Nuts and dried fruits in India offer a unique opportunity to meet the needs of a consumer who is looking to adopt a new wellness lifestyle without having to forego traditional values -a consumer who is increasingly concerned with health but is not willing to compromise on taste.
Heritage of nuts and dried fruits in India
A demure woman, married just hours ago, carries a glass of creamy milk enriched with almonds to the chamber of her beloved husband. This is a scene from a traditional Indian household, often seen in regional Hindi movies. The almond in the milk serves to give energy and vitality after a tiring day packed with rituals, while the milk acts as an aphrodisiac.
With an eclectic mix of uses, dried fruits and nuts in India date as far back as the prehistoric times of Hindu wisdom captured in the Charaka Samhita, an ancient Indian Sanskrit text on Ayurveda (Indian traditional medicine). In Ayurveda, the following description appears: “Shuska Phal Va Tilahan (Dried Fruits and Oil Seeds): Almond, cashew nut, chestnut, coconut, groundnut, peanut, pistachio, etc. are very rich in proteins. The oils inside these provide natural lubricants and fats necessary for the body's mechanical and other functions.” Subsequently, nuts and dried fruits were made more popular by the Mughals of medieval India to demonstrate their rich heritage. Hence, nuts and dried fruits in India have traditionally stood for prestige, richness and exclusivity - the privilege of a select few. But now we see these traditional ideas infusing with modernity to create an exciting space for this popular symbol of Indian heritage.
The nut and dried fruit industry in India is currently pegged at INR 15,000 crores (~ USD 2 billion) and is estimated to grow to INR 30,000 crores (~ USD 4 billion) by 2020, according to the Chairman of Royal Dried Fruits Range, a city-based dried fruits retailer. (Source: Business Standard, October 2016).
While the consumption of nuts and dried fruits may be much more widespread today, the medieval values of heritage and exclusivity continue to rest with this premium category. Other than spices, they are the only other category that reflects the quintessential exoticism of ancient India. Even until a few decades ago, the use of nuts and dried fruits was restricted to special occasions, where their primary use would be as a food “enricher” – adding richness to the taste as well as nutritional value. Dried fruits and nuts have been a part of celebratory food items such as spicy Indian gravies “enriched” with cashew paste or pulav (Indian rice) containing roasted almonds, cashews and raisins or kheer, and payasam (different kinds of Indian dessert) garnished with various dried fruits and nuts.
While the custom of using dried fruits and nuts as a “food enricher” continues, the same category has also made inroads into other meal occasions, as a natural consequence to some of the larger movements taking place in the country.
The newly-charted health discourse in India
These movements can be better appreciated against the backdrop of the rapidly changing socio-economic-cultural landscape of India, with enhanced opportunities, optimism and ambition. We see new discourses emerging in the consumer lifestyle and parlance, one of which is the increase in health consciousness. In this conversation, both energy and endurance are becoming key, not just to stay active in the short-term but to also build strength for endurance to stay ahead in the long run. Lifestyle changes, limited control over diet, the degraded quality of basic foods due to the rampant use of pesticides and chemicals and increasing pollution have triggered concern.
To offset the cumulative ill-effects of some of the aforementioned changes affecting the country’s health, some meta trends are being seen to surface, such as the moderation of unhealthy foods and bad lifestyle habits, compensation for bingeing by slowing down for a day or two, and the substitution of less healthy meal options with healthier ones. All this, without compromising on taste.
The occasions that are now becoming more about health and energy are breakfast and evening snacks. The health dialogue has influenced the strong pre-existing culture of snacking in India to introduce ‘healthy snacking’.
To this effect, consumers are now cleverly adding nuts and dried fruits as a new inclusion in their eating regime. The availability of the snack in multiple formats such as salty snacks and dried fruit mixtures (where the nuts and fruits are sometimes broken and mixed) aid variety and make it more palatable for snacking occasions. Cereals such as corn flakes, oats and muesli, themselves making a relatively new breakfast format, have now introduced new flavours such as honey coated almonds, dried fruits and other nuts.
Wellness experts such as yoga teachers, gym instructors, dieticians, doctors and beauty consultants act as the catalysts to stimulate this health discourse by finding new ways of introducing this category in consumers’ daily lives.
Consumer perception on the benefits of nuts and dried fruits
While nuts and dried fruits carry an overall healthy image, knowledge of the distinct benefits of individual nuts and dried fruits is sketchy, with almonds being the only exception. Awareness around the distinct benefits of almonds as being good for memory power, energy and skin glow, seem to be prevalent almost universally. There are entrenched beliefs associated with consumption practices as well. Many consumers soak almonds before consuming them as they believe that this makes them more easily digestible and so the nutrients in the nuts lend themselves more readily to absorption by the body. There is also a popular perception that unsoaked almonds produce heat in the body, which is not good in summer.
Interestingly, consumers also seem to have distinct perceptions of the benefits of other nuts and dried fruits, however, these tend to be more inconsistent. The Indian consumer today is far more information-seeking and tends to form opinions on their own in the absence of a reliable source.
In addition to the functional benefits, nuts and dried fruits also carry rich emotional associations, making them one of the most popular choices for gifting in India. India is a land of many festivals and each festival is usually involves gifts to friends and relatives as a mark of auspice. To celebrate the traditional heritage, these festivals act as a pretext to mark cultural rootedness. Indian sweets (mithai), nuts and dried fruits are by far the most popular choice for gifting during festivals and weddings.
This category is mostly sold loose in India and the branded products are mostly imported. More recently, with the advent of malls and retailer brands, there are fragmented players in the market selling dried fruits and nuts in the packaged format. Interestingly, this is the only category that is seen in both separate dried fruits and nuts counters where they are sold in bulk as well as in premium, packaged formats closer to the cash counter. Thus, a category that was once restricted to reflect opulence and exclusivity in Indian cuisine may soon be making inroads into impulse counters and in small pouch formats, thus encouraging the “small eats” occasions even further.
Standing at the crossroads of somewhat tumultuous shifts in lifestyles and increasing incomes, the Indian consumer today is willing to go the extra mile to maintain healthy eating habits, even more so if they are rooted in culture and tradition. Dried fruits and nuts fit the bill. With their cultural origins in lavish opulence, the category is fast expanding its ‘foodprint’, making its way into the snacking tiffin box, on-the-go small pack in the bag and in breakfast cereals while retaining its dominance in traditional cooked food and as a garnish in sweets and kulfis. All this, while still reflecting the quintessential exotic India. It’s not surprising, therefore, to see the consequent steady growth in the category.