Consumers are going nuts for nut-filled bakery products. Functional, flavorful, healthful and visually appealing, nuts transform an ordinary baked product into one that stands out on the supermarket shelf.
“Research shows consumers have a positive perception of a product that contains almonds compared to the same product without almonds,” says Priscilla Martel, culinary director, American Almond Products, Brooklyn, N.Y. When bakers add nuts to baked products they also are adding perceived value without having to change formulation.
One reason for the nut preference is that consumers continue to seek natural foods with high fiber and heart-health benefits, a trend nuts fit into easily. “Nuts offer good fat and good fiber in an all-natural package,” Martel says. Consumers also want foods with an upscale appeal, and nuts have been shown to add a gourmet feeling to baked products.
From a baker's perspective, nuts add texture and flavor, work in gluten-free formulas and provide satiety, which helps consumers feel fuller longer. In addition, nuts work well in combination with trendy superfruits, as seen in popular combos, such as blueberry-almond and cranberry-walnut, Martel adds.
The FDA approved a health claim for nuts and nut products in 2003. The claim reads: “Scientific evidence suggests but does not prove that eating 1.5 oz. per day of most nuts as part of a diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol may reduce the risk of heart disease.” The claim applies to almonds, hazelnuts, peanuts, pecans, some pine nuts, pistachios and walnuts. To qualify for the claim, food products must contain at least 11 grams of nuts, less than 13 grams of total fat, 4 grams of saturated fat, 60 mg of cholesterol and 480 mg of sodium per RACC (reference amount customarily consumed). Even if a baked product doesn't qualify for the health claim, word about the healthful properties of nuts is leading consumers to seek out nut-containing products.
A heart-healthy diet that includes almonds has been shown in scientific studies to reduce LDL cholesterol and help control diabetes, Martel says. Almonds contain monosaturated fats and polyphenols, which are known to deliver antioxidant benefits; and are high in vitamin A, vitamin E, magnesium, potassium, calcium, iron and fiber. In addition, almonds offer visual appeal. Almonds especially add value to baked products when consumers can see that the almonds are present, notes Klaus Tenbergen, assistant professor culinary science, College of Agricultural Science and Technology, California State University, Fresno. When he created a pizza for the Almond Board of California (ABC) at the American Retail Bakery Expo show last fall, in addition to using almond flour and flakes, he also decorated the top with whole almonds.
Almond uses in baking are plentiful. Whole blanched almonds work well as a garnish, and can be easily ground for pastes or thickening. Sliced blanched almonds can be sprinkled on muffins or iced desserts. Diced blanched almonds are ideal for decorating the sides of a cake. Diced natural almonds can be incorporated into whole grain bread dough. Ground blanched almonds can be used for coatings, or when making almond butter or marzipan, according to ABC.
Green almonds are often used as a decoration because of their visual appeal and are considered a delicacy as they are only available from late April to early May. Green almonds have a soft, green fuzzy hull, and inside the hull, the almond is white with a gelatinous texture, similar to a firm grape. Green almonds are used as a coloring paste on pastries in Europe. Their flavor has been described as delicate, grassy and fruity, ABC notes.
On a functional level, almonds replace added fat and work as a binding agent in formulations. “Almonds ground very finely, such as for meal or flour, absorb some of the free moisture in a formula, so they add a functional creamy texture to a filling,” Martel says. Almond meal is courser than flour, which also is ground differently and sifted. Both almond meal and almond flour add moisture to a cake and preserve shelf life due to the high percentage of oil. Almond meal is the same base used as a filling for fragipane that can be used in a bear claw or fragipane pear tart.
One of the trendiest uses for almond flour is in gluten-free applications. When working on a gluten-free formula, bakers don't have the benefit of wheat flour to create a chewy texture, so they need to use a gum or starch, says Martel. Almonds not only bind some of the moisture in the formula, but add a natural crunchy texture, which keeps a product from being overly gummy, she notes. Almond flour does not have a gluten-forming protein, so it cannot provide structure. “It can be substituted starting with a 30 percent substitution level for some of the wheat flour in a product. The other portion would need to be replaced with another type of flour, such as buckwheat,” she adds.
Almond paste is most commonly found in almond macaroons and increasingly is used to make creams and custards for baked products. Middle Eastern pastries containing nut pastes, such as the Egyptian mamoul, a butter cookie with a nut paste center, are growing in popularity. Many nut-filled pastries, such as baklava, already are being sold in in-store bakeries, a sign that there is more room in the market for such products. Almond paste also can be added to a fruit pie, as a layer between the fruit and the crust as both a moisture barrier and for flavor, Martel says. Almond paste can be used in pie crust at about 10 percent flour weight, adds Tenbergen.
It also can be used as a topping. “There are many cakes that require an almond paste as a topping before applying the final coat onto a cake, such as the Sachertorte, a famous chocolate cake made by the Hotel Sacher in Vienna, Austria,” notes Tenbergen. “Many people use a layer of almond paste on top of the cake before they apply the apricot jam as a final touch to prevent the layers from drying out and give additional taste to the whole.”
Walnuts are the only nut with a significant amount of omega-3s, Martel says. They often are used in artisan and hearth breads. In the past year, walnuts also have been incorporated into more gluten-free applications, says Michelle McNeil, marketing director, California Walnut Board and California Walnut Commission, Folsom. Walnuts often appear in bread products in Japan and Korea where bread has a higher yeast content and less sugar and in French-style pastries where they are often paired with chocolates and raisins.
When eaten as part of a low saturated fat, low cholesterol diet, walnuts reportedly can reduce total LDL “bad” cholesterol and preserve levels of HDL “good” cholesterol. “Walnuts also increase LDL particle size, which is beneficial. Large, fluffy LDL particles are less likely to clog arteries than small, dense LDL particles,” says Carol Berg-Sloan, R&D, health and nutrition consultant, California Walnut Commission. In addition, walnuts have positive effects on arteries, including decreasing inflammation and reducing levels of substances that promote clogged arteries. “Studies have shown that adding walnuts to a healthful diet can decrease CRP levels,” Berg-Sloan adds. CRP is a measure of inflammation, which damages arteries. Once an artery is damaged, scar tissue can build up and increase the risk of a blocked artery. Adding walnuts to the diet also reduces levels of VCAM-1. VCAM is a substance that encourages white blood cells to stick to damaged artery walls, causing a plaque that leads to the hardening of the arteries, she adds. Research also shows that omega-3 rich foods, such as walnuts may help protect bone health.
Walnuts are the only tree nut in which melatonin, an antioxidant shown to reduce some of the degenerative changes associated with aging, is known to exist. “Research has shown that when walnuts are eaten melatonin is absorbed into the blood stream thereby increasing the total antioxidant capacity of the body. Antioxidants like melatonin neutralize toxic by-products of oxygen that are continually produced in the body by normal cell processes,” Berg-Sloan says.
Because of the polyunsaturated fat content, walnuts are best stored in cool conditions, and are the most temperature sensitive of the nuts. When being used over a number of months, walnuts are best stored in a freezer. California walnuts can retain their quality for up to a year after purchase, Berg-Sloan adds.
Pistachios are attracting more attention of late. One reason is a recent study at Penn State University that showed pistachios may reduce the body's response to stress. “Pistachios were found to calm acute stress. That was measured by blood pressure and the flexibility of the arteries, which were more flexible. It reduced the stress effect on blood pressure whether 1.5 oz. per day or 3 oz. was consumed,” says Constance Geiger, Ph.D., research/nutrition consultant to the Western Pistachio Association, and president, Geiger & Associates LLC, Fort Bridger, Wyo.
Pistachios offer lutein, flavonoids and anthocyanins, which the Penn State study showed contributed to reducing the inflammation of blood vessels. Pistachios also were shown to reduce LDL cholesterol. And a 1-oz. serving contains more than 10 percent of the daily value for dietary fiber, as well as vitamin B6, thiamin, phosphorus and copper, according to the Western Pistachio Association. Pistachios work well in pie crusts, biscotti and gluten-free formulations. Pistachios need to be stored in sealed containers to avoid moisture absorption. If they do take on moisture, Geiger recommends toasting them for a short time before adding them to an application. As with walnuts, they have a one year shelf life when frozen.
Hazelnuts are gaining more popularity as retail outfits, such as Starbuck's and Au Bon Pain, introduce hazelnut desserts. In-store bakeries are picking up the trend as well. The popularity of hazelnut coffee has inspired some bakeries to add hazelnut pastries, says Polly Owen, manager of the Hazelnut Marketing Board, Portland, Ore. Hazelnut's unique flavor helps it stand out from other nuts. It pairs nicely with a variety of flavors found in baked products, especially chocolate. “Many people in the United States are not familiar with hazelnuts, and so they add a surprise [flavor] and make a baked product special,” Owens notes. Often, hazelnuts are added to baked products specifically for their flavor profile, although they may not be visible in the product. However, they also work well as a decorative touch on desserts.
Hazelnuts offer health properties as well. “Hazelnuts offer a higher amount of folate than most other nuts,” Owens says. They also are high in vitamin E, fiber and offer a large percentage of monosaturated fats.
Hazelnut meal is used in gluten-free applications, especially for its flavor, Owens adds.
Hazelnut pastes containing sugar and 100 percent roasted hazelnuts often are used in mousses, pie fillings and pound cakes, or as a drizzle on top of a baked product. It works well in icing when confectioners' sugar is added as a stiffening agent, says Joy Blakeslee, Hazelnut Council, Seattle.
Nuts add value to bakery products no matter which type or applications bakers choose.