Califonia Bountiful

Power with a punch

May/June 2015 California Bountiful magazine

Seasonings liven up the healthful pistachio

More online: Whoooo's watching over the orchard?

Ultramarathon runner Nate Wren said he eats 2 to 3 ounces of pistachios—about 100 to 150 nuts—every day to improve his performance.

It's a nut of a different flavor, including barbecue, jalapeño, butter toffee, garlic onion and sea salt, to name a few—and maybe not what you'd expect from a California-grown pistachio.

But California farmers, who grow about 99 percent of the nation's pistachios, have been spicing things up with this little green nut for quite some time. Last year, farmers throughout the Golden State produced 514 million tons of flavored and unflavored pistachios, which are both tasty and nutritious.

Fitness and flavor

A belief in the power of pistachios in an active lifestyle is at least one thing ultramarathon runner Nate Wren and Olympic medalist Jessica Steffens have in common.

"Anytime I'm around pistachios, I'll just go for them," said Wren, who trains along the American River Parkway in his hometown of Sacramento and eats pistachios every day.

Ultramarathons are races of more than 26.2 miles, and Wren said eating pistachios improves his performance. He said he eats 2 to 3 ounces as part of his daily nutrition regimen—a total of about 100 to 150 nuts.

Steffens played water polo and earned a gold medal at the 2012 Summer Olympics—and that year, pistachios were the official snack of the U.S. Water Polo Team. Now retired from water polo and living in Palo Alto, she continues to lead an active lifestyle that includes swimming and running.

"Pistachios are good for anyone who is trying to pay attention to what they eat and have a healthy snack," said Steffens, a former ambassador for American Pistachio Growers.

She keeps seasoned pistachios around her office for snacking, she said, adding that aside from the health benefits, pistachios are a fun, conversational snack because people tend to gather to break open the shells to reach the kernel.

Considered an ideal post-exercise snack, "pistachios are tasty, portable, satisfy your hunger and supply your body with energy and important nutrients that it needs to refuel," said Richard Matoian, executive director of the American Pistachio Association, which partners with U.S. athletes and other personalities to serve as brand ambassadors for pistachios.

"Athletes are looking for foods that are good for them that will enhance their performance and help with post-exercise recovery, and pistachios do that," Matoian explained. "One serving has more potassium than a medium-sized banana, so that is another key component that our athletes who like pistachios focus on. Pistachios help replace the potassium that your body has lost exercising."

Pistachios, after being shaken from the trees, are sorted by harvesting crews and then hulled and dried before heading to the flavoring plant.

Healthy habit

Athlete or not, research suggests that moderate consumption of pistachios may help overall health by supporting an active lifestyle and reducing the risk of nutrition-related diseases, according to the association. It reports that pistachios contain nutrients that may contribute to weight and blood sugar management and heart health, including good-for-you fats and antioxidants such as vitamin E.

Flavoring pistachios adds sodium, but the nuts offer the same nutritional benefits as unseasoned pistachios and provide variety, Matoian said.

"We have seen the world of flavored pistachios increase and it is following a trend that we're seeing with other commodities," he said.

Examples of other flavored nuts include almonds, pecans and walnuts, which are also grown in California.

"Pistachio processors and food companies are coming out with different flavors and a different way to utilize their base ingredient," Matoian continued.

Fiddyment Farms CEO Thom Dille and General Manager Diane Wood display seasoned pistachios, which represent more than 25 percent of the farm's annual harvest.

A matter of taste

Fiddyment Farms, based in Placer County, has been growing pistachios since 1968 and began flavoring the nuts more than two decades ago. Founded by David and Dolly Fiddyment, the farm has expanded its line of gourmet, in-shell pistachios in the last 10 years, adding flavors that range from salty to sweet and also low-salt choices.

David Fiddyment pioneered a roasting and processing device that many pistachio farmers used in the years before mechanization.

"We still do it by hand and by flame," said Thom Dille, CEO of Fiddyment Farms, describing how they continue to use the original processing and flavoring techniques at their facility near Sacramento. "A real aficionado of flavored pistachios will put the whole thing, shell and nut, in their mouth to really taste the full flavor."

Fiddyment started by growing pistachios in Placer County, but now has orchards on 600 acres in Kern County. The company harvests 1 million to 2 million pounds of the nuts each fall, Dille said, and flavors less than 30 percent.

"When pistachios arrive at the plant, they've already been hulled and dried. They are transferred into a mixer, where they are roasted and seasoned, and then packaged in bulk or individual bags," Dille said. "We have about nine different flavors, with garlic onion, salt and pepper, and chili lime among the most popular flavor choices."

For the seasonings, Fiddyment works with a California company to formulate options based on what people want from a flavored pistachio. New flavors are often introduced at Sacramento-area farmers markets, where Fiddyment gives out samples and sells packaged products.

"We introduced salt and pepper and that came back very popular. The other one we created was called Fiddy Fire, which is a combination of jalapeño, chili lime and other seasonings, to make it a little bit hotter," Dille said. "It's not a scientific method in any way. It's just whether or not people seem to really like a certain one and say, 'I think I'll buy some of that.'"

Wren is certainly one customer sold on almost any flavor, and he credits pistachios for getting him through his long-distance runs. He mentions one particularly grueling race called the Double Burger Run, a 30-mile course on Whiskey Flat Trail in the southern Sierra Nevada.

"It was brutally cold, mountainous, one of the toughest runs in California," he said. "Pistachios got me through the day. Ironically, my favorite ice cream flavor is pistachio. I always have to have my pistachios."

Christine Souza and Joyce Mansfield

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