As chefs and foodservice operators seek to keep pace with evolving dining trends, many are counting on America's long-standing love affair with the peanut to help spark heightened interest in their new wave of menu offerings.
Commercial and noncommercial menu makers alike are finding that peanuts can play perfectly into such leading culinary trends as fresh and local fare, consumers' growing nutritional awareness, sustainability, snacking and the globalization of menus.
“Americans know and love peanuts, and they can be used to create new menu items that are exciting and new, yet also comforting and familiar,” says Amy Myrdal Miller, founder and president of Farmer's Daughter Consulting in Carmichael, Calif.
The use of peanuts — actually a legume —has been steadily increasing, with Americans eating more peanuts than ever before. According to Technomic Inc.'s MenuMonitor, peanut consumption has increased about 8 percent between 2009 and 2013.
Meanwhile, peanuts have outpaced almonds in terms of restaurant menu growth between 2008 and 2015, showing an increase of 206 percent over that time period,according to Technomic. In particular, the research firm cited strong growth for peanuts in 2014-2015.
Technomic also found that 38.8 percent of casual dining chains menued peanuts in the second quarter of 2015, followed by quick service concepts, 29.9 percent; fast casual, 20.0 percent; fine dining, 7.1 percent; and midscale, 6.1 percent — all for the same period. With regard to menu penetration, Technomic identified peanut butter as being leader by peanut type, followed by peanuts and peanut sauce.
Certainly, the peanut's reputation as being a “superfood” is helping to fuel consumer interest. According to the National Peanut Board, peanuts contain more energy-boosting protein than any other nut — 7 grams per ounce serving — and 30 essential vitamins and nutrients as well as unsaturated fats, which help to protect cardiovascular health.
In fact, scientific evidence suggests but does not prove that eating 1.5 ounces per day of most nuts, including peanuts, as part of a diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol may reduce the risk of heart disease.
Meanwhile, as students head back to school, one area of the industry that is seeing the continued growth of peanuts as a key menu component is colleges and universities. Led by the influential millennials and carried on by the next big demographic cohort, Generation Z — born between 1995 and 2015 — college students today possess a food savvy that colors their eating habits as well as their social behavior. For this group of diners, food is more than just a means of nourishment.
“Now they are eating with purpose,” says Ken Toong, executive director of Auxiliary Enterprises at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. “They share food, share stories, and share tables with friends.”
Besides having a penchant for new and authentic experiences, Gen Z also is expanding on the previous generation’s commitment to sustainability and social responsibility. Peanuts, experts point out, have a strong sustainability story since they have a small environmental footprint, and the lowest water usage compared to other nuts. “[Gen Z members] really want food that tastes good, is good for them, while also supporting the environment,” says Toong.
Moreover, foodservice operators are finding that Gen Z members have adventurous tastes and an appreciation of global cuisine that is even more pronounced than millennials'. “They love using chopsticks because it’s cool,” says Toong. Much like their predecessors, this demographic embraces diversity in their food and enjoys exploring bolder, spicier and more authentic flavors. “Korean food is hot. Bibimbap is hot. Mediterranean cuisine is one of the hottest items,” says Toong. In fact, the popularity of global fare is redefining eating behavior.
“These [are] kids who … grew up eating different cuisines every night of the week, and they demand a lot from foodservice operations,” says Myrdal Miller. “Given millennials and Gen Zs' interest in world cuisines and vegetarian plant-based diets, there are many reasons to believe peanuts are positioned to be popular among these groups if used in new, less traditional ways.” She notes that peanuts, in fact, are a traditional part of many plant-based diets from Southeast Asia to Latin America and Africa.
Those observations are not lost on foodservice executives at colleges and universities who must cater to their students' evolving tastes. At Montana State University in Bozeman, Mont., peanuts are prominently featured in a number of internationally flavored dishes, including massaman curry, says Mike Kosevich, general manager of the school's resident dining halls which feed upwards of 16,200 students.
At North Carolina State University in Raleigh, N.C., peanuts are included in such selections as Pad Thai Tofu, and Chinese Dragon Pork Loin with Peanut Sauce, notes Lisa Eberhart, director of nutrition and wellness for the 30,000-student university. The school also prepares baked items that call for peanuts
Located in the heart of North Carolina's peanut country, NCSU also takes the opportunity to celebrate the locally raised product when it hosts the annual Peanut Day — held this year on Sept. 12. “North Carolina is a big peanut-producing state,” Eberhart says. Working in partnership with the National Peanut Board and alumni who grow peanuts, the school offers tasting samples of peanut-based food selections, tee shirts and giveaways on that day.
While peanuts are appearing as prominent components in sophisticated, internationally flavored selections, dining programs at colleges and universities also continue to make the most of the American classic, peanut butter. In addition to operating two peanut butter and jelly bars that offer multiple peanut butter choices, NCSU also menus such peanut-centric items as smoothies with peanut butter and bananas, and grilled peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.
Peanut butter mills that can grind fresh peanut butter without preservatives also are being employed in increasing numbers by schools looking to tap into the snacking trend. Beverly Sulek, sales manager/specialty products for Hampton Farms, a Raleigh, N.C.-based supplier of peanuts and peanut mills, says, “Five years ago we might have sold 500 machines in a year; the number is more like 2,000 now. They're a big hit on campuses. Students love the freshness.”
As a measure of their popularity, UMass increased the number of peanut grinders from two machines to eight, while NCSU currently employs two peanut mills.
Montana State currently locates a grinder in the kitchen that also is used by the catering department for special events. However, Kosevich says the program has plans to feature a grinder more prominently in the school's new dining hall when it opens in 2018 to students.
Sulek says the mills enable students to grind 2-ounce cups full of peanut butter for their bagels or sandwiches, while also utilizing sundae-type cups that let them combine freshly ground peanut butter with apples, celery and carrots for snacks. Colleges also position mills in natural food stores on campus where students can grind peanut butter in 14 to 16 ounce cups.
Whatever form the peanut takes, however, it is clear that it will play an increasingly important role with menu makers looking to utilize fresh, nutritious ingredients. Whether incorporated into sophisticated globally flavored foods or ground up and munched on a stalk of celery or a bagel, peanuts are bound to help shape future culinary directions.