The California Walnut Commission is resuming marketing activities in the UK this season for the first time in over two decades in response to growing sales and a shift in consumer lifestyles. Pamela Graviet, senior marketing director, talks to Produce Business UK about expanding production and plans to promote the versatility and health benefits of the so-called “super nut”.
“Just looking at the UK, the market growth and the change in consumer lifestyles, it was time to come back and remind people that walnuts are a healthy option,” she tells PBUK.
Now UK consumers aren’t eating every meal at home, Graviet says easy snacks that are nutritious, affordable and satisfying are in demand. At the same time, vegetarianism is on the rise, as well as plant-based eating. Walnuts are a good fit.
“People in the UK are eating more nuts in general than ever before,” Graviet adds. “Looking at the statistics, Euromonitor reports that the volume of all nuts shipped to the UK in 2016 grew by 3%.”
The in-shell market has been decreasing fairly significantly on an annual basis as consumers and food manufacturers alike prefer the convenience of shelled nuts.
The UK represented the thirteenth-largest export destination for California walnuts and the third-largest EU market during the 2016 season, absorbing 3% of the crop or 20,537,000 in-shell equivalent pounds (9,315 tonnes). The outlook for 2017 is similar or slightly higher.
Educating the trade
To drive further growth in the market, in March the California Walnut Commission began its new UK trade and consumer marketing campaign with the launch of a UK consumer website californiawalnuts.uk and a series of meetings with various trade representatives.
The bulk of activities will begin in the autumn when, by tradition, nuts are more commonly consumed in the run-up to Christmas. The initiative will continue to build throughout 2018.
On the trade side, the objective is to communicate the differences in California walnuts versus those grown elsewhere, while raising awareness of the nut’s versatility and health benefits.
“When we talk about California walnuts we’re talking about quality and consistency year-on-year because generally the climate is very temperate,” Graviet explains.
California claims its walnuts also stand apart from those produced in other parts of the world because of the industry’s stringent growing and handling process.
“Buyers know what they’re getting from purchase to purchase, which is really important.
“As for consumers, each time they purchase California walnuts they know they will taste pretty much the same – creamy and fairly light in flavour. For the food manufacturing sector that’s even more important, particularly in the bakery segment.”
As part of its campaign, the commission is offering foodservice operators educational training and seminars on how to use walnuts in cooking or baking. The scientific research into the nutritional value and benefits of walnuts will also be shared.
Walnuts provide a variety of vitamins and minerals but walnuts above all other nuts contain a significant amount of omega-3 fatty acids which deliver significant health benefits.
“Most people eat fish as a source but just a handful of walnuts a day (28-30g) will provide the daily amount needed,” Graviet points out.
Research continues to emerge about the multitude of other health benefits walnuts provide. In the last six months studies have shown the positive effects walnuts have on sperm, heart and gut health.
“There are about 40 different research studies in progress, of which a couple are close to having papers written,” Graviet continues.
“One is a research project in South Korea that’s specifically looking at whether walnuts can help to reduce metabolic syndrome. It’s expected to be published in March 2018. I’ve seen the preliminary results and they are very interesting although I can’t disclose the details.
“The other study is looking at the elasticity of blood vessels and whether or not walnuts contribute to that.”
Raising consumer awareness
On the consumer side, the initiative aims to generate awareness of California walnuts mostly through PR activities that focus on the nut’s unique health benefits and versatility of use.
So far, plans include advertisements in lifestyle publications and point-of-sale materials in specific locations. Graviet says the commission is in negotiations with UK retailers, in particular.
Recipes will also form a large part of the UK consumer drive. The commission has developed 12 new recipes specifically for the UK, and is adapting global recipe ideas from its other programmes. New recipes will be uploaded to the UK website weekly.
“Most people think of using walnuts for snacking or in baking, so we’re providing recipes for year-round usage and all different types of eating occasions,” Graviet says.
One of her favourite non-traditional uses of walnuts is as a meat substitute in meals like tacos or bolognese. The nut also suits a variety of ethnic cuisines by adding a “crunchiness” that wouldn’t otherwise be there.
Salads and lighter dishes also benefit from walnuts, according to Graviet. For snacking, she recommends lightly toasting the nut with turmeric, garlic powder or rosemary.
Planting for the future
As well as adding the UK to its marketing programme this year, the commission is evaluating potential in the Middle East and southeast Asia. Existing campaigns will continue in Spain, Germany, Turkey, China, Korea and India.
Although there is no growth target set for future UK-bound exports, production is expanding in California to sustain the rise in demand worldwide.
“We’ve increased our number of acres and some existing acreage is being replanted,” reveals Graviet. “Older trees of 80-90 years that have reached the end of their life are being replanted with different varietals that can be grown closer together and produce more per acre.”
The California walnut industry is also undertaking research into different varietals to see if one would come into ripening earlier than the majority of what’s already planted.
“Our customers are asking to have access to California walnuts a little earlier in the season. Also, most of our crop ripens about the same time which puts a tremendous amount of pressure on the handlers who process walnuts to remove the outer hull, clean and inspect the nuts.”
While the trees are very healthy and producing very well at present, Graviet admits there is uncertainty with regards to the impact of California’s drought in recent years and a very wet winter in 2016.
“We don’t know if either of these climate events will cause any issues or what the long-term effects might be as it’s never happened before,” she states. “Sometimes in agriculture you don’t see the impact until three or four years after a specific event.”
Nevertheless, California’s walnut crop is increasing year-on-year as new trees enter into production. Last season the state saw a record production of 684,334 tonnes that was boosted by an exceptional year for fruit set.
“This season’s crop is looking really good although in talking to our growers the fruit set doesn’t look to be as large,” Graviet forecasts. “But there are 10,000 acres that came into production this year and we’re not sure how that will play out yet. Usually the estimate is released on September 4.”