By delivering protein, antioxidants or vitamins, fruits and nuts are providing confections with a healthy, upscale reputation.

'PAC'ing in nutrition

As Marie Antoinette discovered, there are instances where, “You can’t have your cake and eat it too.” But times have changed. 

The recognition of dark chocolate’s antioxidant properties alongside the health benefits of fruits and nuts has finally allowed consumers to get the best of both worlds when eating chocolate.

Peanuts, for example, are cholesterol-free, low in saturated fats, lower the chance of heart disease and contain fiber, protein, potassium, vitamin E and antioxidants. They also contain the chemical plant compound resveratrol, which has been found to extend the lifespan of mice. (Resveratrol, also found in wine, contains antioxidants.)

Research has also found that eating one serving of peanuts or peanut butter daily can decrease the risk of heart disease by 50% and the risk of diabetes by 25%, reports the American Peanut Council newsletter in its Dec. 1, 2008 issue.

Because peanuts are high in protein, peanut flour (which has up to 50% protein) and peanut butter are applied to many nutrition bars. Peanut products are also used in confectionery products ranging from peanut butter-filled bars and truffles to peanut butter drops and cups. In chocolates with peanut butter fillings, peanut flour may be added to control fat migration, thicken the filling and extend its shelf life.

“Peanut flour is also widely used in peanut butter-flavored coatings,” Bruce Kotz, v.p., specialty products, Golden Peanut Co. says. “Instead of a milk or dark chocolate coating, peanut butter coatings and peanut butter drops are finding a lot more popularity.”

Whether peanut products are used as a drizzle, peanut butter chip or to enrobe confections, they are showing continued growth.

While organic peanuts have been around for several years, Golden Peanut Co. recently introduced organic peanut oil and organic peanut flour in May 2008. And thanks to requests from confectioners for more stable peanut products, the company is offering high-oleic peanuts and peanut-derived ingredients.

 “With the high-oleic peanuts, your peanut-containing bars have an extended shelf life versus non high-oleic peanut-containing products,” Kotz explains.

Similar to high-oleic peanuts, a major benefit of almonds is their stable shelf life, which is important as an inclusion in chocolate.

“Confectioners are interested in extended shelf life and the almond happily provides that,” says John Wagaman, account manager, Blue Diamond Growers.

More than 80% of the world’s supply of almonds comes from California. Of that 80%, small almonds are in abundance and being requested often by confectioners.

“It’s a good way to get a lot of little crunches in each bar by using smaller kernels,” Wagaman says.

Appearing in chocolate bars, clusters and as panned almonds, the nuts feature a qualified health claim surrounding heart health. Almonds are also high in vitamin E, protein, fiber, calcium and niacin. The skins of almonds are said to contain antioxidants called flavanols, which are similar to fruits and vegetables.

“Consumers have begun craving more indulgence in their diets, but they’re still on the lookout for foods that use those ‘better-for-you’ ingredients,” said Shirley Horn, senior director of global marketing and communications for the Almond Board of California. “Almonds are perfectly compatible with all major confectionery trends including premium quality, dark chocolate and nutrient awareness.”

According to a survey conducted by the Almond Board of California, foodservice and consumer packaged goods professionals said that the most important aspect of an ingredient is its flavor, followed by its texture, health benefits, consumer demand, visual appeal and cost.

The Board’s survey of North American consumers also found that almond consumption doubled in the United States between 1999 and 2007 while almond-liking scores obtained a record high in 2008.

Popular in Europe for years, hazelnuts are becoming more widely accepted and requested in the United States. Grown mainly in Turkey and Oregon, hazelnuts present an intense flavor with a very low percentage of saturated fat. They also have a qualified health claim, vitamin E, fiber, magnesium, B vitamins and proanthocyanidins (PACs).

According to studies conducted by The Hazelnut Council and Brunswick Laboratories, hazelnuts have the highest concentration of PACs among the tree nuts (other fruits and nuts containing PACs include pecans, cranberries, wild blueberries, pistachios, peanuts, almonds and walnuts). Known for their palate-tightening effect, studies have found PACs to be 20 times more powerful than vitamin C and 50 times more effective than vitamin E. The antioxidants in PACs may help strengthen blood vessels, lessen platelet stickiness in arteries, reduce the risk of heart disease and lower blood pressure.

In addition to their health benefits, hazelnuts are seen as an exotic inclusion for confectionery items.

”I think that companies are really recognizing that the American palate is becoming more sophisticated,” says Vicki Nesper, marketing supervisor, The Hazelnut Council. “In the past I think when they were looking at nuts they were a little more likely to stick with the nuts that Americans tend to be more familiar with.” The evolution of the American palate has allowed for introductions of more exotic inclusions, including hazelnuts and possibly fruit.

“We haven’t seen a lot of confectionery products in the United States that are combining hazelnuts with fruit, but I think it’s a good opportunity,” Nesper says. “They go well with cranberries, blueberries, figs, cherries, and lots of different flavors.”

One such fruit inclusion, wild blueberries, also infuses well with chocolate. Grown in Maine, eastern Canada and Quebec, wild blueberries are also known as lowbush blueberries. Additionally, wild blueberries, which are smaller in size with a more intense flavor than cultivated blueberries, are used primarily as ingredients.

“About 80% of the population of [the United States] connects blueberries to antioxidants,” says John Sauve, managing partner, food and nutrition, Swardlick Marketing Group (representing the Wild Blueberry Association). “The health benefits that have been most publicized deal with its impact on memory and brain function.”

Scientists have found that wild blueberries may aid in heart health, cancer prevention and even improving night vision. They are also a low glycemic index (GI) food.

Given the plethora of health benefits available in fruit and nut inclusions, it looks like consumers can finally “have their chocolate and eat it too.” 

Other healthy inclusions

Cashews: contain monounsaturated fat, copper, and magnesium with a low fat content. The oleic acid found in cashews promotes heart health and reduces the risk of heart disease. Copper aids in the development of bone and connective tissue, production of melanin and energy production. Magnesium helps to lower blood pressure, prevent heart attacks and ensure healthy bones. (Organic Cashew Nuts)

Cherries: are low in calories and high in potassium, vitamin C, B complex and minerals. Cherries may also prevent heart disease and cancer, reduce pain and increase bone health. (California Cherry Advisory Board)

Cranberries:contain PACs, which can prevent the adhesion of some bacteria, that may prevent urinary tract infections, gum disease and stomach ulcers. The antioxidants and phytonutrients in cranberries may also protect the body against heart disease, cancer and aging characteristics such as loss of coordination and memory. (The Cranberry Institute)

Pecans: may prevent coronary heart disease due to the nut’s vitamin E content. The different forms of vitamin E contained in pecans protect blood lipids from oxidation, aiding in the prevention of clogged arteries. Pecans are high in antioxidants and may help to lower cholesterol and reduce the risk of heart disease. They do not contain trans fat, cholesterol or sodium. (National Pecan Shellers Association)

Pistachios:are high in healthy fats with no trans fats and no cholesterol. They also contain fiber, thiamin, vitamin B-6, potassium and phytosterols, which aid in lowering cholesterol levels and protecting against some cancers. A recent study has also found that pistachios may improve heart health by reducing inflammation in the body. (Western Pistachio Association)

Raspberries:are high in antioxidants and low in calories. One cup of raspberries contains 70 calories, one gram of fat, two grams of protein and zero grams of saturated fat, trans fat and cholesterol. The fruit also acts as an anti-inflammatory and contains anthocyanins, which may reduce cardiovascular disease and diabetes, and improve eyesight and memory. (Washington Red Raspberry Commission)

Walnuts: contain alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), an essential omega-3 fatty acid, which may reduce the risk of heart disease, cancer, stroke, diabetes, high blood pressure, obesity and clinical depression. Walnuts are also high in antioxidants. (California Walnut Board)