There’s room in the segment for multiple players, says Miranda Ackerman at Mariani Nut Co, but walnut milk can potentially carve a distinct niche in the category with its unusual nutritional profile (it’s a good source of the short chain omega-3 fatty acid ALA), nutty flavor, and lower sugar content.
One of a flurry of recent entrants to the walnutmilk segment (along with Elmhurst Milked and 137 Degrees) Mariani’s walnutmilk has 2g of sugar and 45 calories per serving in the original version, whereas leading almondmilk brands typically have 5-7g sugar and 60 calories, Ackerman told FoodNavigator-USA.
“We have around five walnut halves per glass, so we’ve can say we have a good source of omega-3 ALA, which no other nut milk can provide.”
While its walnutmilk is not high in protein, containing 1g per serving vs 8g for dairy milk, Mariani has added potassium, vitamins A, D, and E, and a high level of calcium (450mg/240ml serving) to ensure the nutritional profile matches or exceeds dairy in other respects, while avoiding certain ingredients that consumers (fairly or otherwise) say they’re avoiding, such as carrageenan, said Ackerman.
Flavor: The secret is in the way we handle the nuts
As for flavor, walnuts can have a slightly astringent taste, but proprietary processing steps applied before they are incorporated into the formulation means this doesn’t make it through to the walnutmilk, she said.
“We worked really hard to ensure we kept the nuttiness without the bitterness, the process kind of mellows things out so we don’t need to add a ton of sugar or flavors to mask it in the formulation. The secret is in the way we handle the nuts.
“We’re very excited about the product [which launched this year and is now available in HEB in Texas, Raley’s in Northern California and Nevada, Nugget Markets in NorCal and some other locations] we’ve brought to market and the feedback has been really encouraging. When people try it, they love it, and it also works really well in recipes from alfredo sauce to banana walnut pancakes, and oatmeal, where it adds a nice hint of walnut and a creamy texture without a bunch of extra sugar.”
Family-owned Mariani Nut Co started growing nuts in the 1950s and processing them in the 1970s and is now one of the largest, privately-held walnut and almond processors in the world. Based in Northern California, Mariani still processes walnuts and almonds from its own orchards, but also handles nuts from a large network of growers statewide.
As for the new product development pipeline, work is progressing on developing a barista blend for consumers keen to add walnutmilk to their coffee, while Ackerman is also exploring new walnutmilk combinations as rivals pair nutmilks with everything from matcha and cold brew coffee to turmeric and protein.
"We may also do a protein fortified product in the lineup down the road as there's a consumer demand for that as well as things like caramel walnut milk or a seasonal pumpkin spice product."
But Mariani is not just looking at beverages, she said.
“The walnut crop continues to grow and we need to continue to create new markets and return more value to our growers. With such growth in plant-based foods and beverages, it really made sense for us to get into walnutmilk, but we’re also looking at opportunities with walnut butters. We haven't gone into the alternative dairy [cheese/yogurt] space yet, but there is definitely potential there too as walnuts are such a naturally wholesome product."
So could walnutmilk be as big as almondmilk?
There's no obvious reason why not, said Ackerman: "I think it has the potential to be just as big. It takes time to build any category with consumers, but we know the taste is there, and consumers are familiar with walnuts so it's not entirely a new product. Household penetration of walnuts is already high so there's a familiarity there."
Dairy milk declines as plant-based options gain traction
According to SPINS (click HERE), 93% of all US households buy refrigerated dairy milk, but dollars and trips per buyer have been steadily decreasing.
“It’s likely that a portion of the core natural and organic consumers are trading from organic milk to shelf-stable plant-based milk options, and, in 2018, more of them are likely switching at least some of their purchases to refrigerated plant-based milk options as new iterations arrive in the marketplace (one of the latest being pea milk),” said the retail and consumer data and insights company in a recent ‘trendwatch’ report on milk.
“In 2017, refrigerated milk was one of the fastest-declining beverage categories, with SPINS data showing a 1.5% year-over-year sales decline to a $13.2bn market at the end of last year. In contrast, spins saw a 4.1% sales increase in refrigerated plant-based milk to a $1.6bn market and a 2% increase in shelf-stable plant-based milk to a $224.6m market in the same time span. Several recent reports indicate that even organic [dairy] milk is suffering due to shoppers seeking alternative options.”