Where next for walnuts? From walnut butter to walnut ‘milks’ and ‘cheese’ spreads

By Elaine Watson contact

- Last updated on GMT

New applications for walnuts include nut butters. Picture: Wellnut Farms
New applications for walnuts include nut butters. Picture: Wellnut Farms
While they are small fry right now in volume terms, emerging application areas for walnuts from walnut butter and hummus to walnut milk and cheese could be significant growth drivers in the future, predicts the California Walnut Board.

Walnuts are beginning to appear in more ‘plant-based’ products, creating new opportunities beyond traditional bakery applications, said Michelle Connelly, executive director of the California Walnut Board,* who was speaking to FoodNavigator-USA ahead of our FREE-to-attend webinar on June 20: Chewing the fat: Navigating the healthy fats minefield.

Walnuts can also be used in a wide variety of applications from fish or poultry coatings to walnut pesto, meat substitutes, sauce/soup thickeners (instead of cream), stir fries, flatbreads, and salads, added Connelly.

“We’ve explored a formula for a walnut ‘cheese’ spread and that’s definitely an area where walnuts could be a great fit and there are also opportunities in dairy-free yogurts and meat alternatives.”

walnut-butter-crazy-go-nuts

Owing to their high polyunsaturated fat content and slightly astringent flavor, walnuts can present challenges, but these can be overcome with careful processing and formulation work, claimed Connelly, ​who believes there is strong potential in meat analogs (nutty tacos with roasted cauliflower and walnuts), milk (Elmhurst Milked, Mariani​,  137 Degrees) hummus, nut butter-based products (Wellnut Farms,Crazy Go Nuts​) and flavored snacks (Crazy Go Nuts).​  

“There are also a couple of other exciting application areas in the works that we can’t talk about just yet that will be launching in early summer​,” she added.

When we ask consumers, they are also using walnuts more in snacks, salads and meals as well as baking. We love the baking space but we really want to move beyond baking as they can be such a great addition in all meal parts and also at the center of the plate.

“Some of it is about placement in stores. If you’re stocked in the produce section, you’re not pigeon-holed as a baking ingredient.”

close-up-California-Walnuts
Most of the fat in walnuts is polyunsaturated (the healthiest variety), with one once of walnuts containing 18g fat, of which 13g is polyunsaturated

Walnuts are the only nut to contain significant amounts of the short-chain omega-3 fatty acid ALA

From a nutritional perspective, walnuts stand out as they are the only nut to contain significant amounts of the short-chain omega-3 fatty acid ALA, with one ounce providing 2.5g of ALA as well as 4g protein and 2g fiber.

While the longer-chain omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA tend to get more attention, ALA is not only interesting due to the extent to which it converts to EPA and DHA, say researchers, who argue that ALA alone may have cardioprotective and anti- inflammatory benefits (click HERE​  and HERE​).

There is also a growing body of research exploring the links between walnuts and reproductive health, diabetes risk reduction, cancer risk reduction, gut health, healthy aging and weight management, said Connelly (click HERE​).

We’ve got a really long-term commitment to health researchand consumers have really responded to it.  We’re involved in ‘all-nut’ research, but there’s also a lot of research out there specifically on walnuts, which do have a different nutritional profile ​[to other nuts].”

California-Walnuts-Logo

A recent study ​in the Journal of Nutrition (Holscher et al, 2018) showed that walnut consumption affected the composition and function of the gut microbiota, increasing the relative abundance of Firmicutes​ species in butyrate-producing Clostridium clusters XIVa and IV, including Faecalibacterium and Roseburia, and reducing microbially derived, proinflammatory secondary bile acids and LDL cholesterol.  

Production has doubled over the past decade

California walnut production has doubled over the past decade, increasing from 346,000 tons in 2006 to 689,000 in 2016, a bumper year, and falling slightly in 2017 to around 628,000 tons, she explained.

Growth has come from increased acreage [up to 400,000 acres in 2017 vs 243,000 in 2007], especially in the north as people move out of other types of crops, coupled with increased yields as farmers move to higher-yielding varietals, said Connelly, with the Chandler variety particularly popular owing to its appealing look and lighter, slightly less tannic taste.

walnut snacks

Demand, meanwhile, has increased both domestically and overseas (international markets now account for about 67% of volumes), with the California Walnut Commission looking to new markets including UAE, Saudi Arabia and Malaysia in 2018 and beyond as well as more established export markets, said Connelly.

"Turkey was our #2 export market in 2016/17 and might even be #1 in 2017/18 and they also reduced import tariffs in January so we see lots of growth opportunities there. India is also a big growth market for us. We went from basically zero about five years ago to 32 million pounds in 2016/17."

So what keeps walnut growers awake at night?

"There's always a worry about forces beyond your control such as the situation with China," ​said Connelly. "We have a 15% retaliatory tariff​ ​[responding to the Trump Administration's tariffs on steel and aluminum] placed on top of already high duties. So what are the implications of this not just in the short term but the long term? If China buys fewer walnuts, what will that mean for the world market?"

As for NAFTA, while the US doesn't do much business in Mexico, the US "does a fair amount of business with Canada" ​(it shipped almost 40m lbs​ there in 2016/17), said Connelly, so it is keeping a close eye on negotiations: "We'll have to wait and see."

* The California Walnut Board – which focuses on the domestic marketing of walnuts, and walnut production and post-harvest research - is funded by a levy from walnut handlers; while the California Walnut Commission – which promotes exports and health research - is funded by a levy on walnut growers. (More than 99% of walnuts grown in the US come from California.)

Mariani walnut-milk

Walnut milk can potentially carve a distinct niche in the plant-based beverage 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, says recent market entrant, Mariani Nut Co.

Read more HERE​.

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