Walnuts: The next big thing in plant-based meat in foodservice?

By Elaine Watson

- Last updated on GMT

Walnut crumbles (Picture: California Walnut Board)
Walnut crumbles (Picture: California Walnut Board)

Related tags walnuts

Foodservice operators bored of textured soy protein for meat-free tacos, filled pasta, bruschetta and other dishes are experimenting with a new plant-based meat alternative from walnuts that "mimics the taste and texture of ground beef," says the California Walnut Board.

"We've seen some companies launch walnut butters​ [Wellnut Farms, Crazy Go Nuts] walnutmilks​ [Elmhurst Milked, Mariani,  137 Degrees], and flavored snacks​ [Crazy Go Nuts], which is great, but one of the new applications we're most excited about is a flavored walnut crumble​," said Jennifer Williams, marketing director, domestic advertising at the California Walnut Board.*

"It's taken a while but we're finally busting out of the bakery aisle,"​ said Williams, who was speaking to FoodNavigator-USA after unveiling a new ad campaign showing how walnuts can add nutrition, crunch and variety to any meal, from stir fries to salads.

"We saw plant-based eating as a big trend a few years ago and we came up with this recipe and promoted it to chefs and they loved it. After three years we finally had Mount Franklin Foods, through its Azar Foodservice brand, launch it ​[as It's Nature Walnut Crumbles] to foodservice operators."

Chefs can mix the Walnut Crumbles - which come in two pre-seasoned flavors, Chorizo and Italian - with chickpeas, vegetable oil and vinegar, then heat to make a plant-based protein that can be used in a variety of dishes, said Williams, who said the Walnut Board had also worked with innovation consultancy Mattson to develop a walnut-based cheese spread, although this had not yet been commercialized.

Busting out of the bakery aisle

Snacking is also a big opportunity for walnuts, she added: "Nielsen and IRI data show an increase in retail sales of walnuts, but the most interesting data comes from our consumer attitudes and use studies, which we've been doing for many years.

"Baking was consistently the #1 use for walnuts until 2017, when snacking surpassed baking as the #1 use, so we see big opportunities there."

Walnuts, whenever...

While there is mileage in promoting walnuts as a source of healthy fats, particularly as they are the only nut to contain significant amounts of the short-chain omega-3 fatty acid ALA, the Walnut Board's new ad campaign takes a more lifestyle-oriented approach.

Featuring the strapline 'Life Isn’t Always Simple,'​ the ads focus on small daily 'wins' amidst the chaos of daily life, and attempt to build an emotional connection and keep walnuts top of mind, said Williams.

"Our primary goal is to raise awareness."

The year-long campaign includes print ads, national TV spots, editorial integrations, digital and social activations, blog posts, and influencer programs designed to encourage walnut consumption beyond the traditional holiday season.

Formulating with walnuts

Owing to their high polyunsaturated fat content and slightly astringent flavor, walnuts can present formulation challenges, but these can be overcome with careful processing and formulation work, says the California Walnut Board.

Storing walnuts

But consumers should also be aware that these healthy fats can oxidize over time, which can negatively impact flavor, says Williams.

"If you store walnuts in your cupboards for months on end those omega-3s will start to go rancid, so when some people say they don't like the taste of walnuts, we think it may be that they are taking that ​[rancid] walnut out of the cupboard where it's been for months, tasting it, and saying, 'I don't like walnuts.' Well of course you don't like rancid walnuts, so put them in the fridge, where they will last for six months, or even the freezer."

Walnut production  

California walnut production has risen sharply in recent years, increasing from 346,000 tons in 2006 to 689,000 in 2016, a bumper year, and falling slightly in 2019 to an estimated 630,000 tons. 

Williams added: "We had a bit of a rough patch last year with lower prices due to factors such as the trade war ​[with the nut industry hit hard by retaliatory tariffs from China], but we feel very optimistic about the quality of the crop this year."

* 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.)

More than 99% of the walnuts in US are grown in California’s Central Valley, which supplies two-thirds of the world’s walnut trade.

Most of the fat in walnuts is polyunsaturated (the healthiest variety), with one once of walnuts containing 18g fat, of which 13g is polyunsaturated. (Picture: California Walnut Board)

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 Firmicutesspecies in butyrate-producing Clostridium clusters XIVa and IV, including Faecalibacterium and Roseburia, and reducing microbially derived, proinflammatory secondary bile acids and LDL cholesterol.  

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