Over the last decade, there has been a rise in fruit inclusions as dried fruit consumption has increased 30% and tree nut production 47%, said Mollie Woods, executive director of the Cherry Industry Administrative Board, DeWitt, Mich.

US-grown Montmorency tart cherries and other dried fruits blend great with dark chocolate, as do pistachios, pecans and almonds, Woods said.

Today’s consumers are increasingly aware and informed of the ingredients in their food, and they equate health and quality with product ingredients that are recognizable and minimally processed, she added.

“Brands are incorporating fruit ingredients, such as Montmorency tart cherries, to product offerings to meet consumer demand with transparent ingredients that consumers can recognize and trust.”

As the line between meals and snacks continues to blur, consumer expectations for convenient eating have grown beyond ‘quick and easy’ to products that also offer taste, satiety, energy and/or other health benefits, Woods said.

Montmorency tart cherries have recently been included in a variety of new products, including protein bars, energy bites, sports drinks, snack mixes and more.

Tart cherries are linked to multiple health benefits and provide a sour flavor that gives consumers a new taste to discover and enjoy — and that’s very much on-trend.

Montmorency fruit is available year-round in dried, frozen, canned, juice and concentrate forms, making it readily accessible for snack ingredient decision makers as a versatile, nutritious ingredient for new product innovations. Kombucha, energy shots and shakes, chocolate bites, salsas and ice cream are just a few of the options cited by Woods.

Consumers’ palates are increasingly inclined toward tangy and sour flavors, with a decrease in preference for sweet flavors, Woods said. Product innovators, as a result, are venturing away from classic sweet and salty flavors and delivering the more adventurous tart flavors consumers crave.

“Montmorency tart cherries enhance a range of flavors, adding a new profile to sweet and savory combinations, offering mainstream appeal and endless pairing opportunities that manufacturers won’t get with other fruits,” she said.

The tart cherry industry is seeing some innovative pairings that complement sweet, savory, salty and citric flavors with the sweet-sour profile of Montmorency tart cherries.

And it’s not just the increased interest in all things sour that’s giving the industry a boost. While few foods can make actual health claims, more than 60 scientific studies have examined the impact of Montmorency tart cherries on multiple health benefits such as sleep, exercise recovery, heart health, arthritis and gout.

Walnuts gain ground

Walnuts are making their way into more products in more sections of the supermarket, including the fresh perimeter, said Jennifer Olmstead, marketing director, domestic public relations, for the Folsom-based California Walnut Board and Commission.

“They’ve always had a significant presence in sweet bakery foods, but now we’re seeing walnuts used in plant-based meat alternatives, non-dairy milks and snack foods,” she said.

Food and beverage manufacturers are increasing usage because they’re seeing the demand. In a 2019 study, 73% of respondents said they “definitely/probably would buy” a food product containing walnuts.

Walnuts are most likely to be eaten as a snack, according to board research. With 95% of Americans snacking daily, and most of them looking for snacks that are both healthy and satisfying, snacking products have been driving a lot of market growth, Olmstead said, citing Mintel data.

Trail mix and bars are two consistently popular uses for walnuts, but in the past year the industry has seen more nut butters, dairy alternatives and snacking products like seasoned walnuts, she added.

And because they pair well with sweet and savory flavors, walnuts can be added to products satisfying any craving or taste preference.

“Crazy Go Nuts, The Nutty Gourmet and Diamond — just launched — offer delightfully seasoned walnut snacks in flavors like chocolate espresso, buffalo, rosemary and teriyaki and wasabi,” Olmstead said.

Beyond snacking, walnuts fit into a variety of eating habits that have become more popular in recent years: plant-based/flexitarian diets, paleo, ketogenic and Mediterranean.

“They appeal to consumers across various audience segments,” she said.

 In addition to ongoing research on health benefits and consumer preferences, the California Walnut Board and Commission conducts a variety of marketing activities to drive demand, including advertising to consumers through TV, print and digital media, public relations to share nutrition information and recipe inspiration and instore promotions during key times of year such as American Heart Month, Olmstead said. 

“Our members are developing new products and flavor offerings based on learnings from our consumer research and trend monitoring,” she said. “In addition to new, bold flavors across the snacking category, shoppers are looking for better-for-you indulgences. This includes the variety of seasoned walnuts mentioned above, as well as a growing body of nut butters, nut milks and even a walnut-based pie crust from Diamond.”

The health message is a critical one. Walnuts are the only nut that is a significant source of the essential omega-3 fatty acid, alpha-linolenic acid. Walnuts on their own and any products containing walnuts boast these unique naturally occurring omega-3s, which have been linked to heart health and other health benefits.

In addition, because of the protein/fiber/fat combination, walnuts lend a texture that can mimic the mouthfeel of meat, which has made for a lot of opportunity in the growing plant-based food category, Olmstead said, citing the California Veggie Burger from Amy’s as a major example.

Nutella, other products and trends lead way for hazelnut growth

Products featuring hazelnuts have enjoyed big growth for more than a decade, said Naomi Inman, director of public relations and communications for the Hubbard, Ore.-based Northwest Hazelnut Co., which, with its sister company, George Packing Company, make up the largest processors and marketers of hazelnuts in North America. 

Most of Northwest’s nuts end up in the retail channel, Inman said. Given the shift of food purchases to that channel since the coronavirus onset, the pace of orders for some customers has jumped as much as 400% since February.

“During these uncertain times, we are glad we have the inventory to step up deliveries,” she said.

Looking back a bit further, a certain popular spread containing hazelnuts is a big reason why sales have grown so much in recent years.  

“Hazelnuts have continued to emerge as a prominent ingredient over the last dozen years, first in imported chocolates, then prodded upward by the market success of Nutella,” she said. “A cascade of other products have followed across many categories eager to leverage consumers’ interest in chocolate-hazelnut flavor combinations.”

As a result, hazelnuts also play starring roles in other flavor combinations and categories such as breads, desserts, and yogurt and salad toppers. 

It’s consumer demand, pure and simple, Inman said. Proof of that comes from a national consumer research in 2017, showing that over 10 years: 

  • Reported consumption of hazelnuts was up from about one-third of consumers (33%) to one-half (49%)  
  • The perception of hazelnuts as “very healthy” had doubled to nearly half (47%) of consumers.  
  • At the time, 82% of consumers who had not tried hazelnuts were eager to do so. Nutella’s success opened the market for hazelnuts and continues to fuel consumer interest in trying the distinctive flavor of hazelnuts in other foods.  

As of last year, chocolate candy made up the biggest category penetration for hazelnuts, which sports 461 chocolate-hazelnut SKUs from makers including Ferrero Rocher, Hershey’s, Ritter Sport, Ghirardelli and Lindt.  

Other categories also growing in terms of SKUs include snack nuts, nut butter, ice cream, baking nuts, chocolate non-candy, granola bars and other snacks and frozen novelties.

And the potential for hazelnuts extends well beyond packaged goods, Inman said. More than two-thirds of consumers also want to try hazelnuts in their salads, main dishes, and salad dressings. 

Growers are taking note of all these good consumer numbers.

“The US crop is expected to triple in size by 2025,” Inman said. “Good thing, too, since the majority of American consumers prefer to buy products with hazelnuts grown in the United States.” 

Northwest Hazelnut Co. offers ingredient-ready nuts to food manufacturers, which gives the company an excellent view of the market across many categories, Inman said. In the perimeter alone, you can find hazelnuts in yogurt and salad toppers, in specialty breads and as a meal to encrust seafood and other meats and poultry.   

Two things separate Northwest Hazelnut from its competitors, Inman said. The first is the company’s pasteurization system.

“We take every available measure to preserve crunchy texture and fresh taste,” she said. “That indulgent experience makes hazelnuts desirable and distinctive in pairings with many different foods.”

Northwest Hazelnut protects that sensory experience with patented, CoolSteam pasteurization technology, which maintains the characteristics of taste, texture, color, shelf life and skin quality discriminating buyers look for in a raw, ready-to-eat or processed hazelnut. 

The company’s second big differentiator is its traceability program.

“Our traceability and separation of varieties from farm to processing to storage, in smaller volumes, results in exceptional quality and repeat customers,” Inman said. “By taking more care in the entire supply chain, we can better match each delivery to the requirements of a given product application and customer.”

One recent survey studied the current outlook for hazelnuts in the United States market and the quality and varieties most needed. The food industry as a whole sees hazelnuts as a big opportunity for sales growth. 

“We found that 87% had a “positive” opinion of hazelnuts, and 40% said they were using more hazelnuts in their product than a few years ago,” Inman said.

Inclusions market sets sites on $20 billion

The global food inclusions market was valued at $10.55 billion in 2018 and is expected to reach $19.32 billion by 2026, at a CAGR of 7.8%, according to New York-based Reports and Data.

Innovations in confection lead the way into other groups where inclusion manufacturers are contributing enrobed and coated inclusions comprising everything from cheese to herbs to barbecue sauce.

“Vegetables, fruits and nuts have long been acknowledged as healthful ingredients that also add visual, textural and flavorful interest to foods,” according to the report. “Moreover, fruit bits can add sweetness deprived of the need for sugar or other sweeteners. The market is currently witnessing a lucrative growth scenario, and this is expected to continue during the forecast timeframe.”

The chocolate segment is the leader in the category since this flavor has extensive application, according to Reports and Data. Chocolate inclusions in the industry are readily expanding because of the benefits offered, such as enhanced taste and product appeal.

Nuts, another “superfood,” add a significant source of plant-based protein as well as their characteristic crunch and color. Almonds make great additions to everything from baked goods to oatmeal to smoothies, contributing an array of health benefits.

Walnuts have a strong health reputation amongst nuts, as well. High in ALA (alpha-linolenic acid) plant omega 3 oils, they have a softer and smoother texture than most other tree nuts. Walnuts are quite high in antioxidants, with about twice the antioxidant content per gram as many other nuts.

Other findings of the report include:

  • Fruit and nuts are a popular category of food inclusions. The segment is forecasted to grow at a CAGR of 7.6% in 2019-2026.
  • Natural fruit and vegetable solutions, along with nut substitutes, are popular because of their sensory effects and enhanced flavor outcomes.
  • Europe is the largest market for food inclusions as of 2018. The region is expected to witness growth at a CAGR of 7.6% during the forecast time frame.
  • Asia Pacific segment will witness the highest CAGR of 8.6% in 2019-2026.
  • Almonds are the number one nut for snacks in Europe. Sweets are the top category for almond introductions (27%) in the region. The bakery is the second most prevalent category for new almond product introductions (17%). Almonds are also essential for cereals, which has seen the most substantial growth for almonds (+8%), and bars, where almonds’ versatility makes them the top nut choice for manufacturers.
  • Bakery products are the second-largest application section for the market share of 22.6% in 2018.

A crunchy take on fruit

Rennes, Brittany-based ingredient specialist Diana Food’s recent Crunch’ Flakes product provides a new twist on fruit inclusions.

The product offers a unique crispy texture, vibrant colors and authentic fruit experience, according to Diana. For chocolate, confectionary, bakery and other applications, three flavors are available: raspberry, strawberry and blueberry.

“Consumers want to experiment new engaging sensory experiences that go far beyond taste,” according to Diana. “This is a real challenge in today’s market, for which Diana’s innovative fruit inclusion provides a solution.”