How are Hazelnuts Beneficial to the Market and your Health

Story by Pat Kerr.

Unlike apples, most consumers are unaware of the differences in hazelnut cultivars. Even the aforementioned corporation is not specifying which cultivar is the best for their chocolates and spreads. However, all hazelnuts are not created equal, and the harvest and processing differs. "We are not peasant farmers drying our nuts on sheets, in the open air. We are professional growers, conscious of food handling said Linda Grimo, of Grimo Nut Nursery in S. Ontario

Ontario studies are underway to determine the best soil types and planting patterns for hazelnut. Grimo provided some background on this tasty treat. Canada has two types of native hazelnuts: the beaked or C. cornuta, and American or C. Americana. Because these two are difficult to husk and small, plant breeders crossed them with exotic hazelnuts. The resulting cultivars yield larger nuts that are easier to shell.

However, a condition called Anisogramma anomala is here. This fungus is carried by our native hazelnuts, but it kills the exotic cultivars. This disease, called EFB or eastern filbert blight, is transported by a mite, is latent in the plant for twelve to sixteen months, and then appears as split bark. EFB is not new, and growers are searching and backcrossing with our native hazelnuts to improve the disease and hardiness of these plants. It is working. Incidentally, Hazelnuts are also native to Siberia: hardy stock is a natural occurrence, but crossing them with plants from Turkey causes tender catkins, so they can't fruit reliably where there are late frosts.

There is a catch. This fungus, like the human flu virus, adapts regionally. It is essential that hazelnuts are planted in the region where they are purchased. Regional cultivars are only resistant to the strain of the fungus in that area. Never mail-order a hazelnut from a different region or attempt to bypass a quarantine area. This growing industry is depending on public support. Grimo said, "Movement of Ontario plants to BC can kill people's livelihoods."

Professional Ontario hazelnut growers are attempting to model their new industry based on Oregon's, where production and demand are increasing. The goal is to establish farm-managed processing facilities. Grimo encourages farms to plant three to five acres, the first year. The processors will do the bulk sorting and marketing, while individual farms can do their own roasting and gate sales. "I had to buy hazelnuts this year," said Grimo. "I ran out. I am roasting more today." She adds, "Every new farmer should have an irrigation plan. After-establishment hazelnuts are drought-hardy, but nut quality is higher if they get enough moisture in late August, so they fill out."

Hazelnuts contain significant amounts of iron, fiber, protein, potassium, Vitamin B6, and magnesium. The American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) reported, "something as simple as eating tree nuts may make a difference in the long-term survival of patients with colon cancer." Nutritionists at Friedrich Schiller University Jena, Germany found nuts can inhibit the growth of cancer cells. The European Society of Human Reproduction and Embryology reported, "The inclusion of nuts in a regular diet significantly improves the quality and function of human sperm." Oregon State University found that eating two ounces or about one-third cup of hazelnuts daily for sixteen weeks showed increased blood concentrations of magnesium and elevated urinary levels of a breakdown product of alpha tocopherol. They said, "Older adults are at particular risk -- lower concentrations of the micronutrients are associated with increased risk of age-related health problems including Alzheimer's disease." Hazelnut oil can boost nutrition for babies, who are bottle-fed.

The American Allergy Association has done studies suggesting that some people who think they are allergic to nuts actually aren't. If you have not had a reaction to hazelnuts specifically, see an allergist to determine which nuts are causing your reaction. Native nuts come from different plant families, and most are not related. Walnut is not actually a nut; it is a fruit. Peanuts are a legume in the bean family.

For those planting the native hazelnuts, Marc-Olivier Harvey of Nutcracker Nursery in Quebec recommends a specially built vacuum harvester to clean the nuts. He says that hazelnut needs a light soil, sandy loam, or sandy clay with good drainage, moderate to full sun exposure and moderate water during summer.

A Natural Resources Canada researcher suggests three cultivars for good pollination, not the two commonly recommended with fruit production, and this can be a large challenge, to find regional variations with resistance to the blight.

As for me, I am planting the native hazelnuts on our farm, because they are part of a healthy ecosystem. The shrubby hardwood transition plants that grow between forest and field provide a rich, diverse environment for wildlife on soils unfit for agriculture or forest. There isn't a lot of research on transition zones. These rich biological areas don't generate the income of forest and field, but they are essential - we just don't know how valuable or why.