More and more bakers are implementing the message that fruits and nuts, separately or together, are giving consumers a healthy eating experience and producers a healthy return on investment
The appearance of new types of fruits and nuts presents bakers and snack producers alike with new challenges and profitable new opportunities. Some of the more exotic varieties of nuts and fruits to gain bakers' attention are the black walnut and the tamarind.
They couldn't be more different, yet both have the feel of the exotic about them. The black walnut, better known perhaps as the American walnut, grows untamed in an arc encompassing 32 states in the center of the country. Many consider its wild character has contributed to its robust flavor. This is a nut of which it can truly be said that a little goes a long way. Because it has a more intense flavor than its English walnut counterpart, much less of it is needed in a baked good formulation.
Moreover, the black walnut's solid nutritional profile — it contains high levels of polyunsaturated fats, essential Omega-3 fatty acids and protein — have long earned it the respect of generations of Midwestern muffin, scone and bread bakers who have migrated across the country and taken their favorite black walnut recipes along.
The tamarind on the other hand is about as exotic as any fruit that finds its way into baked goods in this country. This Asian fruit is most usually associated with such menu items as Indian curry, where the fruit's pungent aroma and sweet taste heighten the exotic appeal of the meal.
Yet bakers in the U.S. are slowly adopting the tamarind. They like its color, a rich amber, its aromatic fragrance and its mild taste. Though exotic, bakers soon find it is easy to work into their formulations, with the result that tamarind is popping up for example in cookies and muffins, either alone or with the addition of nuts.
Soaring Demand for Nuts and Dried Fruits
Yet mentioning how bakers are increasing their use of nuts and fruit is not solely anecdotal. There is hard evidence to support the fact that health claims for nuts and new products and packaging introductions for both nuts and dried fruits helped to push sales to $3.3 billion in 2003, according to a new report from Mintel. This is a 47% increase between 1998 and 2003. Supermarkets are the leading channel of distribution for nuts and dried fruit sales, capturing 51.5% of all retail sales.
Moreover, to suggest that every cloud has a silver lining isn't exaggerating the impact of the low-fat and low-carb diets on the nut industry. In a word, Atkins has resuscitated the fortunes of the nut-processing companies. That is, Atkins plus the good news about food researchers' growing awareness of nuts' nutritional benefits. The list of nutritional characteristics that make nuts so desirable for consumers is already long and it keeps growing.
Bakers have long recognized the value of incorporating various nuts into their bread and other baked goods formulations. For example, consumers like the look, the crunch and the aroma of an almond -or hazelnut-stuffed muffin. But what has dramatically boosted the nutritional impact of the baked goods-nut alliance is the recognition among dieters of nuts' beneficial protein content. This is the basis of the protein-rich Atkins diet: consume as much as possible of foods low in carbohydrates and rich in protein. The boost this has delivered to nut processors, such as John B. Sanfilippo & Son of Elk Grove Village, Ill., has left them a little dazed.
In the past year, the company's shares have soared from around $12 all the way up to $50 and above. The company owns Fisher Nut, which does contract manufacturing and private-label production for several companies, including Wal-Mart. Its sales for its fiscal first quarter skyrocketed by almost one third to $120 million. This was also its best year as a whole for almost four years. In fact, industry-wide, sales of nuts in the food, drug and mass outlets grew 9.1% to $1.8 billion last year — the highest rate since 2000.
Thus, it is easy to conclude that consumers want more and more nuts for more and more reasons — health, nutrition and flavor are the main factors. On the health front, the fact that the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) allowed the first health claim on a food item and it happened to concern nuts made the nut processors feel that Christmas had never really gone away.
This enthusiasm carried over to the California Almond Board, which has released an "Educational Workbook" to help bakers and snack producers develop a qualified heart health claim. This step-by-step approach can be used to assess which of their existing or new products may carry the qualified health claim. In detail, the booklet describes the seven steps that need to be taken in order to comply with the FDA's labeling program.
In part the Almond Board was responding to a Consumer Awareness Attitude study reporting that 64% of consumers agree that a product containing almonds is worth more money. For bakers the message seemed to be two-fold — in a nutshell, use more nuts because they'll help you boost your baked goods' revenue while giving consumers the nutritional impact they're demanding.
When it comes to the issue of sweeteners — particularly in terms of the health and diet impact of sweeteners on baked goods and snack foods, manufacturers can sweeten products naturally with raisins. Raisin paste and raisin juice concentrate can play increasingly vital roles in the product development of foods by offering the natural appeal and wholesomeness that consumers desire. The California raisin also performs more than one functional role.
For example, raisins in the form of raisin paste can be used in snack and baked goods formulations to lower the fat. The texture of raisin paste mimics that found in fat-based products. So it may be substituted for a portion of the fat in many applications, from soft cookie formulations to wholesome hearth grain items. It is also useful in all fruit and whole grain snack bars. The raisin paste acts as a binder and sweetener as well.
Raisin paste contributes viscosity and body in addition to eating quality, texture and flavor depth. The natural raisin flavor does not interfere or compete with desired flavor profiles. Rather, the inclusion of raisins may augment the flavor of other ingredients, adding a well-rounded, fresh note.
Raisin paste can be used directly in formulations. It offers humectancy and natural mold inhibition for baked goods. This stems from the natural sugars and fibers present, trapping the moisture within the baked goods, helping to slow staling and thereby keeping products fresh and moist for longer periods of time. Raisins naturally contain proprionic acid, an all-natural mold inhibitor, which significantly reduces, and in many cases eliminates, the need for artificial preservatives.
Raisin paste can be ordered according to manufacturer specifications. Raisins, raisin paste and raisin juice concentrate offer a wonderful range of opportunities to food product designers. From fat-free formulas to their healthy, sun-dried appeal, raisins can help everyone, consumer and manufacturer alike, adopt and enjoy healthier eating habits.
While many bakers find fruit paste a valuable substitute for fat in their formulations, this advantage can also be gained from using fruit in a powdered form. The PlumLife Co., a division of Tree Top, Inc., produces a blended fruit powder — JLS Dry 100% Fruit Powder — that the company claims provides a great-tasting, healthier product without any increase in cost.
For a whole range of baked goods, including cookies, scones, muffins, breads, brownies and bagels, fruit powder can be adopted as a fat replacement. In the case of cookies for example, bakers report using JLS Dry to replace 40% of the butter blend and 18% of the eggs for cost savings and to make a healthier, reduced fat, crisp chocolate chip cookie.
Bakers and snack producers' willingness to incorporate fruits and nuts, even exotic varieties, in their formulations is a testament to their realization that such ingredients can be a springboard to higher sales and increased revenues.
And that's a development anyone would be nuts to ignore.