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Nut-based Brands May Adjust Calorie Counts After USDA Research

Beth Kaiserman

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Agricultural Research Service (ARS) has found that almonds, cashews, pistachios and walnuts all contain less calories than originally thought, according to a series of studies that began in 2012. This opens the door for brands with nut-based products to update their products’ nutrition panels — and potentially even position themselves differently to reach consumers who may be concerned with calories.

David J. Baer, PhD, an ARS research leader who co-led the studies, said that whole unroasted and roasted almonds have 19 to 25% fewer calories than previously thought, while whole roasted cashews have 16% fewer calories. The original numbers, Baer said, were determined using the Atwater factors, a method for calorie calculation developed over 100 years ago, that informs most of the calorie data on current Nutrition Facts panels.

The researchers predicted this method might be inaccurate for certain food groups that are more difficult to digest. For example, nut pieces that aren’t digested also mean those calories are not digested. While nuts are nutrient-dense and can help fight certain diseases, some consumers avoid them due to calorie concerns, Baer said. These findings could attract more consumers to the heart-healthy snack, he added.

In the studies, calories for almond butter remained the same as expected, which Baer said is because processing helps humans absorb all of the nuts’ fats. Additionally, a 2015 study on walnuts found they had 21% less calories than previously thought, and a 2011 study found pistachios had 5% less calories than previously thought — which also reduced the LDL cholesterol levels in the study’s subjects by 6%. The researchers have not studied nut milks, Baer said, and have no plans to study other nuts. Instead, they are currently researching calories in chickpeas and lentils, which they think also have fewer calories than currently believed.

Moving forward, the new information about nuts will not yet be added to the USDA’s national nutrient database while the agency is updating its processes for submitting revisions. For now, ARS’ nut discoveries may help consumers, but ARS cannot enforce product labeling requirements. That is left to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The FDA won’t specifically regulate nut content based on these new findings, but expects brands to have “truthful and not misleading” labels that meet the compliance requirements for declaring nutrient values, Nathan Arnold, an FDA spokesperson, said.

“Manufacturers may use any appropriate method to calculate nutrient values that are declared on nutrition labels that ensure accuracy,” Arnold said. “We recognize that the nutrient content of a food varies based on several factors such as the season of the year, soil type, weather conditions, and the processing that a food undergoes.”

Ultimately, it’s up to individual brands to decide whether to change their labels, Baer said. Companies that primarily produce nut-based products may want to consider updating their labels sooner: for example, snack brand KIND Snacks has already released updated nut bar labels into retail, with further rollout in the next few months, according to a KIND spokesperson.

Stephanie Csaszar, KIND’s Health & Wellness expert, noted the brand was particularly excited by the cashew research after employees started following the almond studies in 2016. The brand refreshed its labels using the updated calorie counts for both almonds and cashews. Notably, the brand’s top-selling bar, Dark Chocolate Nuts & Sea Salt, now has a reduced calorie count of 180, down from 200, Csaszar explained, while its mini Dark Chocolate Nuts & Sea Salt bars went from 100 to 90 calories. Overall, the calorie contents have been reduced between 10 and 30 calories per bar — significant for the brand, which has previously spoken out about sugar content, she said.

“Calories are still very top of mind,” Csaszar said. “We want people to make more of an educated choice when we get information like this.”

Even with the more recent consumer uptake in functional foods, consumers are still checking calorie counts, said Darren Seifer, food and beverage analyst for research company the NPD Group: 45% of U.S. adults say they read nutrition facts labels for calorie information, second to sugars at 57%, according to NPD’s Health Aspirations and Behavioral Tracking Service. Additionally, he noted, 70% of U.S. adults say they’re reducing their sugar intake, and nuts are naturally low in sugar.

“If calorie counts are reduced on the label, it would only give further permission to indulge on what consumers already view as a healthier option,” Seifer said.

And along with the FDA’s recent label changes going into effect, Csaszar said it was the perfect time to share the new ingredient information.

“We felt really excited and energized by it,” she said.

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