One of Kern's County's top crops just got more appealing — and potentially more marketable — with news that pistachios qualify as a "complete protein" with nutritional benefits superior to those of soybeans, quinoa and chickpeas.
There also are very preliminary indications that, if used in high concentrations, the nuts could play a role in fighting bacteria and even viruses, though the study making those assertions was based on lab work, not human clinical tests, and so further research is in order.
People in the pistachio business say it won't be long before the protein-related finding makes its way into advertising campaigns and packaging, potentially leading to more domestic and overseas sales. There's also speculation the new findings could lead local farmers to invest in greater pistachio acreage.
"It's like manna from heaven!" Judy Hirigoyen, vice president of global marketing at the Fresno-based trade group that funded the research, American Pistachio Growers, said about the nutritional findings.
It's not news that pistachios are nutritious and carry special health benefits: They have been shown to be heart-healthy and beneficial in helping control diabetes.
What's significant is that most plants are incomplete proteins, meaning they lack adequate amounts of one or more essential amino acids.
But according to new research presented in October at a Federation of European Nutrition Societies conference in Ireland, roasted pistachios contain adequate levels of all nine amino acids essential for human development.
The nut ranked just below pea protein concentrate but above quinoa, chickpeas, soybeans and almonds in a measure of protein digestibility.
The findings are expected to boost pistachios' standing among active, health-conscious consumers and mothers looking for a plant-based protein that's good for their children.
Dr. Mehmet Oz, host of a popular television show and surgeon at New York Presbyterian Hospital, said the research supports his belief that pistachios are a good dietary choice — better than pills because they taste good and are easily incorporated into daily eating habits.
Other research sponsored by American Pistachio Growers found pistachio extracts were able to stop the growth of difficult-to-cure infections Staphylococcus aureus, MRSA, Listeria and Herpes simplex virus.
Only the highest concentrations of the nut extracts were effective at stopping viruses. That nevertheless suggests pistachios could eventually become a candidate for development of topical or oral medicines.
The study's conclusions are a first step in exploring pistachios' potential beyond their known value as antioxidants and nutrition, said Mike Roussell, a nutrition adviser and researcher familiar with pistachios as a healthy food.
Maggie Moon, senior director of nutrition communications at Los Angeles-based The Wonderful Co., a leading grower of pistachios in the Central Valley, said the company is monitoring the nut's potential for addressing hard-to-treat viruses. But she said the protein-related study will be of immediate interest.
"There are so many well-established reasons to choose pistachios for heart-health snacking or just to fuel that afternoon pick-me-up," she said, adding that Wonderful's latest marketing campaign positions the nut as "the original plant-based protein."
It's hard to say how much help the new research will be in increasing pistachio sales but it may lead growers to plant additional pistachio orchards, said Tulare County nut grower Brian Watte, chairman of the APG trade group. He added that the organization will promote the findings in new advertising.
"It should lead to some additional acres as we get the message out what a whole food it is," he said.
The timing of the nutritional study's release is seen as particularly helpful because of new agreements expected to increase pistachio exports to India, a country where many people eat plant-based proteins as a way of avoiding meat.
California, the leading U.S. pistachio producer, has in recent years seen strong growth in acreage dedicated to the nut. Nearly three-quarters of California's pistachio production is exported.
No county in the state grows more pistachios than Kern, where in 2018 only table grapes and almond netted higher sales.
Ali Amin, founder of Primex Farms LLC, which has a pistachio processing facility in Wasco, said there had long been a misconception that the nut's oils were unhealthy. But now, he said, growing awareness of the crop's health benefits is likely to increase pistachio consumption and prices.
"The message is, pistachios are nature's vitamin pills," he said.