Rethinking Nuts: Why Seasoning Is Leading The Way

Thursday, December 21st, 2017

A hallmark of healthy snacks, nuts are seeing more innovation, driven by both manufacturers and consumers alike. By David Woollard, group product manager, seasoning solutions, tna

Nuts are thriving in the healthy snack food category. Their success and immense growth show no signs of stopping; with health, convenience and taste key drivers in purchasing behaviour. But nuts are nothing new, and today’s consumers are demanding more. They expect more flavour, choice and quality, in line with other popular snack products.

By innovating with different flavours and types of seasoning, manufacturers can maintain customer loyalty and broaden the appeal of nuts. Whatever the flavour, flexible seasoning equipment is key when it comes to achieving a consistent and cost-effective seasoning process.

Driving Trends Forward

Nuts remain one of the most versatile snacks in the market. They’re a great source of protein and fibre, packed with heart-healthy fats and natural oils. Plus, unlike other snack foods, they have strong inherent flavours, thanks to their natural oils. These characteristics also ensure nuts keep their healthy ‘halo’, catering to the rising demand for clean label products.

Health concerns, together with the impact of modern, fast-paced lifestyles, have led to the continued popularity of better-for-you snack products like nuts, with the global market for edible nuts projected to expand at a CAGR of 5.0 percent by 2025.

But the market is changing. Variety is becoming key to consumers’ purchasing decisions and ongoing product innovation. This is where seasoning comes into play. From sweet honey to spicy paprika or smoky barbecue, adding extra seasoning to nuts can deliver the diverse taste experiences consumers seek.

There are several trends that are poised to further diversify the market and gain new followers. Holiday flavours look set to take off next year, following a steady increase in market value of 13.2 percent in 2016. Consumers can also expect tropical sensory profiles with Latin American influences, such as olive, key lime, mango, paprika, dark rum and sour orange.

Asian flavours will also hold court in the retail aisles, with new snack product development predicted to include exciting tastes like cardamom, tikka masala and matcha. 

System Innovation

To meet the growing demand for a wide variety of flavours, manufacturers require seasoning equipment that can complete multiple seasoning tasks over a short period of time. This includes being able to switch between flavours quickly and easily, adjust outputs according to demand and regulate oil and seasoning levels accurately. Building flexibility into the manufacturing process is therefore a critical consideration.

There are two types of seasoning equipment available to snack manufacturers: main line (MLS) and on-machine seasoning (OMS) systems. Which technology is more suited often comes down to product mix, cost, flexibility and efficiency. MLS is a great solution for long, single product runs, while OMS offers a higher level of flexibility.

OMS systems can be set up in multiple line configurations where each seasoning system applies a different flavour into individual bagging stations, but they are also ideal for shorter production runs that require regular changes on a single line. This makes them particularly useful for multipack productions or to fulfil direct sales needs—helping to deliver greater production efficiencies. 

The Art Of Seasoning

Perfecting the art of seasoning can transform nut products and help manufacturers gain a competitive edge. Developing a successful product relies on the primary dimensions of seasoning: appearance, smell, taste and time. The finished creation needs to look appealing, smell enticing, taste exciting and most importantly, the flavour needs to stay in the mouth for the right amount of time—for a complete sensory experience.

Oil, wet flavours, dry seasoning and slurries all play their part in setting the seasoning dimensions.


Dry Seasoning

Dry seasoning is the traditional method of applying flavour to snack products, including nuts. Dry powder seasoning comes in many different forms—each of which brings its own processing challenges. Whether salt, cheese powder, crushed natural ingredients or sophisticated encapsulated flavours, all dry seasoning behaves differently when exposed to air, mechanically handled, metred and applied to a product. Achieving even distribution of the seasoning, without clumping, is therefore a key consideration for manufacturers.

Seasoning systems that incorporate loss-in-weight powder feeder technology not only ensure application accuracy, but also positively affect profitability. Seasoning is one of the more expensive ingredients in the snack line, so every little bit counts. Reducing the amount of giveaway through over-seasoning by only one percent is able to lower the cost per bag by up to 10 percent.

To add variety to their product portfolio at minimum cost, manufacturers should also look for seasoning equipment that delivers a high degree of flexibility. Independent scarf feeders and separate lightweight tumble drums enable manufacturers to run alternative product varieties alongside traditional lines, for example, for low salt options.


Wet Seasoning

The adhesion of seasoning onto the surface of a nut is closely tied to the stickiness of the product itself. Although their natural oils help with both adhesion and flavour, a lot of nuts still require an extra coating before any dry seasoning is applied. This can be done by introducing an oil or fat prior to the application of dry seasoning.

Manufacturers can also add liquid flavours to their products for an extra flavour boost. Lemon or chilli oils, for example, create top notes that allow the flavours to develop on the palate over time. With new flavour combinations emerging, the liquid flavour range is likely to expand further over the next few years.

Wet flavours have often proven challenging to apply precisely and consistently. While they can be introduced into bulk mixing systems for ease of application, it can add time to cleaning and changeover processes. New technology that injects flavour into the oil flow prior to spraying is creating an opportunity for manufacturers to apply diverse flavours in liquid form.

Being able to accurately control the amount of oil, fat or seasoning is also important to avoid waste and adhere to labelling requirements. A top performing spray system will be able to control spray temperature, as well as accuracy of application. Mass flow control is generally the best way to achieve this.

In addition, equipment that can handle higher concentrations of seasoning powder require less fat and oil to be sprayed onto the products for the seasoning to stick, opening up further opportunities for low-fat products and minimal fat declarations.


Slurry Seasoning

Slurry seasoning is a great way to add an extra dimension of texture and taste to nut products by incorporating a suspension of powder in a liquid. This can be a powder in oil, starch in water, or similar mix combinations.

Starch slurries are used as ‘glues’ to create stickiness for better seasoning adhesion. Sugar or Arabic gum solutions, for example, are often used as alternatives to oil-based slurries, enabling the development of ‘healthier’ nut products with ‘no added fat’ positioning. Together, slurry seasoning and dry roasting work well for manufacturers looking to keep nuts free from added fats and oils.

The slurry, comprising of water, Arabic gum or maltodextrin, is added to the nuts before the roaster. Then a dry seasoning is applied before the nuts are roasted. This process removes any liquid—an important step for prolonging shelf life—and ensures the seasoning adheres to the nuts.

A key factor when applying a slurry seasoning is ensuring a consistent suspension of the powder within the liquid. The unique composition of slurry seasoning means it is essential that the wet and dry flavours are blended homogenously. This is especially important with salt application as the granules can drop to the bottom of mixing tanks, resulting in inconsistently flavoured products.

Manufacturers should therefore look for smaller mixing vessels as these are able to maintain a homogenous mix and are ideal frequent flavour changes. Easy-to-clean solutions that incorporate automated cleaning technology are also essential to reduce downtime between different production runs. 

The Future Of Nut Seasoning

Seasoning is fast becoming a key differentiator in the nuts segment. New flavours, seasoning types and combinations are needed now more than ever to quickly meet growing consumer demand. Manufacturers would best benefit from this with seasoning equipment options that offer flexibility, simplicity, accuracy, and efficiency to help them meet the latest trends while maintaining operational efficiency.