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Americas: Tree nuts as healthier snacks, study

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A new study finds replacing typical snack foods with almonds and other tree nuts would decrease empty calories, solid fats, saturated fat and sodium in the diet, while increasing intake of key nutrients.

The study, funded by the Almond Board of California and conducted by researchers at the University of Washington, was published in Nutrition Journal.

Using data of more than 17,000 children and adults from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES; 2009-2012), the researchers applied food pattern modeling to assess the hypothetical impact of replacing all snack foods, excluding beverages, with tree nuts (model 1) and replacing all but ‘healthy’ snack foods (whole grains, whole fruits and non-starchy vegetables) with tree nuts (model 2).

Almonds are the most frequently consumed nut and in this study, 44% of all tree nuts eaten were almonds.

Therefore, assessments using the NHANES data were repeated using almonds only.

All reported snacks were replaced calorie-for-calorie with almonds or other tree nuts, reflecting typical American consumption patterns.

The Healthy Eating Index 2010, which measured adherence to the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, was used to assess diet quality.

Cookies and brownies, ice cream and frozen dairy desserts, cakes and pies, and candy containing chocolate were the predominant sources of snack calories under both models.

Potato chips, pastries, popcorn, cheese, bread, apples, pretzels, bananas, cereal and cereal bars, yogurt and cold cuts each contributed more than 1% of snack calories.

Nutritious snacks

In both models examined, where tree nuts hypothetically replaced all snack foods and where tree nuts hypothetically replaced only less-healthy snack foods, consumption of empty calories, solid fats, saturated fat, sodium, carbohydrates and added sugars all declined, while consumption of oils and good fats increased significantly.

Fiber and magnesium also increased, while protein increased by a small margin.

These findings were true for both almonds and for all tree nuts.

By age group, decreases in empty calories, solid fats and added sugars were observed for all ages, though the nut substitution appeared most impactful for children ages 4-8 years and 9-13 year olds, since these groups were most likely to choose candy/confectionary as snacks.

Whether all snacks or all snacks except for already healthy snacks were replaced with almonds and tree nuts, Healthy Eating Index (HEI) scores increased, particularly important among children and adolescents who had lower HEI baseline values to start due to their lower quality snack choices.

This study demonstrates the potential benefits of replacing typically consumed American snacks with almonds and other tree nuts, and echoes findings from a similar NHANES analysis on almond eaters.

This study, published in Food and Nutrition Sciences and also funded by the Almond Board, examined the characteristics of almond eaters and found that people who reported eating almonds had higher intake of key nutrients (such as dietary fiber, calcium, potassium and iron, as well as higher intakes of several other ‘shortfall nutrients’ including vitamins A, D, E, and C; folate; and magnesium), better overall diet quality (measured by Healthy Eating Index scores), and lower body mass index and waist circumference compared to non-consumers.

Almond consumers (defined as those eating about 1 ounce (28g) per day) tended to be more physically active and less likely to smoke than their non-almond eating counterparts, suggesting that including almonds as a regular part of the diet is associated with a portfolio of healthy lifestyle attributes.