Back to July 2019

Pecans take starring role in nutrition trends

A box of inshell pecans with a red handcracker in it.

Photo by Blair Krebs

Pecans are prized for their delicate nutty flavor, heart health benefits and culinary versatility in recipes both sweet and savory. But there are even more ways to champion pecans today because they fit right in with contemporary food trends.

Eat Your Plants

You don’t have to be a vegetarian to eat like one. Identified as a food service mega-trend, interest in plant-based nutrition is literally sprouting up everywhere from supermarkets to quick serve restaurants. For example, Whole Foods Market offers “vegetable butchers” to customize fresh fruit and vegetable cuts for customers. Kroger features vegetable buying happy hours with “pick 5 at 5” special pricing. Additionally, chefs are filling out their modern menus (and check averages) with creative vegetable side dishes.

A sidebar from the printed version of this article that lists out the nutrition facts for one ounce of pecan halves.

Vegan and vegetarian restaurant menu items are becoming mainstream and appealing to meat eaters as well. Even Taco Bell has a vibrant vegetarian menu. University dining halls, airlines, health care facilities, convenience stores, and corporate dining services are all prioritizing their plant-based menu innovation.

The terms “plant-based” and “plant-forward” are widely used today and most often refer to a style of cooking and eating that emphasizes, but is not limited to, plant-based foods—including fruits and vegetables, whole grains, beans and other legumes, nuts and seeds, and plant oils. The Mediterranean Diet, rich in plant foods including nuts, aligns with this plant-based movement and is considered one of the healthiest eating patterns in the world. Even though it may be higher in total fat content due to the consumption of olive oil, oily fish and nuts, this style of eating is associated with good health, longevity and healthy body weights. More good nutrition news for nuts!

A sidebar from the printed version of this article that defines a few trendy food terms—vegetarian, vegan, and flexitarian.

Why so healthy?

As seen with the Mediterranean Diet, consumption of plant foods is associated with a lower risk for obesity, hypertension, diabetes, coronary heart disease and some cancers. These benefits translate to a healthier and longer life. Add to that the tremendous creativity in the culinary community to develop delicious tasting plant-based dishes and many health-conscious food-loving consumers are embracing this wonderful win-win of taste and health. Bottom line: Menu items have to taste good to be popular and nuts are well positioned to add more flavor appeal to other healthy foods.

The health benefits of plant-based diets—including nuts—began making an impact on nutrition advice in the early 1990s. That’s when a nutrition intervention trial led by Joan Sabaté, MD DrPH, a professor in the Department of Nutrition at Loma Linda University, directly linked the consumption of nuts (specifically walnuts) to significant reductions in serum cholesterol. That study was published in the New England Journal of Medicine. The Archives of Internal Medicine later published Sabaté’s analysis of 25 intervention trials, establishing the benefits of nut consumption on blood lipid levels and lowering the risk of heart disease.

It was this research that provided the evidence needed by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to approve a qualified health claim for nuts as a food to help prevent heart disease.

A sidebar from the printed version of this article that explains what the FDA qualified health claim for pecans is.

Today, Loma Linda University researchers continue their research on the health benefits of a plant-based diet and its supporting role in sustainable food systems for a healthy planet. Taking a seat at the national food policy table, Sabaté is a member of the U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. Health and Human Services’ 2020 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee. With the scientific evidence to prove its health benefits and further research currently being conducted, the pecan can fully make its case to be a feature in a plant-based diet.

Pecan Culinary Trends

Pecans are world famous as a go-to ingredient in desserts and other confections, and now they’re starting to really strut their stuff in savory dishes as well. Toasted pecan halves add a tasty bite and even more beauty to colorful salads, while a sprinkling of chopped pecans can elevate the appeal of mashed sweet potatoes or roasted winter squash. Chefs and food service professionals invited to a recent National Pecan Shellers Association Pecan Chefs Summit held in San Antonio tasted pecan halves tucked into bacon wrapped dates as an appetizer to get them thinking about recipe innovation.

A recipe for pecan milk

“I think with pecans that I just thought about dessert,” said Denise Poole Chief Executive Officer Atlanta based AMI Inflight. “I never even expected pecan meal and what I could do with pecan meal, and I was fascinated by the pecan milk!”

Plant-based milks, from almond to rice milks, are certainly more in demand as consumers look for dairy alternatives. So, on the agenda for the recipe demonstration at the Culinary Institute of America’s campus in San Antonio, Chef Marie Ostrosky of Grey Salt Culinary showed the chef attendees how to make pecan milk and pecan milk ice cream. Pecan meal was also used to create a crisp rolled tuile cookie to enjoy with fresh fruit. Additionally, pecan pieces were folded into a showstopping savory onion and mushroom taco filling, which was then served with warm flour tortillas and fresh salsas prepared by CIA students.

A recipe for meatless pecan and mushroom tacos with a picture of one of the tacos with full dressing

Upon tasting these dishes, Brian Charette, a chef with the University of Massachusetts Amherst, said he’d like to incorporate more pecans as an ingredient in plant-based dishes. “This would be great for vegans and vegetarians as a meat substitute. It was very delicious,” he added. “[The demo] opened up a greater world of how to utilize this particular nut.”

Cutting food waste in the home and commercial kitchens is another important part of modern food trends to support the planet and their economic bottom line. Blending pecan pieces of any size into pecan butter is another terrific solution for using all of the nut in menu inspirations.

“It was sort of like a light bulb going off in your head,” said Chef Andrew Bergholtz for Aramark’s Innovation Center. “This knowledge gives us an opportunity to expand on pecans not only just in a sweet sense but in a savory sense as well.”

Tim Zintz, Director of Culinary Development for Aramark added, “I thought of pecans as just ‘one of the nuts,’ but I really found out how unique they are.”

So, could pecan butter on toast be the next ‘avocado toast’? Could taco trucks in need of a vegetarian option, add a seasoned pecan crumble filling? Why not culture pecan milk to create a vegan yogurt?

The pie’s definitely not the limit when pairing pecans with healthy recipe trends.

Author Photo

Carolyn O'Neil

Carolyn O'Neil, MS RDN LD, is a licensed and registered dietitian that owns O'Neil Food and Nutrition Communications. As a writer and TV food and nutrition expert, O'Neil has won a number of awards for her work in food journalism.