New kid on the health food block

In recent years, a spotlight has been shining on the benefits of plant-based foods, specifically on the benefits of healthy fats found in fruits such as avocados and in nuts.

Macadamia health food

Milk alternatives in the form of soya, oat and almond beverages are now commonplace. We have also seen oils other than sunflower and olive, such as coconut and hazelnut, become widely available in supermarkets. But amidst this rise in popularity, there is one edible nut, the macadamia, which is the least broadly represented, and its rarity is often reflected in the price. Nonetheless, the delicate creamy flavor and health benefits of this nut are attracting an increasing number of customers and uses, in both food and cosmetic industries.

The botanical name for macadamia is Macadamia Integrifolia, from Proteacea family of evergreen plants. It was named by the Director of Australia’s Royal Botanical Gardens, Baron Ferdinand von Mueller, in honour of his friend and colleague, chemist Dr. John MacAdam. Rather unfortunately, Macadam died onboard ship while en route to taste the nut that was named after him. 

Macadamia is also known the Australian or Queensland Nut as it originates in Australia, though it is grown in other balmy areas like South Africa and Central America, where the trees thrive if there is sufficient water. Of the seven species of Macadamia nut grown all over the world, only two are edible and cultivated: Macadamia integrifolia, which produces smooth-shelled nuts and Macadmia tetraphylla, which produces rough-shelled nuts.

The journey from tree to finished product goes some way to explaining the rarity and value of the macadamia nut. Starting as a long raceme of 100-300 pink and white flowers, only 0.3% of the initial flowering, once pollinated, will become a nut. That nut is encased in a leathery, green husk of roughly 4cm diameter that splits open as the nut matures. Within the husk is the hard, brown shell that contains an edible kernel of approximately 1-2cm diameter.

Once the nuts are ripe they drop from the tree.

They are harvested by hand shortly after to prevent spoilage and ensure dehusking takes place as soon as possible, generally within 24 hours of harvesting. The nuts are dried with war, air for several weeks, at which point the kernel shrinks slightly and comes away from the shell, making the cracking process more efficient. Specialised cracking machinery is used to free this creamy kernel from its rigid shell. Mechanical sorters cannot yet guarantee the same quality standard as hand sorting, so sorting is done by hand on specially designed sorting tables.

The kernels are graded, and vacuum packed with inert gas to prevent premature oxidation and contamination. Availability and therefore the price, of macadamia on the international market fluctuates significantly, based on climatic conditions in growing areas, specifically those relating to water availability and seasonal temperatures.

The Camellia Group, through Linton Park plc is the second largest single private producer of macadamia in the world. The three origins of macadamia cultivation and production are Eastern Produce Kenya, Malawi and South Africa, which are represented by the Maclands brand.

Camellia opened its first macadamia processing facility in Malawi, over 15 years ago. South Africa’s macadamias are processed through the cooperative Zemtac factory, in which Linton Park has the controlling interest. A new, state of the art, macadamia cracking facility was opened this year on Kakuzi’s Macadamia Estate, Kenya. In total, approximately 2500 hectares of orchards have now been planted, which produce over 1100 tonnes of kernel per year. This is set to rise to nearly 4000 hectares over the next decade, with an estimated production of 2550 tonnes of kernel.

Like many agricultural crops in the Camellia portfolio, macadamia production requires a long-term perspective. The macadamia tree takes seven years to mature and produce as commercial crop. The trees have drought resistant leaves and are suited to harsh, warm climates, which should guard against long term climate change risks. The extensive, shallow rooting system of macadamia trees helps guard against soil erosion, while the sizeable canopy, averaging 15m in height and width, provides protection to wildlife. Linton Park companies implement Integrated Pest Management in their orchards. This modern approach of ‘Reasoned Agriculture’ works by regulating pests via the promotion of beneficial predators, encouraging biodiversity and resulting in reduction of pesticide use.

The delicate flavours of Macadamia milks compliment finer grade coffee and tea.

Aligned with the concepts of the Blue Economy, the by-products of the nut are reused in a sustainable fashion. The husk is composted and used as mulch to aerate and add nutrients such as nitrogen back into the soil. The shells are used as fuel in the factory and by the local community, reducing the need for timber. The shells are also used as an effective topping on the estates’ roads. 

Thanks to its delicious, mild, creamy flavour and a myriad of health benefits, macadamia is an increasingly popular addition to the world-wide trend in plant-based food. The kernel is made up of at least 72% oil, including omega-9 monounsaturated fatty acid and amino acid l-arginine, which have been linked to the prevention of heart disease. Only 3 of every 21 grams of fat found in macadamia nuts are saturated fat and they are low in carbohydrates and protein.

As well as providing a healthy dose of beneficial fats, macadamias contain a host of antioxidants: just one serving (20g) provides 58% pf the recommended daily value of manganese and 23% of thiamin, a water-soluble B vitamin.

Macadamias is broadly distributed throughout America, Europe and increasingly Asia. Depending on the grade of the kernel, it is sold as a snack, an addition to confectionary products such as cookies and ice-cream, as nut-milk and as macadamia oil (mac-oil).

Macadamia milks are a relatively recent and rare milk alternative. Though pricey, the delicacy of their flavour matches perfectly with finer grade coffees and teas. Mac-oil is commercially available, but remains a niche product, perhaps due to the delicacy of its flavour and relatively high cost. A mild nuttiness can get lost if the oil is heated beyond a certain temperature, so macadamia oil is best used for dressings and drizzling rather than for cooking.

Anna Hansen of the London based restaurant, the Modern Pantry, suggests using it to add a gentle nuttiness to vegetable dishes, such as the base of vegetable risotto. Macadamia oil is increasingly used in cosmetics, for both skin and hair products. Omega-7 in macadamia plays an important role in replenishing palmitoleic acid in the body, said to keep skin and hair hydrated.

As awareness of the benefits of plant-based foods increases, supply of products such as macadamia will become increasingly diversified. There is a draw from the market for healthy, sustainably sourced foods and drinks and this trend will only grow to satisfy the environmentally and health conscious millennials.

Over the years, Camellia operations have steadily increased cultivation and production of macadamias. With Maclands as the representing brand, the focus is to build a strong and sustainable business with a reputation for quality. Within the Camellia Group and beyond, the beautiful and delicious macadamia has a healthy future.

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