Duking it Out
By Dan Malovany
If it’s nutritionally good for you, the product must taste bad. If the healthy snack tastes too good to be true, it probably is. If the dessert is to die for, eating too much of it probably will lead to death in the end.
If today’s consumers seem skeptical about healthy products, well, excuse them. Time after time, they have been promised the world only to be less than satisfied with the product. Remember those low-carb muffins that tasted like sawdust?
However, with the current emphasis on natural, whole grains and wholesomeness, a greater number of bakers and snack producers increasingly are using fruits and nuts as the core ingredients to develop innovative, better-for-you products that meet and even exceed consumers’ expectations for taste.
Not long ago, it used to take spoonful of sugar to make the medicine go down, but not any more. Now, according to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) qualified health claim, it takes only a small handful on nuts to get a healthy dosage of Vitamin E, fiber, copper or riboflavin as well as mono- and polyunsaturated fats that could be good for the body as well as the heart.
Specifically, the qualified claim states what many nut producers have known for some time, mainly that “scientific evidence suggests but does not prove that eating 1.5 oz. of most nuts as part of a diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol may reduce the risk of heart disease.” The FDA suggests consuming nuts four to five times a week, depending on caloric intake.
Not surprisingly, an increasing number of salted snack producers are using the FDA’s new qualified claim for nuts on their packaging.
“All of the snack lines, including ours and most of our competitors have begun using the FDA qualified claim as a part of their packages,” says Bobby Tankersley, vice president of industrial sales at John. B. Sanfillipo & Son. The Elk Grove Village, Ill.-based company shells and packages a wide variety nuts sold to consumers under Fisher and other branded names as well as to bakers to use as ingredients in their products.
In supermarkets, sales in the salted nut category have been nothing less than strong. According to Information Resources, Inc., data shared by Tankersley, snack nut sales are up 13% in dollars and 12% in unit volume over the last 12 months. At the retail level, the top-selling nuts are peanuts, cashews and almonds.
The increase is just as dramatic among bakers using nuts as ingredients in their cookies, muffins, bagels, breads and rolls, to name a few. Pecans, walnuts, almonds and macadamia nuts are the best sellers among wholesale bakers and other industrial users, Tankersley says.
With demand so strong, it’s not surprising that many nuts are selling at a premium.
“Right now, we’re seeing an increase for the second consecutive year in product development using nuts as components,” Tankersley says. “This is occurring at a time when almost every nut that we have in our portfolio is very near its historical highs [in consumption and cost].
“There are shortages of certain sizes and grades,” he adds. “In spite of that, more companies are including nuts in their lines. Normally, it would be out of the price point that they would be willing to consider.”
Comfort Foods go Exotic
In addition to perpetuating the perception that their products are more wholesome and natural than others on the shelf, bakers are incorporating for fruits and nuts to create a point of differentiation that generates a little excitement for their new products on the shelf.
“Americans are really reaching out for products that are more European and more sophisticated,” says Jennifer Hawton, manager of marketing and communications for The Hazelnut Council. “We’re no longer quite as happy with an Oreo. We want a fancy-schmancy kind of cookie made by a local baker who got the recipe from his grandma who came from overseas. It’s just a supposition on my part, but Americans are reaching more innovative tastes just because we’re bored.”
Restaurants, and specifically the nation’s chefs, are pushing the envelope on taste by exposing their patrons to desserts with a twist, such a cranberry pear hazelnut baklava, hazelnut pistachio and vanilla biscuits or hazelnut waffles.
In fact, over the last few years, 75 new snacks and cookies featuring hazelnuts have hit the market.
“They used to be used only as toppings, but we’re starting to see them more as a main ingredient,” Hawton notes. “[Bakers] are seeing the success that hazelnuts are having in other industries, like the European chocolates with hazelnuts, which are really taking off.”
New product developers in the snack and baking industry are blending ingredients such as hazelnuts, black walnuts, blackberries and blending them with more mainstream products, such as apples, blueberries, raisins and almonds, to create upscale versions of the more popular comfort foods.
“People are taking their old favorites and adding these more upscale, sophisticated flavors,” Hawton says. “They’re trying to take something that’s a comfort food and make it an elegant food. I think that’s having a lot of effect on where they are adding in the ingredients.”
Kiwi is one of these fruits that’s experience a growth in popularity, notes Diana Steeble, manager of marketing communications for ZESPRI New Zealand Kiwifruit.
In addition to the classic green kiwifruit, which has a tangy-sweet flavor, kiwi comes in a gold variety, which has a tropical-sweet flavor that’s more mellow and similar to a mango or banana. Gold kiwi, Steeble adds, has a smooth skin and pointy cap. Both colors can be added to garnish cakes, incorporated in creamy frosting or added to deliver color to the classic French fruit tart or to create a summery dessert pizza.
Attracting Ethnic Consumers
Muffins and bagels are the most popular baked goods for blueberries, according to the U.S. Highbush Blueberry Council. Because of extensive research, media coverage and publicity campaigns, consumers are well aware of the health and anti-aging benefits of blueberries.
Blueberries not only contain a good source of fiber, folic acid, potassium and magnesium, but also certain flavonoids and phytochemicals, such as the anthocyanins, that give them their blue-purple color.
Compared with 40 other fruits and vegetables, blueberries rank highest in disease-fighting antioxidants.
It’s their distinctive flavor and color, however, that have made them increasingly popular among Hispanic consumers, whose foods often have bright colors to add to the festive atmosphere of celebrations, holiday feasts and everyday meals.
Moreover, the council notes, blueberries balance the heat of chilies while adding sparkle and zest. “They make a good fit with the growing number of Hispanic product lines of breads, sweets, frozen and baked pastries as well as in savory snacks with a Hispanic accent,” a spokesperson for the U.S. Highbush Blueberry Council says.
Specifically, the deep blueberry-blue colors are used to top such sweet pastries as conchas and to decorate cookies known as polvorones. Moreover, the jewel-blue berries add natural color to snacks. The Spanish words, mora azul, literally translate to blueberry.
“As a trendsetter, nothing approaches the growing popularity of Hispanic foods and ingredients, and as these dishes fast become America’s new food of choice, blueberries are finding a national home,” the council’s spokesperson states.
Likewise, raisins have been dancing to a new ethnic tune. According to the California Raisin Marketing Board, raisins have become increasingly popular in both savory and sweet Indian dishes. The board notes that the fruit has become a central ingredient in crispy golden samosas, fruit-filled nans, sweet burfis and halwas.
Across the world, raisins also are found in Polish babka, the Russian Easter bread krendel, Italy’s panettone, an Irish tea bread called Barm brack, Scottish scones, German stollen and kuchan, British malt breads, Scandanavian limpa, Chelsea buns and Spotted Dick. The board also notes that raisins are used in tamales, tapas and other Mexican and Caribbean foods.
Creating a Natural Perception
In breads, rolls, buns and tortillas, bakers may add raisin juice concentrate to many baked goods as a natural preservative to extend shelf life. That’s because the addition of California raisins to bakery products slows the migration of water to the starch granule that causing staling in bread.
In addition to helping reduce preservatives, raisins contain a naturally-occurring organic acid called tartaric acid, which enhances the flavor of bread and can help bakers reduce the amount of salt they use to prevent bread from tasting bland, the council notes.
Meanwhile, almonds are available in more forms than any other nut, from slivers, flakes and dices to slices, butter, meal, paste and oil, says Catherine Ogilvie, marketing director at the Almond Board of California.
“Bakers can and do use almond oil for its mild, clean flavor profile,” she says. “It blends well with other flavors while contributing to an all-natural ingredient statement.”
Snack and energy bars, she adds, have been a “very dynamic category for almond products.”
“We’ve seen an ear doubling in new product introductions in the category with almonds between 2003 and 2004,” Ogilvie notes. “We’re expecting a lot of growth in almond usage with bakers and manufacturers who are pursuing higher content and looking to promote a more ‘whole grain’ image for their products.”
Surveys by the Almond Board indicate that 83% of consumers agree that a product with almonds is “better nutritionally,” Ogilvie says.
“Even more powerful for bakers,” she adds, “63% of consumers say they’re willing to pay more for products that contain them.”
For bakers, that certainly makes the use of fruits and nuts more naturally appealing.
Good News Keeps on Coming
For fruit and nut producers, the announcement that accompanied the new U.S. Dietary Guidelines in January simply punctuated their message that consumers should select those foods that give them the most benefits for the calories they consume.
Both fruits and nuts contain a wide variety of vitamins and minerals as well as antioxidants and fiber that are recommended by the new guidelines.
Nuts such as black walnuts are low in saturated fat, contain no cholesterol and are high in polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats that can lower “bad” cholesterol levels (LDL) without damaging good cholesterol (HDL).
Apples contain vitamins A and C, beta-carotene, numerous flavonoids and fiber. In fact, one medium apple typically has about 5 gm. of fiber, or one quarter of the recommended daily value of fiber for a 2,000-calorie-per-day diet.
Moreover, new research on the health and nutritional benefits of consuming fruits and nuts keeps on rolling in. In the March issue of the Journal of the American Dietetic Association, researchers at California State University Los Angeles in Loma Linda, Calif., were the first to show the correlation between increased almond consumption and increased alpha-tocopherol vitamin E levels (a key shortfall nutrient for Americans) along with a reduction in cholesterol level.
According to the Almond Board of California, a $1 million study is in the field to determine a correlation between almonds and body weight. Specifically, the study is exploring how almond consumption may help maintain/reduce body weight, due to an impact on satiety or because a lower percentage of fat in almonds is absorbed by the body. The research is also checking the impact of the “crunch” effect almonds have on a feeling of fullness. The board reports the “initial results are promising.”
Takes Top Prize
Inventive food science students at the University of Wisconsin in Madison headed to the lab and created delicious Cone-coxions, a snack that received the top honors at the recently held 3rd Annual Almond Innovations contest created by the Almond Board of California.
The bite-sized almond waffle cone is layered with rich dark chocolate and drizzled with crunchy almond pieces.
Other winners included Mizamonde, an all-natural prenatal nutrition bar for women, in the bar category. Developed by students at the California Polytechnic State University, the bar is composed predominantly of almond meal, almond flour and toasted almond pieces. Cornell University students won the portable snack category prize for Almond Nuggets, sweet nut clusters made with almonds, whole oats, sugar-free dark chocolate and orange oil.
A panel of food technology professionals, culinarians and almond industry representatives selected the winning snack products based on such sensory attributes as taste and flavor as well as the students’ marketing plan. The products were also evaluated based on the use of almonds, packaging and feasibility of product development.
Along with a $5,000 prize, the Grand Prize-winning team will send a representative to showcase their product at the Almond Board’s booth at the Institute of Food Technologists Expo 2005 in New Orleans. The two category winners will receive a $2,500 prize. For more information, visit www.almondsarein.com
Nutty Ideas that Work
To increases sales, snack nut producers are repackaging, repositioning or reformulating their traditional lines to target new eating occasions.
Salad Buddies by John B. Sanfillipo & Son are moving nuts out of the snack aisle and into other areas of the store in an effort to get incremental sales.
“Right now, you see nuts and various other components in the produce section. Salad Buddies are going to put nuts in the salad dressing aisle where there are none currently,” says Bobby Tankersley, vice president of industrial sales at the company.
“At the same time, we’re going to be launching a branded Salad Buddies pouch to be used in salad kits,” he adds. “Currently, you see some salad kits that already include nuts as a part of their package. The new kits that are being launched included branded inserts of Salad Buddies.”
Meanwhile, Planters is rolling out it NUT-trition line of “lightly salted, heart-healthy mix” that can be added to yogurt or oatmeal in the morning, chicken salad at lunch, stir fry at dinner or even with ice cream and strawberries for dessert. The goal is to help consumers add a good or excellent source of certain vitamins and minerals to their meals.