marketing benefit for products with nuts. Blue Diamond Growers sells branded gluten-free products at retail that are made with almonds and rice flour. An example is Nut Thins crackers.

“Almonds add a great crunch and flavor that is lacking in a lot of gluten-free products,” Mr. Carroll said.

According to the Almond Board of California, almonds may act as a substitute for wheat flour in baked foods up to about 50%. Chef John Csukor has created a gluten-free California almond breakfast bar and a gluten-free California almond pasta, which incorporates a flax mixture with almond flour.

Soaked walnuts were used in place of wheat flour in a gluten-free Rockin’ Raspberry Cheesecake from Earth Café. The product scored 90 out of 100, ranking it as a hit, in the Feb. 3 edition of “New Products Hits & Misses” from Phil Lempert, the “Supermarket Guru.”

No significant differences in major nutrient content exist between raw and roasted almonds, according to the Almond Board of California. California almonds are shelf stable and tolerate heat processing.

“However, handling and storage of roasted almonds are critical, and exposing roasted almonds to ambient conditions (air, temperature, etc.) may accelerate the degradation of roasted products, which could result in a loss of some nutritional value,” the almond board said.

Walnuts also handle heat well.

“Lab analysis shows that when walnuts are toasted at 350 degrees Fahrenheit for 8 to 10 minutes, they lose only 5% of the omega-3 fatty acid content,” Ms. Gertz said.

Programs, research focus on food safety

Food safety remains a top consumer concern. Only about half (49%) of Americans in 2009 rated themselves as confident in the safety of the U.S. supply while 24% said they were not confident and 26% said they were neither confident nor unconfident, according to the International Food Information Council Foundation’s 2009 Food & Health Survey.

The tree nut industry has experienced its own food safety problems as recent recalls involved pistachios and hazelnuts. Efforts within the tree nut industry to improve food safety have taken place both in the field and in processing steps.

Research within the Agricultural Research Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture has focused on a yeast that may serve as an eco-friendly way to protect tree nuts, as well as corn, from becoming contaminated with aflatoxins.

The yeast competes for nutrients and space to grow that might otherwise be used by Aspergillus flavus, a mold. A. flavus and some other Aspergillus species may produce toxins known collectively as aflatoxins. Besides inhibiting the A. flavus fungus, the yeast may be effective in protecting crops against other species of microbes that may ruin a food’s taste, texture, yield, safety or other attributes.

Sui-Sheng Hua, an A.R.S. plant pathologist based at the A.R.S. Western Regional Research Center in Albany, Calif., has received a patent for the yeast. In tests conducted in a California pistachio orchard, she and her colleagues found spraying trees with the yeast inhibited incidence of A. flavus in pistachios by up to 97% when compared to unsprayed trees. The yeast also may be sprayed on a harvested or stored crop.

The California almond industry, in response to food safety concerns, made a pasteurization plan mandatory in 2007. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved oil roasting, dry roasting, blanching, steam processing and propylene oxidide (PPO) processes as acceptable forms of pasteurization for almonds. Organic almonds should be pasteurized using treatments such as steam pasteurization that meet the U.S.D.A.’s National Organic Program standards.

California walnuts are grown under the regulations of the California Walnut Board, the U.S.D.A. and the F.D.A., according to the California Walnut Board and Commission, Folsom.

“Walnuts, unlike some tree nuts, have a protective hull and shell that encases the walnut kernel throughout its development,” said Jennifer Getz, marketing director, domestic, for the California Walnut Board and Commission. “After the hull splits, the shell remains as a protective barrier. The nuts are shaken from the trees and are harvested over a very short period of time, usually within one or two days.

“They are then transported for processing where they undergo hulling with a heavy water wash, sorting and dehydration at 110 degrees Fahrenheit. Walnuts are then placed into a dry storage to be held for subsequent cracking, sorting, grading and inspection prior to release. Equipment cleaning and sanitation of product flow lines are conducted daily. Also, personnel are trained regularly in the proper handling of food.”

The California Pistachio Board, El Dorado Hills, provided updates in the 2009 edition of its “Good Agricultural Practices Manual; Guidelines for California Pistachio Growers.” The guidelines cover such issues as adjacent land use, water use, fertilizer, pests and harvest sanitation.

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