Reporter Journal / William Hennelly

China's taste for US pistachios pumps up California's exports

(China Daily USA) Updated: 2017-08-03 10:59

When Judy Hirigoyen travels to China on business, she is "delighted and shocked" to see bowls of California pistachios on the tables of tea houses in Chengdu.

Hirigoyen, the vice-president of global marketing for the American Pistachio Growers (APG), a trade association in Fresno, California, proudly represents the booming US pistachio industry.

Just a year ago, the industry was hampered by a lack of favorable "chill hours" in California (temperatures below 40 degrees), along with a West Coast port strike.

With better weather conditions and a settled strike, the US pistachio industry is booming.

As acreage grew across the West - almost 250,000 acres in California alone - pistachio nut production in 2016 rose to a record 903 million pounds, a year removed from crop failure and almost double the yields from 2010 through 2014.

And China is gobbling up a good chunk of those green nuts, consuming about half of total US pistachio exports so far this year. Year-to-date exports are near a record at more than 350 million pounds, said Richard Matoian, executive director of APG.

The pistachio nut, a member of the cashew family, is grown on a small tree originating in Central Asia and the Middle East. The word pistachio comes from medieval Italian.

Pistachio trees typically alternate each year in their output levels.

"Every other year, the plant pushes out its fruit. After it pushes out so much fruit, it has to take a whole year to get its energy back," Hirigoyen told China Daily. "This is an alternating crop."

So while this would technically be a slower year, "we could have over 600 million pounds (this growing season). It would still be bigger than many of our past years," she said. "There are so many acres that have been planted."

As a drought-tolerant crop, pistachios can survive on little water, which was the situation during California's drought in 2015.

The Golden State is the pistachio kingpin, accounting for 99 percent of US production. Pistachios also are grown in Arizona and New Mexico.

A key selling point for US pistachios, aside from California's "health halo", as Hirigoyen joked, is their safe harvesting method.

"They want safe food," in China, she said.

"In the United States, when pistachios are harvested, they're harvested by shaking the tree," she explained. "This machine attaches to the trunk of the tree and shakes it, and it shakes the nuts into this big catcher, and then they go from that catcher directly into the truck to the roasting facility, so they never touch the ground. The ground is where you see most any contamination in nature."

There are health benefits, too. Pistachios have a low glycemic index, are high in fiber, healthy fats, antioxidants and anti-inflammatory phytonutrients.

Interim results of a spring study (co-funded by APG and the US Department of Agriculture) in China among pregnant women with gestational diabetes showed that eating pistachios resulted in a significantly lower rise in blood sugar levels than when they ate whole wheat bread.

Data from the study were presented at the 10th Oriental Congress of Endocrinology and Diabetes in April in Shanghai and at the Chinese Nutrition Annual Conference in May in Beijing.

"Our study is the first to show that eating pistachios may help women with gestational diabetes control blood sugar levels after eating," said Dr Ge Sheng, lead investigator and director, Department of Clinical Nutrition, Sixth People's Hospital, Jiao Tong University.

Twenty-five pregnant women with gestational diabetes ate a breakfast of either 42 grams of pistachios (one third of a cup) or 100 grams of whole wheat bread (three slices) after an overnight fast.

Blood sugar levels were significantly lower after they consumed pistachios than the bread.

"Elevated blood sugar during pregnancy not only impacts the mother's health, but it may also increase the baby's risk of developing diabetes," said Dr Zhaoping Li, study investigator and professor of medicine, chief of the Division of Clinical Nutrition at UCLA.

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