The current trend toward plant-based diets and wholesome, natural ingredients has led to increased European demand for walnuts, as consumers have become more aware of their health benefits.
There is a wide gap between EU walnut production and consumption, and it is getting wider as European demand has increased, according to figures from the US Department of Agriculture (USDA). The European Union is a net importer of walnuts, and although local growers are gradually ramping up production, Californian growers in particular have benefitted from healthy snacking trends. European walnut imports increased nearly 19% from 2014 to 2016, the USDA says, and the United States is the region’s number one supplier.
“Plant-based eating is on the rise worldwide and Europe is one of the leaders of this trend,” said Pamela Graviet, senior marketing director at the California Walnut Commission. “People are choosing to have more fruits, nuts, grains and vegetables in their diet and walnuts provide a wide variety of nutrients. Most importantly, walnuts are the only tree nut with a significant source of omega-3 fatty acids that your body needs but can only get from food sources.”
Plant-based sources of omega-3 and protein are in particularly high demand, as more consumers adhere to a vegetarian or vegan diet. According to national surveys, the percentage of Europeans who identify as vegetarian or vegan has grown rapidly – by more than 400% in Portugal over the past 30 years, for example – but it varies widely between countries. Despite rapid growth, just 1.2% of Portuguese consumers are vegetarians, compared to about 14% in the UK and Switzerland. However, these figures only tell part of the story, as flexitarianism is also on the rise – giving a further boost to nutrient-rich vegetarian foods like walnuts.
“Another trend is clean eating,” Graviet said. “People want to know what’s in their food and are looking for wholesome, natural ingredients. Walnuts can be eaten raw straight out of the shell, but they can also be transformed in many ways to add flavour and texture to a variety of cuisines. They can be added to smoothies to add protein and healthy fats, they can be used as a meat substitute in dishes that use ground meat, and they can add texture to salads, sauces, vegetable dishes and desserts.”
Publicising the health benefits of walnuts is a big part of the California Walnut Commission’s role in Europe, including promoting their benefits for heart health and cholesterol management, which have been accepted by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), as well as overseeing new health and nutrition research. The organisation represents the interests of more than 4,800 walnut growers – many of whom are multi-generational family farmers – and nearly 100 handlers across California’s Central Valley.
Many European food manufacturers have the option to buy locally grown walnuts too, but because of the mild climate, Californian walnuts grow year-round, providing consistent quality and reliable supply, while many locally grown varieties are only available at harvest time.
“Consistency is important in any type of food or beverage manufacturing, and reliable ingredient sources help to streamline process as well as add value to the final products,” Graviet said. “California walnuts meet those expectations.”
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