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Fresh Produce Journal, 20 September 2019

The continuing trend for healthy snacking is pushing up nut sales in the UK, while in raisins South Africa is looking to boost exports as global demand rises.

Fred Searle reports

Then stars seem to have aligned for the nut sector in recent years - whereas nuts may have once been over–looked as an appealing snack, now they have become a staple for many consumers looking for nourishment on the go. According to Kantar data, while the majority of sales still come from sharing packs of over 100g, which made up 94 per cent of total value sales in the year to 8 September 2019, the biggest growth was seen in snack packs of under 100g. Value sales of these rose twice as fast, up 11 percent in the same period.

The overall trend for healthy snacking is what's driving this, but there are a number of contributing factors that have combined to push up consumption. Fitting well with the growing trend for plant-based eating and meat reduction, nuts offer consumers an important source of protein, both in home cooking and as a snack to be eaten on the go.

The market for protein-based snacks is now worth £31.6 million, according to dried fruit and nut supplier RM Curtis, and a growing number of adults have started skipping meals and are instead snacking throughout the day. Busy life–styles are driving demand for some–times day-long' grazing' and consumers are looking for healthy, low-sugar portable snacks to keep them fuelled. As consumption increases - not in the UK, but also in other global markets - international production continues to grow. In the 2018-19 season, world tree nut production reached around 4.5m metric tonnes, which represents an overall increase of 47 per cent from 10 years ago, according to the International Nut and Dried Fruit Council (INC). Crop size has increased in all types of tree nut, with the biggest 10-year rises seen in macadamias (up 57 per cent}, pistachios (up 43 per cent}, walnuts (up 37 per cent} and cashews (up 32 per cent}.

Meanwhile, hazelnut, Brazil nut and pine nut pro–duction has remained fairly stable over that period, but it should be noted that in 2018-19 Brazilian nut production returned to average levels, after an "exceptionally short prior crop" in 2017.

This was caused by drought in the Amazon rainforest, where the nut exclusively grows, brought about by the cyclical El Nino weather pattern affecting the entire Pacific region. That season, prices increased by over 150 per cent, according to RM Curtis, which says the market is now "much more sensitive to potential crop shortages”.

In almonds, meanwhile, the company reports that the official pre-harvest estimate came in lower than expect–ed and also shorter than the current crop. This resulted in higher prices, despite importers' prior optimism, and sub–sequent shipment reports have showed that demand was immediately reduced by the higher prices, causing prices to then "correct" themselves.

WALNUTS SHOW POTENTIAL

It's a similar situation in walnuts, with RM Curtis reporting that the new crop in California - due to be harvested in October and November - was initially expected to be very similar in size to last year. The latest estimate suggests the crop could in fact be five per cent smaller, however. "This may not be the case once the harvest is underway, but this report has resulted in firmer prices of late when the trend had been stable beforehand," the supplier's purchasing team reports.

"The growing season started with some heavy rains, which delayed bloom, and we have had a fairly mild summer," said Pamela Graviet, senior marketing director at the California Walnut Board and Commission. "This season we're anticipating a slightly smaller crop than last year. But over the past 10 years our crop size has doubled to meet the growing demand."

The US is among a number of countries to have invest–ed in new walnut orchard development in the past decade, along with China, Chile and some eastern European countries. Even with more walnuts being produced globally, with total production rising by almost 40 per cent, as mentioned, Graviet believes there is still "tremendous room for growth". She points out that in the UK per-capita consumption is estimated at just 410g a year, equating to only 13 servings of 30g {approximately a handful). The Commission reports that across mainland Europe, Californian walnuts have made headway beyond baking and snacking with the development of nut butters and the product being integrated in cheeses, yoghurts, chocolates and confectionery.

Looking ahead, the trade body believes the product's versatility makes it "perfectly positioned" to fit consumer demand for more plant-based products such as a ground meat replacement. "Our ultimate aim is to highlight the many ways you can enjoy California Walnuts, not only as traditional snacks and in baking, but in exciting new dishes and products," says Peter Meadows from the Commission's marketing and PR agency The Garden.

In addition, Graviet sees walnuts as a "perfect fit" for the growing snacking trend, eyeing opportunities to move into flavoured walnuts. Such products, already well established in Japan and Korea, are now starting to hit shelves in the US.

SOUTH AFRICA RAISIN THE BAR

While nut sales grew by five per cent in the year to 8 September, the dried fruit market had a worse time of it, shrinking by 0.3 per cent to £261.2m -this despite a 1.2 per cent rise in sales volumes. As UK consumption inches up, total global production continues to grow, and raisins remain the world's predominant dried fruit by production volume.

Turkey and the US were the world's top producing countries in the 2018-19 season, according to the INC, accounting for 21 per cent and 19 per cent of global production respectively. They were followed by Iran and China, both on 13 per cent.

Another country with big ambitions in the product is South Africa, which produces six per cent of the world's raisins. According to chief executive of South African Dried Fruit, Ferdie Botha, the country's raisin sector has seen growth in recent years, and in the 2019-20 marketing year exports are forecast to increase by eight per cent to 64,600 metric tonnes, based on an increase in production and higher global demand.

Total production is expected to rise by three per cent to 77,000 metric tonnes, and Botha says this is down to "an increase in area planted, new orchards coming into full production, wine grapes being diverted for raisin production, normal weather conditions, and the continued availability of irrigation water from the rivers". Europe remains South Africa's largest market for raisins, accounting for 57 per cent of the export market share, with the UK making up six per cent of its total exports in 2018.

South African raisins are produced in the Orange and Olifants river regions, in the Northern and Western Cape respectively. Projects have been undertaken as part of Raisins South Africa's strategic plan, Project 1000, which planted 1,000 hectares of new vineyards in these regions, of which 2ooha was successfully converted from virgin soil.

South Africa does not have the same clout as the likes of Turkey, California or China in raisin grape production, with Botha saying the latter "has the potential to be the next big supplier to the UK". However, he stresses that the dry, sunny climate in South Africa's raisin-growing regions - there are 10.5 hours of sunlight a day between January and March on average - along with the "ample" supply of water from the rivers, create "ideal growing conditions to produce the highest-quality raisins".