With the strong consumer push toward more protein and less refined sugar in our diets, fruits and nuts are experiencing a culinary renaissance. Given the five-point convergence of flavor, texture, versatility, health halo, and economy that fruits and nuts bring to products, developers and manufacturers can expect that the appeal of fruits and nuts in CPGs won’t fade anytime soon.

While each of the two ingredient classes certainly stands on its own, they often are brought together in formulation. The classic example of this combo is trail mix. According to multiple market research groups, trail mix sales, already around a billion dollars per year, have registered a healthy, steady annual rise of 5-7% over the past five years, and are forecast to continue this level of growth at least into the middle of the next decade.

While trail mix was always considered a healthful snack option, the more the category expanded, the more products included less-than-healthful ingredients such as chocolate chips and candies.

At Lehi Valley Trading Co., formulators are tuned in to the consumer interest in the healthfulness of fruit and nut mixtures. They meet this challenge by blending fruits and nuts that carry the “superfood” halo, yet still maintain production costs.

“We just introduced two new trail mixes,” explains company owner Lewis Freeman. “One is high in antioxidants and the other is an omega-rich formulation using traditional fruits such as cranberries, blueberries, and mango coupled with walnuts, pepitas, and almonds. Using more unique fruits is expensive, so we seek out more traditional fruits that have these benefits in order to keep costs more reasonable for the category.”

At Grano Foods, Inc., a brand under Hathor Group, Tijucas-SC, Brazil, they’re leveraging their location to take advantage of the abundance of regional superfruits. “Although we know that these ingredients might not be present in the formula in enough quantity to be considered a major source of protein or antioxidants, we tend to choose those ingredients that bring the most benefits to the product,” acknowledges Artur Claudino, Grano’s manager. By creating products loaded with superfruits found in its “backyard” and using flavor profiles popular in the region, Grano has positioned its cereals, snacks, and cookies as healthful global foods.

In Brazil such superfruits are not so much exotic as they are an integral part of the traditional food culture. “We decided to create products with fruits and nuts from the Amazon, which is our biggest treasure,” Claudino says. We have products that contain Brazil nuts, cupuaçu, açai, and guarana — all derived from the Amazon rainforest.”

Superberries Aronia in Pilaf
Dark, sweet-tart superberries aronia have a concentrated flavor that makes them perfect for savory items, such as a pilafs or sauces for roasted meats.
PHOTO COURTESY OF: Coldbrook Farm, Inc. (www.coldbrookfarm.net)


Fruits of Labor

As functional ingredients, fruits provide a veritable toolbox of benefits. The cellulose, pectin, lignin, and other fibers in fruits act as bulking agents, emulsifiers, and thickeners. The presence of sorbitol — a potent humectant — in fruits such as plums makes them a solid choice for fat replacement.

Dried plum and cherry syrups, concentrates, powders, and extracts act as viable phosphate replacements and can be used as clean-label ingredients in further processed meat products like sausages and deli meats.

Fruit processors are keeping up with industrial demand for formula-ready fruit by offering products that maintain their organoleptic qualities and nutritional punch while assimilating quickly into packaged goods. When it comes to fruit-derived ingredients, developers can choose from a wide array of product forms, including freeze-dried, dehydrated, puréed, concentrated, juiced, powdered, canned, and IQF.

Freeze-drying remains a highly desirable method of fruit preservation. It retains a fruit’s flavor, color, and nutritional value at a level similar to that of its fresh counterpart. It also renders otherwise highly perishable exotic or tropical fruits shelf-stable at ambient temperatures.

This shelf stability is also a blessing to food manufacturers with limited refrigerator or freezer storage but some flexibility in formulation and manufacturing processes.

Dehydrated and freeze-dried fruits are excellent choices when water activity (aW) is a primary concern. Snack and cereal producers with a desire to add real fruit pieces to their product can use dried fruit bits and keep other ingredients dry. Snack mixes in particular, with their assortment of components and need for ambient shelf stability, require dried fruits.

“Most of the fruit we use is dry or dehydrated,” says Freeman. “One of the issues with combining fruit with other ingredients is the moisture content and how it impacts the texture, shelf life, and stability of the other products. We are using ingredients like snack crackers, oats, popcorn, and using fruit with little moisture helps with those challenges.”

In some cases, a dried fruit product is needed, but the solution is not as simple as adding dry fruit. Some products call for different textures, stronger flavors, or longer shelf life. “In some formulas, we use a fruit inclusion that has apple pulp as its base, plus the extract of the desired fruit flavor,” says Claudino. “In some other products, we use freeze-dried fruits, which are a good option when it comes to sensorial experience.”

Sweetness should be considered when a developer turns to fruit. Fruit processors offer syrups, concentrates, and powders from dates, figs, and raisins that can replace granulated or liquid sugar and look better on an ingredient statement. Eliminating sugar is especially important given the new labeling regulations requiring manufacturers to call out sugar sources.

When discussing sweetness in fruit, Brix is the standard unit of measurement. However, it’s a common misconception that Brix indicates sweetness. Brix refers to the level of all solids in food. In the case of fruits, this includes not only sugars but also other organic matter, amino acids, and pectin.

The natural Brix of fruit varies depending on climate and terroir from crop year to crop year. This inconstancy creates a need to taste and adjust formulas based on the fluctuating Brix in fresh fruit. To avoid this, developers can choose a blended fruit product with a consistent Brix level. Most fruit processors use blending methods to provide food manufacturers with reliable Brix and pH levels.


Pinch Hitters

Nuts and fruits have been receiving second looks from product developers wanting to take advantage of their texture attributes as well as their health halo. Taking a cue from peanut-replacing nut butters, pestos and tahini-like spreads are hitting the market using nuts such as walnuts and macadamia nuts instead of pine nuts and sesame. And, following in the footsteps of products using jackfruit for pulled pork analogs, other foods traditionally void of fruits or nuts are being reimagined with fruit and nut understudies. Walnuts are filling in for the meat in chorizo, and Georgia peaches have been caught subbing for tomatoes in barbecue sauce. Also popular: puréed avocado replacing mayonnaise in sandwich spreads and salad dressings. The expansive variety of flavor and texture properties of fruits and nuts makes the creative opportunities limitless.


Ten a Day

The plant-forward movement taking the nation by storm is about more than meat analogs and plant proteins. Long at the forefront of encouraging Americans to enjoy more produce, the Produce for Better Health Foundation (PBH) — the nonprofit organization behind the “5-A-Day” and “Fruits & Veggies — More Matters” public health programs — has added comprehensive behavioral science techniques through its recently launched “Have A Plant” initiative.

“At PBH, we are focused on elevating fruit and vegetable consumption as a national priority,” explains Wendy Reinhardt-Kapsak, MS, RDN, president and CEO of PBH. “We know eating more fruits and vegetables is the single most important action Americans can take to live happier, healthier lives.” PBH often reminds consumers that five servings of produce should be a minimum daily goal.

Consumer interest in produce has been getting a lift from the global flavors trend. Jackfruit is one example. This largest of the tree fruits, with some examples weighing up to 120 lb. and looking like a spiky green rugby ball, went from relative obscurity outside of its native Asia to appearing on menus and in a number of food products in just the past few years. It became especially attractive to makers of prepared meat analogs because its texture when stewed, which is likened to shredded pork shoulder.


A Global Trend

As the world becomes smaller, the taste for new and exciting flavors grows. In particular, US consumers are becoming increasingly enamored with authentic Japanese, Indian, and Middle Eastern foods as well as micro-regions of more familiar cuisines such as Mexican and Italian. Interest in fruits and nuts follows suit. Fruits like guava, mango, plantain, and others are enjoying upwards of triple-digit increases in usage.

In formulations, vibrant tropical fruits such as passion fruit, guava, dragon fruit, and yuzu are popping up in snack mixes, bars, smoothies, and smoothie bowls, salads, cocktails, non-alcoholic drinks, and sauces for meats and vegetables. Figs, persimmons, cape gooseberries, cherimoya, and fresh dates are also examples of once-unfamiliar produce moving more into the mainstream.


But the spotlight on produce doesn’t only shine on exotic fruits. Apples, pears, citrus, bananas, grapes, mangos, and berries all are earning more space on the American plate. While the draw of the familiar fruits focuses mostly on their traditional place in domestic culinary culture, they also are recognized as providing impressive levels of fiber, vitamins, and phytochemicals.

In whole and puréed form, all these fruits add visual appeal, texture, and flavor to sweet and savory formulations. Dried and powdered versions add thickness and boost color in addition to adding flavor. Syrups and concentrates are a great source of natural sweetness in clean-label formulations.


Seeing Red…And Blue

The red, blue, and purple fruits — especially berries and cherries — got a huge boost when the superfruit trend kicked in around 25 years ago. And today, they are enjoying a renewed rise in popularity. Many product developers are particularly partial to blueberries, both a well-loved comfort food ingredient and a star on the superfruit squad.

Hundreds of studies have shown blueberries to be extremely high in anthocyanins and other antioxidant compounds. But their convenience as a fruit adaptable to multiple formats — IQF, juice, concentrate, purée, powder, dried, and dehydrated — makes them prized by formulators. IQF blueberries are free flowing, which means they do not need to be thawed prior to use. This allows them to be poured into batters, quickly incorporated into mixes, or used as a topping.

Blueberry juice, purée, and paste not only give formulators a range of liquid consistencies to work with and contribute texture to a finished product, they also allow for sweetness modulation in a formulation. Available levels include single strength blueberry purée or juice (Brix: 8-13), purée concentrate (Brix: 20-45), and juice concentrate (Brix: 45-65).

Blueberry juice concentrate and purée also can be put to work as natural coloring and flavoring ingredients. Plus, with a low pH (2.8-3.5), blueberry juice concentrate and purée can help improve storage stability. Fruit pH must be considered in addition to Brix to avoid curdling dairy products.

Dehydrated blueberries are typically used where individual piece identity is needed. Moisture can range from 18% down to <2%, with available formats including infused, freeze-dried, and micro-dried fruit. Free-flowing dehydrated blueberries have the advantage of retaining their shape and thus are excellent choices for breakfast cereals and intermediate moisture products. When powdered, dehydrated blueberries can function as a coating in chocolate, confectionary, cereals, or bars.

Tart cherries, specifically Montmorency cherries, are trending especially well. Also known as pie cherries, they once were almost exclusively available as canned product outside of their growing areas in and around Michigan and Pennsylvania. Today, they are readily available in frozen, dried, juiced, and powdered forms.

The association of tart cherries with pie might be strong, but because the fruit is also recognized as a health powerhouse, formulators are now using tart cherries in products such as sausage, sauces, beverages, cereals, and confections.

Mary Diab, owner of Aunt Mabel’s Fudge Co., was looking for the perfect fruit to use as an inclusion in fudge to balance the product’s typical high sugar content. “Since fudge is already mostly sugar, I liked the idea of something tart to contrast the sweetness,” she says. Turning to tart cherries, she still found them sweet enough that it was unnecessary to adjust the sugar amount in the formulation. Diab even was able to use bittersweet rather than semisweet chocolate in her product.

Diab opted for cherries in dried form, as they didn’t change the moisture level of the fudge recipe. “In that respect, they behave similarly to nuts as an inclusion,” she adds. Diab also found that macadamia nuts were a perfect flavor and texture contrast to the dried tart cherries. So did her customers, as the fudge turned out to be one of her most popular items.

Recent studies show tart cherries aid in treating insomnia, gout, arthritis, and cardiovascular disease because of their high anthocyanin levels. Tart cherries also boast a big dose of melatonin, making them a natural option for the sleep-deprived among us. In response, manufacturers add tart cherries to foods like ice cream and snack mixes, where they act as a flavor component and a relaxing agent.

Aunt Mabel's Fudge
The preference for less-sweet formulations finds its perfect partner in tart cherries, which can bring rich fruitiness that balances out indulgent sweets such as handmade fudge.


…And Purple

Native to the Midwest US and Canada, the dark purple aronia berry is gaining traction due to its position as a perfect bridge between the familiar comfort fruit and the exotic superfruit. Culinarians and product developers have zeroed in on the fruit’s similarity to blueberries, but with an earthier, sweet-tart flavor suitable for both sweet and savory recipes.

Dried aronia berries, the form preferred by chefs, have an “almost wine-like, complex flavor,” according to three-time Sofi award-winning chocolatier Katherine Duncan. The owner of Katherine Anne Confections, LLC, finds them “an ideal companion for any classic berry application, from desserts to granolas or a simple snack.” She also notes that they work equally well “cooked in a compote for pork, or paired with toasted hazelnuts in a chocolate ganache.”

Josh Cooper, senior research and development culinologist for TRM Food Consultants, LLC, refers to aronia as a “taste chameleon,” explaining, “The dried berry changes flavor when blended with other fruits, nuts, grains, vegetables, or dairy products.” Dried aronia fruit has demonstrated some of the highest total polyphenol content and some of the highest levels of antioxidant capacity of any berry.


Outside the Bar

Cocoa is finding new life in the form of its fruit. While the cacao bean is, of course, the source of chocolate, the actual fruit pulp that surrounds the beans used to be discarded as manufacturing waste. But processors recently recognized a new market for the fibrous and sweet fruit as a flavor, nutrition, and textural element. The cacao fruit boasts extremely high levels of vitamins B, D, and E as well as the mineral magnesium. It also contains impressive amounts of epicatechin, theobromine, and caffeine. Formulators can find cacao fruit pulp in powders, both soluble (for yogurts, ice creams, and beverages) and insoluble (for baked goods, cereals, confections, and snack bars).Also available are extracts containing high concentrations of the nutrients within the fruit pulp. With its slightly astringent/acidic/fruity/herbaceous flavor, cacao fruit is well suited for strong coffee and tea beverages as well as both sweet and savory sauces and snacks.


Form And Function

Seasonality and format choice affect flavor and texture of the finished product and may require flavor boosts from extracts and other flavorings. “The biggest challenge we have when it comes to the use of fruits and nuts in the food industry is the cost of these ingredients and the necessary amount to obtain the desired texture and flavor in the final product,” says Claudino. “Besides, even though we use dehydrated fruits, some of them have higher humidity than we want in the final product, which is a factor that can affect shelf life.”

In wet products, fruit purées are highly desirable because the Brix level and flavor profile are very similar to fresh fruit, and they can appear on the ingredient statement as the original fruit. Many fruit processors maintain flavor and sweetness consistency by blending various crops or by combining a few fruits. The moisture content in purées makes them standouts for batter, sauce, and beverage recipes.

Also well suited to wet formulations, fruit concentrates might be more desirable to manufacturers who want to manipulate flavor strength or viscosity. Concentrates also offer price, logistics, and storage benefits, as they typically take up less space, weigh less, and are lower in price (per Brix) than fruit purées.

The downside for some is “concentrate” appearing on their label. While of comparable quality to other fruit products on the market, concentrates on a label trigger the “low quality” alarm in the minds of certain consumers.

Today’s canned and individually quick frozen (IQF) fruits offer near-fresh experiences in formulas and are obvious choices in baked goods, desserts, smoothies, and smoothie bowls and beverages. In most formulations, IQF fruit doesn’t require thawing before use. Considerations outside of the recipe, such as storage, logistics, and price, will also influence choice.

A canned version of fruit might be less expensive. However, cans are heavy, take up dry storage space, and bring metal onto the plant floor, increasing the chance of physical contamination. On the other hand, IQF fruit occupies freezer space, has a shorter shelf life than canned, and can fall victim to temperature abuse during shipping.


The Nut of the Matter

With diet fads swinging back to high protein and better-for-you fats, consumers are once again embracing nuts eagerly. There’s an environmental component at play as well. Replacing animal protein with plant protein is becoming increasingly commonplace as the public pushes for more sustainable, ecologically friendly sources.

Nuts also support gluten- free product development, where nut and seed flours can take the place of wheat-based flours and coatings. With all of this renewed interest in fruits and nuts in the diet, there has been an accompanying rise in the use of some lesser-known nuts and seeds as ingredients.

Bakers at NHD Foods, Ltda. have been creating “free-from” baked goods for North America. They select fruits and nuts not just for the health benefits, but for flavor first. “Yes, nutrition is a factor,” says Ana Suss, innovation manager for the company, “but this is not the unique factor — we also choose fruits and nuts for the full sensory aspect of crunchiness, flavor, and overall eating experience.”

Peanuts, almonds, cashews, pistachios, hazelnuts, and walnuts offer familiar options to consumers and remain among the most popular nuts. However, the consumer appetite for lesser-known ingredients is bringing the Brazil nut to the forefront. Once merely the awkward giant in the mixed nut can, Brazil nuts are a nutrition powerhouse and have secured a spot on the superfood game card.

Brazil nuts have one of the highest levels of the antioxidant mineral selenium of any plant food, plus they are rich in monounsaturated fats, fiber, and protein (including the amino acid arginine). They also are a source of thiamin, niacin, riboflavin, and other B vitamins. Those looking to add Brazil nuts to their recipes will find it available as flour and nut butter as well as whole nuts, pieces, and oil. At Grano Foods, Brazil nuts are used liberally because of their high nutrient content and regional availability. “They were chosen because of their significance to the culture of our country, Brazil, in addition to their nutrition,” explains Claudino.

Tiger nuts (Cyperus esculentus lativum) have been a food source in their native Africa, the Middle East, and the Indian subcontinent for at least 4,000 years, but until recently, they were relatively unknown to US consumers. Not a true nut, they’re the hardened rhizome of a sedge grass. Tasting somewhat like a cross between an almond and a coconut, they typically are dried, roasted, boiled, ground into flour, or pressed into juice and milk. 


Like their nutty counterparts, tiger nuts are high in resistant starch. They also contain high levels of magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, and vitamins C and E. Studies suggest that tiger nuts can help slow cellular aging, promote healthy digestion, and manage blood pressure. Unlike tree nuts, tiger nuts are low in fat and calories.

Tiger nut flour is an excellent option for gluten-free baking and for adding crunchy interest and health benefits to products such as cereal, granola, snack bars, meal replacement beverages, and snack and trail mixes.


More Nuts

Much of the continued growth in the $125B global snack food industry can be attributed to the increasing demand for protein-rich, organic, and natural ingredients. While almonds certainly fit that bill, due to their versatility and many nutritional benefits, they have the added benefit of being well established as a premium inclusion.

As with most tree nuts, almonds offer multiple nutritional benefits, with healthful fats, vitamins, and minerals. But when it comes to the essential nutrients, they tip the scales with the highest content per ounce of protein (6g), fiber (4g), calcium, vitamin E, riboflavin, and niacin.

Almonds’ popularity in a variety of snack products has risen so much that they now are the leading nut used in new snack product introductions, according to Innova Market Insights. And the trend shows no sign of slowing. The nearly $20B annual global market has experienced more than a decade of annual growth that regularly has hovered around 7%.

Walnuts, too, are a highly popular nut in the US, especially due to their impressive health profile. Walnuts provide a good source of both poly- and mono-unsaturated fats, boasting the highest nut-based source of omega-3 alpha linolenic acid (ALA). Along with protein, fiber and magnesium, walnuts can aid in heart health, brain function, and could contribute to gut microbiome diversity.

According to the California Walnut Commission, consumer trends are showing demand for pale-skinned walnuts. With less flavor, white lighter color, the Commission notes that the Chandler has become a popular variety. With their soft, meaty texture they have high versatility for both sweet and savory formulations.

“Traditionally utilized in sweet applications such as pastries, quick breads, muffins, and chocolates, walnuts have taken a savory turn and are showing up in all areas of consumer packaged goods,” says research chef and world flavors expert Catherine Stanton. “From salty snacks to nut butters and alternative milks and cheeses, incorporating walnuts into savory spreads is a great way to add texture, nutritional value, and earthy flavor notes.”

“Walnuts can mimic the mouthfeel of meat when mixed with a combination of beans and spices,” continues Stanton. “This is a big draw for companies seeking to expand their line of plant-based items. Forays into this meat analog combination have ranged from a fennel-laced Italian sausage to spicy Mexican chorizo, without sacrificing texture or taste.” She also notes that the high oil content and soft meat of the nut gives it a versatility for formation into patties, meatballs, and replacements for part or all of a ground meat filling.

Blueberry Biscuit
Blueberries’ convenience, nutrition, and dual status as both a superfruit and a classic comfort ingredient makes them especially attractive to formulators.
PHOTO COURTESY OF: US Highbush Blueberry Council (www.blueberrycouncil.org)


Still Nutty

In the consumer’s mind, a nut in the product name brings the expectation of crunchy texture and nutty flavors. Texture can be a challenge for products that must be held under refrigeration or freezing. The moisture inherent in those conditions can take nut-rich dishes from crispy and crunchy to mushy and lumpy.

Nut processors have several methods to combat the seeming inevitability of sogginess in refrigerated and frozen food products. Tried and true processes like oil roasting create physical barriers to stave off moisture. In addition to helping maintain crispness, a plus when developing nut-rich foods is the enhanced flavor roasting elicits. For some formulations, roasting can even allow for a reduction in the amount of nut ingredients used, reducing processing and costs.

When oil-roasted nuts are not an option, processors can coat their product with a solution of water and dextrin. The nuts absorb the water, leaving the dextrin behind to cover the surface of the nut, acting as a texture and flavor preservative. This method is also a boon for snack mix manufacturers, creating the perfect surface to accept dry coatings and flavors.

While the unsaturated fats in nuts contain many of the healthy nutrients, they also lead to another big challenge: rancidity. “Products with nuts go rancid faster than the ones without it. Even adding antioxidants in the formulation doesn’t help much,” says NHD Foods’ Suss.

Processors of high-fat nuts may preserve texture and flavor by treating their product with polyhydric alcohols a.k.a. polyols or sugar alcohols. Common examples are glycerol and sorbitol. These create a thin barrier that protects against off flavors and aromas. Additional research has revealed that a combination of hydroxypropyl cellulose (HPC) and carboxymethylcellulose (CMC) also will mitigate spoilage and rancidity. This cocktail interacts with the nut fats and prevents deterioration without affecting the nut’s texture.

With the ability to deliver so many aspects of flavor, texture, health, and trendiness, fruits and nuts — individually or in their infinite possible combinations — offer a treasure trove of solutions for product developers. Their inclusion in formulations offers comfort not only to consumers but to processors as well.