The Nut House

By Maria Pilar Clark
With the latest research in hand, bakers are putting nuts back in baked goods as consumers clamor for tasty, healthful choices — chock-full of nuts.
Ah, squirrels. With winter knocking on the door, those little rodents are going nuts — incessantly finding nuts, hoarding nuts, eating nuts — we should really take a lesson from our little friends. They might be on the right track with their ongoing nut obsession. Research has shown that eating nuts frequently can dramatically improve health and bakers are following the example of those nutty squirrels and rolling out options for health-minded consumers.
Mixed Bag
For more than a decade, nuts had found a seemingly permanent place on the nutritional blacklist. Touted as not being all they were cracked up to be, nuts were reported to be full of fat and calories and blamed as weight-gain culprits. Conflicting reports were enough to send confused consumers to the nut house.
As an element in bakery applications, nuts add flavor, texture and crunch to a variety of baked goods. And, it turns out that adding nuts to a diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol can have many life-saving benefits.
Move over squirrels! Nuts are back with a brand, spanking new reputation. According to the California Almond Board, nuts are big business, with tree nuts, including walnuts, almonds, hazelnuts, pecans, pistachios, Brazil nuts and pine nuts, accounting for growing sales as imports and exports all over the world.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture reports that nut consumption has grown more than 10% in the past year. Eating the right kinds of nuts in the right quantities is actually quite healthy.
Like Nuttin’ Else
Dave Steinmuller, vice president of sales for Hammons Products Co., specializing in black walnuts, says interest in nuts has gone beyond the generations of yester-year.
“(Nuts), especially walnuts, are a traditional Midwestern item for the full baking season for anything from candies to breads to cookies to pies during the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays,” he explains. There’s a certain sense of comfort in looking forward to Grandma’s holiday favorites like warm banana-walnut bread and peanut butter cookies.
“(But,) we have another age group that is doing a whole lot of experimental cooking with nuts and trying different flavors, like ice cream toppings and as a glaze-type topping on meats, which is stretching the envelope for the previous age demographic,” Steinmuller adds. “That whole market segment has just taken off. There seems to be no limit.”
Incorporating nuts into everyday life is easy as pecan pie — they add richness, flavor and texture. Nuts appear in everything from desserts and pastas to salads and even drinks. The options are truly endless, as Steinmuller suggests.
“As a raw (ingredient), nuts can be added to any item. Adding walnuts to any baked item or cooked item makes a nice addition to it. (Additionally,) the nut can be toasted. Envision taking a non-stick pan, a handful of black walnuts, getting them warm and putting them on a salad. It changes the taste.”
Nuts are more than just something you whack with a hammer to pick out the meat. They’re constantly evolving — appearing in recipes for everything from tortillas to meats. They make for nut-rageous spreadable pastes — aside from the familiar peanut butter, cashew, almond and hazelnut butters are sprouting up on various retail shelves and glitzing up our old PB&J stand-by.
Of course, it’s not all glitz and glam. Nuts can create problems for bakers. The unsaturated fats in nuts cause them to go rancid quickly, souring products. The California Almond Board suggests the following: “The best way to formulate with nuts, especially for cookies or bars that need more than six to eight weeks of shelf life, is to package them in film that is treated with antioxidants, or to nitrogen-flush the package.”
Another option is to treat nuts with infrared rays, quickly raising their temperature enough to destroy the enzymes that add to rancidity. However, temperatures vary from one nut to another, forcing bakers to control moisture levels, water acidity and fats while formulating.
In a Nutshell
A group of scientists at Loma Linda University in California found that individuals eating nuts daily had up to 60% fewer heart attacks than those who ate nuts less than once a month or not at all.
Four other large studies have since confirmed there are benefits to nut eating related to the heart. Specifically, nut consumption greatly lowers the risk of heart disease.
Monosaturated oils in nuts protect the heart in several ways — as a major source of vitamin E, nut oils safeguard the circulatory system where the vitamin works as an antioxidant, inhibiting cell and tissue damage while lowering harmful LDL cholesterol and triglycerides.
In addition to protecting the heart, eating nuts reduces the risk of suffering strokes, Type 2 diabetes, gallstones, dementia and advanced macular degeneration disease.
Women in a Harvard School of Public Health study reported that eating five or more 1-oz. servings of nuts per week reduced their risk of Type 2 diabetes by 30% compared to those who rarely or never consumed nuts. Also, women who ate five tablespoons of peanut butter per week reduced their risk by 20%.
A healthy handful of nuts, considered to be about 2-3 oz., contains magnesium, zinc, manganese, protein, fiber, iron, calcium and phosphorus. Iron, zinc and calcium, three minerals that Americans are sorely lacking in their diets, are essential for blood and enzyme function.
Naturally Nut-ritious
Nuts are naturally cholesterol free and just 1 oz. of walnuts meets the dietary recommendation for omega-3 fatty acids. The same amount of almonds provides 35% of the daily value of vitamin E and 1 oz. of roasted peanuts provides about 10% of the daily value of folate and 20% of niacin.
Though nuts are indeed a higher-fat food, it is the heart-healthy unsaturated fat that may keep high levels of LDL, or bad cholesterol at bay. Fittingly, the Georgia Pecan Commission reports that eating a handful of pecans every day reduces cholesterol and could potentially be an alternative to cholesterol-reducing drugs. Scientists investigated the effect of pecans, which are chock-full of monounsaturated fat, in a study of men and women with normal to moderate cholesterol levels, and found that the nuts successfully altered the subjects’ lipid profiles without increasing their overall weight.
A fourth study conducted by the Health Research and Studies Center in Los Angeles concluded that adding nuts to a healthy diet does not result in weight gain. Evidence suggests that the body compensates by favoring a natural reduction in its overall daily caloric intake.
Nuts not only help in giving nibblers a midday brain-boost, they keep cancer away too. Diets high in fiber are shown to reduce the risk of various types of cancer — stomach, colon and esophagus among them. It’s no wonder the popularity of these little legumes and tree nuts has budded virtually overnight.
As scientists point to the myriad health benefits of nuts, and “food nuts” toast the vast culinary appeal of nuts, consumers have a hoard of heart-healthy reasons to follow the lead of squirrels and go nuts for nuts.
A healthy handful of nuts, considered to be about 2-3 oz., contains magnesium, zinc, manganese, protein, fiber, iron, calcium and phosphorus. Iron, zinc and calcium, three minerals that Americans are sorely lacking in their diets, are essential for blood and enzyme function.
A Nutty Idea that Works
To expand the sales of its line of Fisher nuts, John B. Sanfilippo & Son, Inc. has gone from the snacking occasion to the meal occasion.
The Elk Grove Village, Ill.-based company is thinking outside the nutshell with its new Fisher Salad Buddies. The four varieties of all-natural nuts are packaged in 6-oz. shaker cans. Packed with protein, the unflavored and unsalted toppings come in Slivered Almonds, Pecan Pieces, Walnut Pieces and Sunflower Kernels varieties.
Despite their name, Salad Buddies can do more than spice up lettuce and tomatoes. The company suggests that consumers get creative and experiment with each different kind to make an ordinary dish extraordinary. Perhaps try tossing sunflower kernels in pastas or adding walnuts to desserts. Sprinkle almonds onto casseroles, toast pecans for a healthy snack, or just take them on the go for whenever you’re feeling nutty.
The suggested retail price for each variety is $1.70 for kernels, $2.29 for walnut pieces and $2.49 for almonds and pecans. For more information, call 1-847-871-6854.