Cashew nuts are soaring in popularity in the U.S. as snackers seek healthier options, and industry experts expect demand to grow further as snack brands include the nuts in new products and the ongoing drought in California drives up the price of almonds.
In the U.S., they’re increasingly used in plant-based milks and as a base for vegan cheeses, creams, nut butters and desserts like Cashew Milk Frozen Dessert from So Delicious. They’re also part of a growing roster of new products, from mixes by Sahale Snacks to cereals and granolas in Kellogg’s new Origins line to TGI Friday’s branded Happy Hour Snack Mixes.
Cashews make up half of all the tree nuts imported by the U.S, according to the Agriculture Department, and the country imports more of India’s cashew nuts than any other country, taking in 33,898 metric tons last year, up 13% from the previous season, according to the Cashew Export Promotion Council of India.
Cashew trees originated in Brazil and were spread to new lands by the Portuguese about 500 years ago. They now grow in 32 countries where conditions are warm and humid enough for them to thrive in the wild, which means they don’t require all the irrigation and labor that go into growing almonds, pistachios and other water-intensive tree nuts, said K. Sasi Varma, executive director and secretary of the council. He and three of the council’s 230 member companies were on hand at the Summer Fancy Food Show in New York City last month.
As California’s drought drags on and almond prices rise, cashews are growing less expensive by comparison, he said, and there’s an adequate supply because they grow in so many different parts of the world, including Vietnam, Nigeria, Brazil and Indonesia.
“Even though India is the largest [by acreage], there’s not one region that dominates.”
Cashew nuts grow on trees, attached to a colorful fruit sometimes called a cashew apple. The nuts are the same no matter where they’re grown, but they may taste different from one country to the next depending on the way they’re processed, Varma said. “In India, they’re mostly fire-roasted. In that kind of processing the shell catches fire, that’s different from how they’re processed in Vietnam, for example.”
In developing cashew-growing countries, the nuts provide a source of economic development. It takes five or six years for new trees to bear fruit, and once they do they can be productive for as long as 35 years, Varma said.
The fruits are used in juices popular in Brazil and in an alcoholic beverage called Feni that’s made exclusively in Goa, India, they’re most often discarded during processing, said Ganesh Nair, president of Dublin, Calif.-based cashew seller Karma.
In addition to raw and roasted nuts, Karma’s newest product is Wrapped Cashews, which are air roasted with their skins on, which gives them a toasty crunch and doubles the fiber content. The roasting process is minimal, and it reduces the tannins which takes the natural bitterness out of the skin.
With or without their skins, the nuts are high in calories but also high in fiber, protein and several essential vitamins and minerals, according to USDA data.
“We haven’t made health claims yet, but we’re doing further research into the effects of antioxidants so we have more data to back up what we believe are the health benefits,” Nair said.
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