CORVALLIS, Ore. — Consumers increasingly see hazelnuts as healthy, which means the crop is in prime position to be included in new food products, according to consumer research.
In 2017, a survey found that 47 percent of consumers considered hazelnuts “very healthy,” up from 24 percent in 2006, said Steve Bryant, managing director of the Seattle office of MSL, a public relations firm.
“It tells us you’re really on the right track,” Bryant said at the Jan. 18 annual convention of the Nut Growers Society.
Overall, 88 percent of survey respondents said hazelnuts were either very or somewhat healthy.
These perceptions align with the facts, as hazelnuts have been found to be high in iron, dietary fiber and heart-healthy monounsaturated fats, he said.
Consumers appear to be eating more whole hazelnuts — as opposed to hazelnuts in manufactured foods — with the proportion rising from 33 percent once a month in 2006 to 49 percent once per month in 2017, Bryant said.
Among those consumers who haven’t eaten hazelnuts, 82 percent want to try them, he said. “That’s a good signal for the food industry.”
The top consumers of hazelnuts are currently women aged 18-44 with a higher-than-average income, a college or post-graduate education and children at home, he said.
“These customers, above all, are who food companies are chasing,” Bryant said, since they often shop for the whole family and aren’t as limited by price.
People are generally eating more tree nuts, which is good news for hazelnut growers because consumers also crave variety, he said.
Even if they have another favorite tree nut, consumers desire a change in flavor profile, Bryant said. “People get fatigued with almonds.”
Hazelnuts are seen as a high-quality product but not financially out of reach — 27 percent of consumers consider them “expensive,” compared to 48 percent for macadamia nuts, 40 percent for pistachios and 35 percent for cashews, he said.
Though hazelnuts are often associated with candy bars and other sweet products, consumers want to see them in “healthier applications,” such as salads and salad dressings, as well as ingredients in main courses, he said.
A majority of consumers prefer hazelnuts grown in the U.S., Bryant said. “It’s a vote for America. It’s a chance to identify with people like them.”
The popularity of hazelnuts is reflected the number of new “stock keeping units” — a measure of retail products — that include the crop, he said.
In 2013, manufacturers introduced 63 new SKUs with hazelnuts, followed by 51 in 2014 and 93 in 2015, Bryant said. Overall, the number of SKUs including hazelnuts grew 47 percent in that time.
“New products mean new demand to fill that supply,” he said.
At this point, the supply of U.S. hazelnuts is a major constraint on the development of new food products, said Larry George, president of the George Packing Co.
Oregon, the primary hazelnut-growing state, currently averages fewer than 40,000 tons of hazelnuts per year, he said.
Food manufacturers would need average yearly production to increase to about 60,000 tons per year before they significantly invested in new products, George said.
At the current rate, though, Oregon is likely to achieve this production level in two or three years, he said.
The sale of Nestle’s U.S. confectionery business to Ferrero is probably a positive sign for the domestic hazelnut industry, as Ferrero is very comfortable with the crop and its supply chain, George said.
While Turkey continues to dominate global hazelnut production, U.S. manufacturers want to see domestic production grow to ensure reliability, he said.
Oregon companies can supply manufacturers on the East Coast with hazelnuts within four days, compared to 45-60 days for orders from Turkish suppliers, which may get rejected, George said.
“It can disrupt the supply chain,” he said.