The U.S. Food and Drug Administration's new qualified health-claim initiative could make some retailers -- literally -- go nuts.
That's because the FDA has allowed six types of nuts -- almonds, peanuts, pistachios, hazelnuts, pecans and walnuts -- to put a "qualified" health claim on their labels stating that small servings could reduce the risk of heart disease.
The approved wording: "Scientific evidence suggests, but does not prove, that eating 1.5 ounces per day of most nuts as part of a diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol may reduce the risk of heart disease. See nutrition information for fat content."
Several retailers SN interviewed said the health claim could motivate them to promote the category more aggressively.
"This could get me to put a big push on the category," said Warren Crills, grocery buyer, Stauffers of Kissel Hill, Lititz, Pa.
The health claim -- coupled with the high-protein, low-carbohydrate diet craze -- could even change consumer snacking patterns, said John Mahar, director of operations, Green Hills Farms, a single-store operator in Syracuse, N.Y.
"People may now start to look at nuts as a healthy snack food, choosing nuts over a bag of potato chips," he said.
Approved in July, the health claim is one of the first the FDA has issued on a conventional food. It comes as part of a new initiative to provide Americans with the information they need to make healthy nutritional choices about foods and dietary supplements.
"The health claim will give good science-based information on the health benefits of eating peanuts regularly," said Kristen Ciuba, a nutritionist for the Peanut Institute, Albany, Ga., a non-profit organization that promotes peanuts and peanut products.
The claim is also good news for other nut associations, including the Almond Board of California, which has made a significant investment in researching the health benefits of almonds.
"For a consumer who may have stayed away from nuts before because they were unsure about their effect on cholesterol, they now have permission to eat nuts," said Stacey Kollmeyer, senior manager, communications for the Modesto, Calif.-based organization, which represents about 6,000 growers.
News about the health claim comes at a time when nut consumption has been trending upward. From 2002 to 2003, 3.04 pounds of tree nuts were consumed per person in the U.S., up from 2.21 pounds from 1992 to 1993, according to Susan Pollack, an agriculture economist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Tree nuts include walnuts, pecans and hazelnuts, but not peanuts.
Pollack attributed the increase to more availability and promotional support -- and lower prices. Plus, the public has become aware that most of the fat in nuts is unsaturated, the kind commonly known as "good" fat because it does not cause cholesterol to rise.
"People used to believe nuts were high in fat. But now they realize that it's 'good' fat," Pollack said.
The new qualified health claim could help the nut industry even more, though Pollack is unsure about for how long.
"Other fruits and vegetables have received health claims, and the [consumption] boost has been temporary," she said.
Maryann Cherry, category buyer, Mars Super Markets, Baltimore, concurred. She said the health claims may increase sales initially, but questions how long the spike will last.
"A few years ago, sales of all sorts of products with bran increased, but it only lasted a little while," Cherry noted.
Mike Nigh, grocery merchandiser for Harmon's, an 11-store retailer in Salt Lake City, doubts the health claims will help the category at all. Nut sales have eroded to mass merchandisers and likely won't come back to supermarkets, he said.
Still, if manufacturers beef up promotional activity, most retailers told SN they would support the category more heavily, especially now that the holidays are approaching.
"This is a good time for nuts that are in demand for holiday parties and other festive events," Cherry of Mars said.
Indeed, the timing of the health claim couldn't be better, as nuts are in the limelight due to the holidays.
H.E. But Grocery Co., San Antonio, for instance is currently featuring pecans on its Web site, www.heb.com, as part of a holiday promotion. Holiday favorites in H-E-B's operating area include pecan pies and traditional dressing with pecans.
Although the health claim is not mentioned, the site emphasizes nutritional content. "Pecans are a good source of potassium, thiamine, zinc, copper, magnesium phosphorous, niacin, folic acid, iron and vitamin B6, and also a good source of fiber," the site reads. "The fats are composed of 87% unsaturated fatty acids."
Some retailers believe the popularity of nuts will extend far beyond the holidays. After years of being "insignificant," sales have climbed about 10% to 15% over the last year at Green Hills Farms, according to Mahar. Green Hills carries three types of nut brands: Planters; Peanut Shop, an upscale brand of hand-cooked nuts; and its Red and White controlled label.
Mahar attributes the sales increase, in part, to the popularity of high-protein, low-carbohydrate diets, most of which recommend nut consumption.
The new health claim could lead Green Hills to secondary merchandising locations, perhaps in its low-carb sections.
Crills of Stauffers of Kissel Hill agrees that nuts are benefiting from low-carbohydrate, high-protein diets. He noted that both the Atkins and South Beach high-protein diets recommend small servings of nuts. Crills himself was on the South Beach diet, and frequently ate pistachios and hazelnuts.