The big mac

By Hayley Brown

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Nut

The big mac
With Europeans consuming macadamias in their millions, South African producers are raising their game to meet demand, reports Hayley Brown

No trip to South Africa (SA) is complete without going on safari, watching the Springboks and now, apparently, eating macadamia nuts - or at least that's what the farmers will tell you. So having seen buffalo and rhino and watched the Lions fight it out with the South African rugby team in a local farmers' pub in the middle of the bush, that was two-thirds of the trip complete. The rest was spent overdosing on macadamia nuts and foods containing them - such as ice cream, cookies, cereal and cereal bars, nougat, salad dressing and macadamia butter.

Despite the nut being indigenous to Australia, production has increased in SA more than five-fold in the last 10 years, from 840t of edible kernel in 1996 to around 4,500t in 2006. The market is also expected to double within the next five to seven years, according to processor Green Farms.

Manufacturers such as Eat Natural, Ben & Jerry's, Häagen-Dazs, Nestlé, Cadbury, Chiltern Natural Foods, and Sally Williams, a South African confectionery manufacturer supplying high-end retailers in the UK, have all recently leapt on the macadamia bandwagon, launching products containing them.

"But it is about time that food manufacturers started to think outside the box when it comes to new product development with macadamias," says Jill Whyte, owner of Green Farms. "They are traditionally used in sweet products, but can work just as well in savoury, for example, to make pesto. Another bonus is that macadamia nuts are a cheaper alternative to pine nuts, which are very expensive."

And despite a tarnished reputation, as nuts associated with a high fat content, nutritionist and medical writer Dr Sarah Brewer claims: "Macadamia nuts offer the highest levels of monounsaturated fats of any food including other nuts. And monounsaturated fat reduces the risk of atherosclerosis, high blood pressure, coronary heart disease and stroke and is particularly beneficial for people with type two diabetes. The nuts are also high in antioxidants, phytochemicals, vitamins, minerals and fibre."

They were first introduced to SA during the 1960s, but the industry only took off in the 1990s. Plantings started reaching record levels, which were surpassed each subsequent year - supported by the development of a modern processing industry.

SA exports account for more than 95% of its annual production and Europe is its largest market, followed by the US and Canada, Japan, Southeast Asia and the Middle East.

The UK is the fastest growing market for macadamia nuts in Europe. In 2008 import figures for macadamia nuts in the UK showed an annual increase of 45%, from 500t to 737t, and over the last five years sales have increased by over 250%, according to the industry body - Southern African Macadamia Growers' Association (SAMAC). This figure does not include those imported as part of fruit and nut mixes, or other food products.

Raising the standard

The reason why macadamias are largely exported is because only four to five percent of people in SA can afford to buy them. This amounts to about five million people, whereas in Madrid, for example, six to eight million people eat them in one city alone.

But to reach a global market, the nuts need to meet global standards. Close to 1,000 farmers involved with SAMAC, grow nuts that are supplied to 12 cracking factories in SA, which are Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points and/or ISO 9001 accredited.

Ambassador Foods' processing plant, which supplies a range of products to Woolworths (the South African equivalent of Marks & Spencer) and Comair Airways, is installing a piece of equipment that kills unwanted microorganisms by ultraviolet radiation. As consumers become increasingly concerned with food safety issues the factory has opted to install the machinery, as steaming or heating the nuts to make them sterile changes their texture. Woolworths financially penalises the firm for every consumer complaint received, as the nuts are easily traced back to the factory through bar codes. So measures taken to ensure the quality of the nuts are essential.

Ambassador Foods specialises in varieties of edible nuts and dried fruits, as well as related snack products, such as cereal bars. It also packs a range of granola mixes and low glycaemic index snack bars for Tiger Brands. For such products, it coats macadamia nuts with palm olein oil imported from Brazil. The oil is twice as expensive as vegetable oil, but it doubles the shelf-life of nuts from 12 to 24 weeks. Any waste palm olein oil is sent to be used in soaps or as biodiesel.

Raw nuts are usually kept in gas flushed nitrogen or carbon dioxide vacuum packs, which have a shelf-life of 12 to 18 months, at an ambient temperature of up to 38°C.

One of the biggest problems macadamia farmers face is pests, which can often devastate entire crops. But because it is a relatively small industry the cost of registering pesticides or insecticides is often too high to justify, says Marius Mostert, estate manager, Maclands estate.

He says that South African growers are experimenting with more natural methods of pest control such as aggregation pheromones to overcome the stink bug. Stink bugs suck plant juices and damage crop production, and are resistant to many pesticides. Despite experimenting with natural methods of pest control, in SA and Australia, some farmers use a controversial organochlorine insecticide called Endosulfan, which is thought to be hazardous to bees. It is already banned in more than 50 countries, including the EU, and has been linked with cancer in humans.

Two-headed fish

Only last month, the pesticide hit the headlines when Bayer CropScience announced that it would phase out the distribution of insecticidal active ingredient Endosulfan by the end of 2010.

This came after Endosulfan contamination from an Australian macadamia farm was suspected as a possible cause for a spate of two-headed fish at a fish farm in the Noosa River, according to Australia's Greens New South Wales MP, John Kaye.

The Australian Macadamia Society, however, hit back saying that the nut industry was not to blame for fish mutations and that there was no evidence that the macadamia farm or the sprays it used were involved in the incident.

The Vhembe co-operative

The industry body SAMAC, and its associated farmers, are working with smallholder farmers in SA, who have successfully reclaimed land. Named the Vhembe co-operative, the scheme offers financial and technical assistance to 350 farmers. At this early stage of the project the plan is to develop 128ha of trees, with 1,000ha still to come.

"We have very high hopes for the macadamia industry in SA," adds Whyte, "which is predicted to double in the next five years. Part of the reason for the predicted growth is that we are seeing more food manufacturers around the globe interested in adding the nut to products." FM

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