Fruits and nuts are an ever-important part of food products and innovation, showing up in more and more products while checking several boxes on consumers’ growing health and wellness checklist.

Bakers and other food facilities can rely on them for inclusions, toppings and alternatives during production.

Flavorful additions can be crafted to meet marketplace trends, including the current plant-based and protein platforms. Chickpeas, for example, can be dried, coated or even chopped, creating new flavor combinations and, at the same time, providing a healthful halo, says Kami Smith, chef and director of culinary showcasing, Pecan Deluxe Candy Co. Nuts and seeds can be combined into clusters or coated with a moisture barrier. Once the base inclusion is created, it can be flavored and can even be colored.

Pack in the protein

Nuts can also provide a versatile way to include more protein in baked foods.

“From sriracha cashews to coffee-glazed almonds, incorporating nuts into a convenient breakfast bar increases its overall functionality and allure,” says Jamie Wilson, director of business development, marketing, culinary, research and development for Fort Worth, Texas-based Parker Products. “Try adding maple glazed pumpkin seeds to a loaf of sweet cinnamon bread for an interesting crunch.”

Carefully crafted inclusions and toppings also can be used as vehicles for performance ingredients. Some are designed to provide a bit of fruit and vegetable content.

“Products infused with natural caffeine are inundating the market in the form of bars and other snacks,” says Andrew Wheeler, vice-president of marketing, Van Drunen Farms, Momence, Illinois. “Consumers are also seeking functional products infused with superfoods, which are nutritionally dense ingredients sought out for their health benefits.”

According to Food Business News, a sister publication of Supermarket Perimeter, this includes whole foods such as acai, blueberries, kale and spinach. These ingredients can be formulated with whole grains into a cluster and possibly even coated with dark chocolate or some flavored and colored confection.

The top functional ingredient right now when it comes to the bar category is protein, which can by find in the nutritional and performance categories.

According to the study “Protein Bar Market – Segmented by Type, Source, End Product and Geography (2018-2023)” conducted by Mordor Intelligence, LLP, based in India, the main consumers of bars include not only athletes but also those looking for a wholesome meal without the stress of the kitchen. These consumers prefer protein bars to assist with weight management, improved muscle mass and increased energy.

Nuts as flour replacers

Nuts can be a viable alternative to traditional grain flours.

Blue Diamond Almonds’ Global Ingredients Division rolled out almond protein powder, which provides a source of fiber, magnesium, phosphorous, manganese and copper, as well as potassium and calcium. The powder has a fine texture, smooth mouthfeel and a neutral flavor.

The protein trend isn’t likely to slow for some time. Finding ways to incorporate all types of the nutrient can help any baker looking for a differentiator. Plant proteins, specifically, can do more than just provide a “good source” of protein label claim.

“Some additional benefits of (some plant) proteins include emulsification and emulsion stability, gluten-free formulating, vegetarian and vegan friendly, and they provide a protein alternative to the major eight allergens,” says Karen Constanza, principal technologist, technical development at Ingredion, Westchester, Illinois.

When searching for protein ingredients, bakers can choose from a growing toolbox of options. There are whole food plant proteins, including specialty grains, pulses, nuts and seeds, as well as protein isolates obtained from these foods. A side perk with using whole-food plant proteins is that other nutrients often get boosted at the same time. Plus, many bring interesting colors, flavors and textures to the finished product.

The allergen piece

As many Americans focus on improving their well-being, what is considered a healthy ingredient to one consumer could be quite dangerous to another. Because of this, snack producers must rely on sanitary design when processing better-for-you snacks that contain allergens.

Take nuts for instance.

“A perennial favorite for healthy snacking, nuts of all kinds remain very popular, and demand for them continues to grow,” says Don Giles, director of sales, processing systems, Heat and Control, based in Hayward, California.

But snack manufacturers must be cognizant of products containing allergens like nuts to ensure that equipment can be cleaned thoroughly and easily or separated altogether.

“Typically, our standard sanitation procedures are adequate for most of the new types of snacks coming on the market,” Giles says. “However, allergens are always a consideration when they are present and should not be taken lightly. Segregating different types of ingredients such as nuts and nut oils is important, and in some cases, a separate processing system may be necessary.”

The Protein Bar Market report also noted a high demand for innovative products with natural ingredients and without allergens. The proteins found in nutrition bars have typically consisted of whey, collagen, nuts or soy, but this list is expanding.