A Word from the Board: The California Walnut Board

Walnuts on Trend in New Product Development

Walnuts are an excellent ingredient in plant based meat alternatives, such as this California Omega burger (photo courtesy CWC.)

Walnuts are a versatile ingredient with applications throughout food and beverage categories, ranging from plant-based meat alternatives to snack bars. This hasn’t always been the case as walnuts used to be considered solely a baking nut.

The California Walnut Commission (CWC) is working to change that perception by positioning walnuts as an ingredient that delivers texture, flavor and nutrition across multiple categories. The goal is to spur new walnut-based products that mimic ground beef in frozen entrées, walnut spreads that deliver flavor and omega-3 fatty acids, and clean-label food bars that use walnuts for their whole food benefits, flavor and texture.

Walnuts’ benefits as an ingredient in food and beverage products was showcased at this year’s Specialty Food Association’s prestigious sofiTM awards, with five products featuring walnuts taking home honors. What’s truly unique about this list of winners is the diversity of food categories represented. Cookies, chocolates, crackers and plant-based meats all used walnuts to formulate award-winning products. Here are the 2022 sofiTM award winners that use walnuts.

Fig Walnut Macaroon Almond Butter, Big Spoon Roasters: A combination of walnut chunks with toasted coconut, figs, organic maple syrup and sea salt.

Carrot Cake Chocolate, Chuao Chocolatier: Caramelized white chocolate and walnut star in this chocolate bar formulated for carrot cake lovers.

Walnut with Cranberry & Fennel Biscuits, Effie’s Homemade: This unique toasted walnut biscuit includes a bright pop of cranberry and hint of fennel.

Chocolate Chip Walnut Cookie, Levain Bakery: This popular retail bakery launched its signature Chocolate Chip Walnut Cookies in freezer cases nationwide.

Vegan Nutty Loaf, Nutcase Vegan Meats: Nutcase Vegan’s lineup of plant-based meats all include walnuts.

By changing the perception of walnuts from a baking nut to a versatile ingredient, CWC will be able to increase walnut usage among foods and beverages in multiple categories. For each of the categories below, we want to establish the position of walnuts based on some of their core attributes benefitting the category.

Walnuts in Plant-Based Meat Alternatives
Walnut positioning:
Clean-label plant-based protein
Texture enhancer

Walnuts provide plant-based food manufacturers with a way to mimic products such as ground beef without excess ingredients and fillers. The next generation of plant-based foods will focus on clean-label products, and walnuts can play a starring role due to their subtle nuttiness and exceptional texture that mimics ground beef in tacos, hamburgers and even frozen ravioli.

Most nuts are crunchy, but walnuts offer so much more in terms of texture, making them a specific nut ideal for mimicking ground beef. As most plant-based meat alternatives have texture issues, we’ve been working with food developers to promote walnuts as the perfect bite: neither too hard nor too soft. Walnuts’ mouthfeel as a plant-based ground beef alternative is evidenced in a product like Amy’s Organic California Veggie Burger. Walnuts are combined with mushrooms, veggies and sea salt for a soy-free plant-based patty that mimics a traditional meat counterpart.

At the CWC, we have focused much of our efforts on walnut ground meat. Formulations are quite simple and require only a blend of walnuts with a legume (we recommend chickpeas or black beans) to create a clean label alternative that satisfies both flavor and texture demands.

By using a formulation template of a 50/50 blend of walnuts and legumes as well as a seasoning blend, manufacturers can easily create chorizo walnut crumbles to be used in tacos, an omega burger patty or a walnut filling that mimics ground beef in ravioli or a frozen lasagna entrée. Walnuts provide texture, flavor, functionality and nutritious value that make them a prime candidate as a meat replacer for center-of-plate plant-based products.

Walnuts in Food Bars Walnut positioning:
Alignment as a nutritious ingredient
Texture and flavor

In food bar formulations, we position walnuts as a way to satiate consumer demands for taste, texture and nutrition. In looking at the flavor profiles of ingredients for bars, walnuts carry a unique and subtle nutty flavor profile that complements traditional ingredients that consumers crave, such as chocolate, vanilla, fruit and more.

The growing popularity of all-day snacking, grab-and-go and functional nutrition has expanded the usage applications for food bars to almost every eating occasion. For meal replacement bars, walnuts provide protein and a high-caloric food. For a snack bar, walnuts can add permissible indulgence to better-for-you bars that mimic popular desserts, such as carrot cakes and banana bread. And, in functional bars, walnuts carry marketing benefits of a nutritious nut that is continually in the media for positive health and nutrition research.

Walnuts in Bakery Foods
Walnut positioning:
Premium product
Permissible indulgence

Walnuts have found a home in bakery foods for hundreds of years. How can you have banana bread, chocolate chip cookies or brownies without the perfect crunch of walnuts? However, walnuts’ use in bakery foods goes beyond sweet goods. Think pie crusts and artisan bread inclusions. Or what about pan breads? In Japan, walnuts are a common inclusion in sandwich bread, and in the U.S., the largest bread baker in the country produces a honey nut loaf with walnuts.

To expand usage in the baking industry, CWC has positioned walnuts as a permissibly indulgent ingredient. Manufacturers in almost every bakery food category are trying to create great-tasting products loaded with nutritional benefits. Walnuts deliver both essential nutrition and indulgence and are easily incorporated into countless food products.

Walnuts in Granola, Trail Mix, Oatmeal and Cereal
Walnut positioning:
A nutritious way to start your day
Omega-3 fatty acids

Walnuts are the perfect addition to granolas and trail mixes due to their flavor and texture. However, we’ve been able to expand their usage in the granola and trail mix category by promoting the plant-based omega-3 fatty acid content of walnuts. The omega-3 fatty acids in walnuts have led to an entire cottage industry of granola, trail mixes and nut mixes developing “omega” varieties that feature walnuts as a core ingredient.

Similar to granola, walnuts are positioned to be used in cereals and oatmeals that are chock full of better-for-you ingredients to get consumers’ days off to a healthy start. Walnuts are perfect for cereal because they are an indulgent whole food with unique health properties.

Walnuts in Snacks
Walnut positioning:
Nutritious snack
Texture and flavor

Long gone are the days when three square meals a day was considered the standard. Today, snacking occurs at all times of the day and for all types of occasions. If consumers are intent on snacking so much, isn’t it prudent to offer them some nutritious offerings that still deliver indulgence? We have positioned walnuts as a snacking nut by pairing them with on-trend seasonings or as part of a made-with-walnuts snack food. This versatility, along with flavor, texture and health contributions, makes walnuts uniquely positioned to satisfy consumer cravings for healthy snacks that don’t sacrifice flavor.

Walnuts in Confectionery Products
Walnut positioning:
Permissible indulgence
Texture and flavor

Walking the show floor at this year’s Sweets & Snacks Expo at Chicago’s McCormick Place was a treat in itself as we saw our work in the confectionery industry manifest itself with walnut confectionery products in a variety of categories. Walnuts and chocolate go together perfectly, both as a delightful flavor combination and as a juxtaposition of pleasing crunchy-creamy texture.

As an inclusion in chocolate bars, we’ve positioned walnuts as visually appealing, texturally interesting and flavor-positive. It’s the perfect trifecta! Plus, walnuts are familiar to most consumers as an indulgent nut used in products such as chocolate chip cookies and brownies. These “comfort food memories” appeal to product developers in the confectionery space as they seek to align new product development with top consumer trends.

Walnuts in Nut Butters
Walnut positioning:
Omega-3 fatty acids
Flavor pairings

Walnut butter is positioned to offer product developers versatility in a market trending toward nutritious products that have unique flavor profiles, clean labels, all-natural ingredients and convenience. Walnut butter can be used as a standalone spread or dip, or as a filler in food bars, cookies or confections.

Walnut butter’s subtle nutty flavor allows for endless flavor combinations. Dark chocolate was named the number-one flavor pairing with walnuts in a Davis Sensory Institute study, and walnut butters combined with chocolate are trending. Vanilla also made the top five as well as an assortment of savory and spicy flavor pairings. Consumers are flocking to nut butters for their protein content, and one ounce of walnuts contains 4 grams of plant-based protein. In addition, walnuts also contain 2 grams of fiber.

To see more example of using walnuts in food and beverage products, visit our website for food professionals at walnuts.org/food-professionals/.