With consumers snacking all day and looking for the health benefits found naturally in nuts, dates and dried fruit, the sky’s the limit for sales in this growing category.

To keep up with the demand, growers are increasing production.

Walnut and almond grower Jack Mariani, who co-founded Winters, Calif.-based Mariani Nut Co. 40 years ago, anticipates a potential 25% increase as new walnut trees come into production in the next five to seven years.

“We want to grow into that market and not have it all show up at one time,” said Mariani, echoing the opinion of many dried fruit and nut producers.

Pistachios, almonds and pecans are also poised for increased growth.

“In a normal year we get close to 100 million pounds of nuts,” said Duke Lane, grower and Fort Valley, Ga.-based president of the Georgia Pecan Growers Association.

“I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if in seven or eight years that number increases by 50%.”

While exports to China and parts of Asia are welcomed by fruit and nut growers who suddenly have a few million extra pounds to sell, soaring prices can hurt domestic consumers, retailers and manufacturers.

“In the past three years we’ve seen a steady decline in pecan consumption,” said Paul Joseph, vice president of sales for pecan sheller and processor South Georgia Pecan Co. in Valdosta.

“If our economy was robust, people would be able to pay more for product, but with a major price increase of $4-6 a pound, people will go to walnuts or almonds. Or they do without nuts completely, which we hate to see because of all the health aspects of pecans,” Joseph said.

To burnish their healthful, all-natural image, nuts, dates and dried fruit are muscling their way into the produce section.

Some, such as Wonderful Pistachios, from Los Angeles-based Paramount Farms, have already arrived with their display-ready bins filled with 8-ounce bags of regular, flavored and unsalted pistachios.

The secret to success, said Marc Seguin, vice president of marketing for North America, is to “take an item people like, put it in an impactful package (and) put it in a great display that makes it easy for retailers to put on the floor then talk to consumers about it.”

Commodities such as walnuts and pecans are more than ready to break out of the baking section and head for other parts of the supermarket.

The California Walnut Commission likes to pair walnuts with Jarlsburg cheese.

“When consumers see fresh or shelled pecans in the produce section they perceive them as being fresh, and produce people know how to keep them cool and dry,” said grower J.W. Christiansen, board member of the Atlanta-based Georgia Pecan Commission.

Instead, they languish on racks in the baking section, Christiansen said, looking like they’ve been hanging there for years.

“The worst part is they’re stored in the back or in an open warehouse and it’s not cool enough,” he said.

Dried fruit

Eating natural sources of sugar holds appeal for today’s health-conscious consumer. It’s a role tailor-made for California dried plums, raisins, figs and dates, which together are worth nearly $930 million a year.

“There’s been a large uptick in requests for date paste, date sugar and chopped dates from processors looking for an alternative to refined sugar,” said Lorrie Cooper, manager of the Indio-based California Date Commission and the California Date Administrative Committee.

Dried plums are dispelling their old-school image by partnering with food-loving Olympic swimming star Natalie Coughlin.

“With the focus on a more natural diet instead of supplements, we believe the audience is coming to us,” said Donn Zea, executive director of the Sacremento-based California Dried Plum Board, whose new campaign touts plums as “the whole package.”

“Young people are looking for something that’s readily available, cost-effective, tastes great and has a multitude of nutrients.”