Almonds, rich in protein, carbohydrates and healthy oils, are enjoyed as a premium foodstuff, but they also have potential to be used as emulsifiers or to enhance the texture of food products without necessarily playing centre stage in the product’s identity.
While in the past that potential has been largely untapped by the mainstream food industry, now it is attracting more attention from food manufacturers as new industrial processing techniques that a bringing down the costs.
Kantha Shelke, principal at Corvus Blue, a Chicago-based science and research firm, told Foodnavigator.com that almond meal can be produced by chilling almonds before breaking them into smaller piece. This makes them brittle and prevents crushing and spread of oil from the cells – which would result in marzipan paste rather than almond flour.
Around 15 years ago this technique was the preserve of chefs and niche players, as costs were relatively high. Almonds tended to miss out because “fabricated ingredients were positioned very well as inexpensive substitute of premium ingredients”.
Now, however, “cost need not be the issue because of new technologies”, she said. “Today, you can make crunch without a huge significant upcharge”.
Shelke agreed that it will still take some time, education, and availability of ingredients, but the swerve towards more natural ingredients is also making almonds more attractive as technical tools.
“I believe the industry is finally coming to understand the potential.”.
Shelke spends a lot of time talking to mid-sized manufacturers who are sandwiched between the cottage industry and multinationals. “This is the place innovative trends tend to happen. They are small, agile and nimble enough to take the idea and introduce it to larger brand owners.”
As well as using the chilling trick on a larger scale, ingredients developers are also making use of defatted almond cake – the solid residue that remains after the oil has been extracted. “Because the demand for almond oil is growing, the oil is the primary product and is almost cleanly removed,” Shelke explained.“ The end result is a drier and coarser almond meal than one produces by crushing whole almond.”
Another technology, patented by the makers of an almond and cashew cream analogue called MimicCream, uses water heated to between 175 and 190 degrees farenheit as the liquefying agent. This prevents friction as the nuts are ground, which can scorch the nuts and cause cooked or toasted flavour notes.
Waxing lyrical about MimicCream (and confirming that she is not on their payroll), Shelke said it can be used in place of whipping cream between cake layers, or base of ice cream and frozen novelties. “It is so robust that emulsion will hold its own through freezing and thawing,” she said. Although it has been targeted at consumers and food service to date, it is likely to find much use in food products as a binder, extender, emulsifier.
Filtered water is also used in the crushing of almonds to form the base of a ‘cheese’ called Lisanatti, marketed to the lactose-free market in the US.
Tracking the history of almonds as ingredients, Shelke pointed to the early 2000s and the low-carb era, when demand went up dramatically.
“Consumers and those interested in catering to people wanting to avoid wheat products were looking for alternatives for biscuits, cakes, crepes, etc. People want to figure out how to make health more available in those forms, without impacting cost and nutritional value,” she said.
Beyond low carb people have realised that, beyond low carb, almonds can also be used as a substitute for soy or dairy for allergy sufferers (an area to be addressed that the FoodNavigator Allergen-free Foods conference in March, see www.fn-allergenfree.com for details) – and can provide the luxury or pleasure of an ice-cream or dessert without the concern about saturated fat.
Other possibilities include mayonnaise, salad dressings, and sandwich fillings.
“We are in a day and age where people understand what it is t have a chicken salad with a healthy and nutritious dressing,” said Shelke, adding the emulsifying properties can also ‘clean’ the label as artificial emulsifiers are not required.
Crushed almonds could go in crunchy, gluten-free coating for chicken, without the need for modified starches.
But what about the taste of almonds? Can almonds be ‘hidden’ in products, without lending their distinctive flavour stamp?
Shelke explained that the development of the almond flavour depends on the temperature and length of exposure. If slivers were included in a foodstuff that is deep fried protected in a batter it would not; if the almonds are on the outside, however, the heat would develop the flavour what ever the form.
“It depends on how used, whether exposed, and if development of aroma is detrimental to the quality of the product.”
In the case of MimicCream, if a product it baked it would have an almond aroma. “You would have to play with that.