What’s Eating Filbert Grape?
By Maria Pilar Clark
Fruits and nuts aren’t meant only for fruitcake and trail mix. To keep critics and fans guessing, bakers and snack producers are raising their products to A-list levels with unconventional fruit and nut inclusions in baked goods and snacks.
Fruits and nuts are hollowing out a niche for themselves as imaginative, somewhat idiosyncratic performers — much like eccentric movie star Johnny Depp — in baked goods and snacks. To unseat the common consumer perception that fruit and nuts belong only in fruitcake and brownies, bakers and snack producers are consistently surprising fans and critics alike with avant-garde, added-value transformations of otherwise conventional bakery products, such as muffins, cookies, breads and bars.
Berry and Joon
They’re also sparking a love affair worthy of the big screen between an odd pair — hot consumer trends and medically-backed research — with products that tout added health appeal with the inclusion of antioxidant-packed, fiber-rich fruits such as blueberries and raisins.
“‘Do you have anything with blueberries?’ From bakeshops to school lunch lines, from supermarkets to restaurants, consumers of all ages are asking this same question,” says Thomas Payne, industry specialist for the U.S. Highbush Blueberry Council and California Raisin Marketing Board. “Consumers see blueberries as a value-added ingredient. They are linked to good health, good times and good feelings.”
The Folsom, Calif.-based Blueberry Council — representing blueberry growers in 38 states — notes that blueberries enhance the healthy image of baked goods. Consumers are looking for products that not only taste good, he adds, but also have value-added benefits, such as heart protection, anti-aging properties and cancer prevention, which blueberries are known for.
“The recurrent theme today is ‘give us natural.’ Consumers like the fact that blueberries are a natural ingredient, nothing added, no preservatives,” Payne adds. “Then there’s that intriguing color … blue means new!”
Fresh blueberry sales are rising to record heights. According to Payne, more than 60% of cultivated blueberries now are sold in fruit-containing products compared to 50% in past years. What’s more, dried blueberries were considered a rare find just 10 years ago. Today, they are major performers — a star fruit — appearing as a prominent ingredient in many snack foods and baked items.
Bakers are keeping up with demand with a variety of blueberry formats available in a range of options to meet both large and small manufacturing needs. All are conveniently packaged, adding new usage opportunities in nouveau product applications.
“In addition to fresh blueberries, today, bakers can choose from individually quick frozen (IQF) and straight-pack frozen blueberries, canned blueberries, dehydrated blueberries — including infused, freeze-dried, osmotically preserved and drum dried — purees, juice concentrates and blueberry bakery fillings,” Payne says. “The range of blueberry formats has opened up a realm of uses that allow bakeries added leeway to create new and exciting products.”
Raisins are enjoying renewed popularity as a result of the 2005 U.S. Dietary Guideline’s call for healthier diets. Specifically, the guidelines encourage Americans to eat a balance of protein, carbohydrates, vitamins, minerals and fiber, which can be hard to find in just one product. Enter raisins.
“Raisins are sources of sweetness, nutrients and fiber,” Payne explains. “California raisins are a natural for snacks and snack foods since they are nature’s original candy and one of the world’s most nutritious dried fruits. Cholesterol-free, low in sodium, high in fiber and virtually fat free, raisins provide many necessary vitamins and minerals, including iron and potassium.”
The California Raisin Marketing Board notes that bakers have many options to choose from when it comes to the wrinkly fruit. Thompson Seedless raisins represent about 95% of the raisins produced in California, which are naturally sun-dried and available in a variety of sizes — midgets, selects and jumbos. In addition, bakers can opt to use raisin paste, which is made from 100% all-natural raisins.
“Raisin paste can be obtained in coarse or smooth paste formats …and remains pliable and soft during storage,” Payne says. “It is extrudable and compatible with a variety of flavors and other ingredients.”
Raisins and raisins paste also have shelf-life extension properties, and can act as a natural sweetener, humectant, flavor enhancer and binder. The Raisin Board suggests that bakers use raisin paste in applications where the presence of fruit particulate is needed or where a fat replacement option is required.
“Adding fruits and nuts to snack foods — both sweet snacks such as trail mixes, candies and cookies, as well as chips and crackers — is becoming increasingly popular to capture part of the ‘healthful halo’ associated with these natural ingredients,” Payne says.  
Almond Sliverhands  
Nuts are no longer banished to dark corners of grocer’s shelves, lurking and hiding in standard products such as brownies and cookies. Today, almonds, cashews, walnuts and filberts are slowly but surely finding their place among consumers, and represent an ongoing product innovation experiment for bakers and snack food companies.
As new, nutty products come of age, consumers are eager to accept new nut combinations and creative flavors. As a result, nuts are driving sales as their health benefits and indulgent flavor-enhancing profiles garner mass media attention.
The almond industry tracks consumer awareness, attitudes and usage of almonds, and in a 2005 Consumer AAU conducted by Sterling Rice for the California Almond Board, results show that a combination of improved health perceptions, liking scores and usage all indicate that the value of almonds has grown. The California Almond Board notes that top-of-mind awareness has reached an all-time high, with 17% of respondents reporting almonds as the nut that comes to mind first. Association of almonds with key categories including cereal, energy/granola bars and snacks also increased. Nutritional perceptions of almonds continues to strengthen, with 43% of respondents rating almonds “excellent” for being nutritious (up from 32% in 2004) and 38% rating almonds “excellent” for being heart healthy (up from 26% in 2004).
Steve Gikas, co-owner of Golden West Nuts, Inc., a grower and processor located in Ripon, Calif., reports through the California Almond Board that the health benefits message also has influenced snack, bakery and prepared food manufacturers. Inquiries and sales are brisk and the use of almonds slices and slivers, which when sprinkled on top of baked goods and confections can improve appearance and add value, is increasing.  
Likewise, an October 2005 study by The Hazelnut Council, based in Jersey City, N.J., revealed that 66% of American consumers plan to increase their consumption of nuts. Of those consumers aware of the qualified health claim for nuts, 74% say they will increase their consumption of nuts. Among those planning to increase their nut noshing, 20% say they will chomp their favorite kinds of nuts more often, 21% say they will try new kind of nuts that they typically consume less often, and 46% say they will do both, signaling a huge opportunity for food manufacturers to “expand their usage of nuts beyond those varieties consumers are most used to seeing in products.”
Peanuts are the most commonly consumed nut in the United States, with almonds following at a close second, but a wide variety of nuts are trendy and well-liked across different markets, says Vicki Nesper, marketing communications supervisor for The Hazelnut Council.
“Hazelnuts, for example, are increasing in popularity in many markets, including … bakery and snack,” Nesper adds. “Examples of new hazelnut products in the bakery and snack categories include LU Crème Roulee Rolled Wafers in Chocolate Hazelnut, … Pepperidge Farm Pirouettes, Yohay Baking’s Chocolate Hazelnut Biscotti, … Entenmann’s hazelnut Danish called the Cinnamon Filbert Ring, … and the Sahale Socorro Blend, an up-and-coming snack mix that includes hazelnuts and macadamia nuts that is enjoying increased distribution.”
Due to the hazelnut’s unique, slightly sweet flavor profile, the adaptable nut can be substituted for virtually any other nut in a recipe.
“Hazelnuts are very versatile in baking applications,” says Bonnie Gorder, vice president and director of culinary services for The Hazelnut Council. “They can be used whole, chopped, sliced or halved.”
For a more intense hazelnut flavor, or to add more texture to snacks such as crackers or cookies, Gorder suggests using hazelnut meal, hazelnut paste, and ground or chopped hazelnuts. When stored properly, hazelnuts have an excellent shelf life of up to 24 months, due to their low moisture and high Vitamin E levels, and should be stored vacuum-sealed at temperatures below 50°F.
Additional Hazelnut Council data shows that the percentage of consumers who think health is important when purchasing products that contain nuts rose to 82% in 2005 from 69% in 2002.
“But consumers don’t want to give up taste, so they are looking for products that are both healthy and indulgent, and they believe those products are out there,” Nesper says. “In fact, our study found that 95% of consumers believe that a food can be both healthy and indulgent at the same time.”
Fruits and nuts have risen to new heights as added-value players and category drivers, claiming their status as big-ticket winners. Consumers have embraced these health- and indulgence-enhancing inclusions, which add a touch of star power to ordinary baked goods and snacks. SF&WB
Editor’s Note: For additional information on ingredient handling, allergen labeling and other fruit and/or nut applications, please contact the following organizations: U.S. Highbush Blueberry Council, 1-800-824-6395, info@blueberry.org, www.blueberry.org; California Raisin Marketing Board, 1-559-248-0287, raisins@tjpmd.com, www.calraisins.org;  The Hazelnut Council, 1-206-270-4668, www.hazelnutcouncil.org; and the Almond Board of California, 1-209-549-8262, www.almondsarein.com.
Depp Impact
Johnny Depp has won over moviegoers with his striking and somewhat peculiar roles over the years. Likewise, cranberries are making their own deep impact on consumers with infection-fighting properties and an exotic, tart flavor.
Ocean Spray ITG, a division of Lakeville, Mass.-based Ocean Spray Cranberries, Inc., offers a range of cranberry ingredients to bakers that the company says “are well placed to respond for consumer demand for tasty, attractive and healthy products.”
Naturally high in antioxidants, cranberries enable bakers to position products traditionally associated with negative characteristics, such as high fat content, in a more positive light.
Thanks to their processing tolerance, cranberries can be added in a number of forms to a wide range of baked goods, including bagels, bread, muffins, cookies and cereal bars.
Ocean Spray ITG’s extensive portfolio of fruit ingredients includes sweetened dried cranberries, BerryFusions Fruits, cranberry powders, frozen cranberries and cranberry concentrate and puree, which are available year round.
Based on Ocean Spray’s ITG’s literature and ingredient handling experience, “the high water content of virtually all fruits means that most fruit pieces tend to lose their shape, color and texture during processing. Dried fruits … lose water over time, and require soaking before being added to any batter or dough. Pre-soaking, although essential to ensure product integrity can leach out fruit flavors, and adds an extra stage to the manufacturing process. Furthermore, drying a fruit concentrates its seed content, resulting in a gritty texture.”
However, the company offers its real fruit juice-infused BerryFusions Fruits — process-tolerant fruit pieces that offer manufacturing stability, retain piece identity without water migration or color bleed, and keep their flavor and texture — as a solution.
Don Juan DeMango
Exotic fruit such as mangoes and pineapples are stirring up passionate feelings among consumers longing to experience provocative fruit flavor combinations in their snack and bakery products.
Richmond, Calif.-based Galaxy Desserts, Inc.’s consumers are finding love with its sumptuous, gourmet Mango Mousse cakes and Pineapple Upside Down cakes (pictured at left). The frozen cakes — perfect for dining à deux — combine decadent, all-natural ingredients such as mango puree, real whipped cream, delicate sponge cake and Hawaiian pineapple for a sensory experience to remember.
For those fruit-lovers looking for something a little more mainstream, grocery shelves are crammed with bushels of fruit-packed products that target consumers who crave something sweet and healthy, even when on the run.
How about a cookie for breakfast? It’s ok with Quaker Breakfast Cookies in Apple Cinnamon and Oatmeal Raisin, which make for a sweet, chewy, nutritious breakfast. The cookies are available nationwide and have a suggested retail price of $3.29. Quaker also offers a range of fruit-and-oatmeal-infused products including Quaker Q-Smart Bars and Quaker Breakfast Bars, all offering fresh, fruity flavors such as Cranberry Orange Muffin and Cranberry Vanilla Almond.
Another option is Barbara’s Nature’s Choice Multigrain Blueberry Cereal Bars, which are packed with blueberry filling and blueberry puree for a low-in-fat vegetarian treat. And for morning toastmasters, Sara Lee Breakfast Breads make breakfast better with flavors such as Blueberry Crumble and Cinnamon with Raisins.
Pine Nuts of the Caribbean
Nuts are staging an open rebellion, stymied by their lackluster reputation as a snack meant just for cocktail parties. Up-and-comers such as pine nuts, macadamias and cashews are shanghaiing the same old snack rabble from grocer’s shelves to add a touch of the exotic to everything from salads to desserts.
No matter how you crack it, Americans are nuts for nuts, and snack producers provide them with a variety of nut-packed sweet, savory and just plain tasty snacks.
John B. Sanfilippo & Son, Inc., for instance, launched a line of Fisher Salad Buddies, a line of natural, unflavored, unsalted nuts to sprinkle on salads and other foods. Salad Buddies are available in four varieties including Slivered Almonds, Pecan Pieces, Walnut Pieces and Sunflower Kernels. Packaged in small 3.5-6.0-oz., easy-to-use, shaker top cans, the nuts offer consumers the ultimate in convenience.
Poppycock Just the Nuts! from Ubiquity Foods’ Lincoln Snacks division wow the sweet tooth with an unforgettable blend of rich, sweet Belgian dark chocolate drizzled over proprietary “amazing-glaze” covered almonds, cashews and pecans.
Searching for something a little more savory? Planters Nut Poppers will tantalize your taste buds with fresh-roasted Planters peanuts encased in flavorful crunchy coatings. Go nuts for Nutty Original, Ranch and Cheddar flavors.
Planters also is celebrating 100 years of nuttiness with four new Planters Nut Lovers Mixes — Cashew Lovers Mix, Pistachio Lovers Mix, Macadamia Lovers Mix and Pecan Lovers Mix. Each contains 50% of a “favorite” nut and is combined with two complementary nut varieties. All are available nationwide at a suggested retail price of $3.99 for a 6-oz. can.