Kempner: Delta dumps peanuts, but Georgia goobers still soar

The giant peanut statue is a roadside photo attraction in Plains, Ga. (Myscha Theriault/TNS)

The giant peanut statue is a roadside photo attraction in Plains, Ga. (Myscha Theriault/TNS)

Delta Air Lines’ decision to drop peanuts as a regular, free in-flight snack is just the latest indignity for Georgia goobers.

Worse still, Delta's shift to new snack offerings includes almonds, the fancy-pants tree nut primarily grown in California, as opposed to the ground-burrowing peanut, the official state crop of the airline's home state of Georgia.

My colleague Kelly Yamanouchi wrote that Delta's new additions are gluten-free and, according to the airline, cater to "health-conscious customers and those with dietary restrictions."  Earlier the airline had said it plans to rotate offerings "to increase choice and variety for even the most seasoned travelers."

Oh, my! Pass the Grey Poupon on those flying buses.

Actually, though, Delta giving consumers more options is a good thing in theory. And the airline isn’t alone. Even along grocery aisles in peanut farming communities like Tifton, Ga., peanuts are getting pushed by competition from more exotic sounding snacks and spreads. Almond butter? Really?

But save the peanut pity. The humble nut — oops, I mean, legume — is going gangbusters.

I was surprised.

After all, who hasn't heard of school classrooms becoming peanut-free zones because some kid has severe allergies? And America's food choices are becoming increasingly fancy. From fast food chains racing to invent dishes with unexpected ingredients to an explosion in hyper-local craft beer, people crave taste-bud pizazz and edibles that feel like we are pampering ourselves.

Staples like peanut butter seem so … yesterday. (Confession: for much of my life I considered the PB&J one of mankind’s greatest culinary creations.)

A panoply of butters

So now the Kempner family pantry includes peanut butter, but also apple butter, chocolate Nutella (hazelnut) spread, two kinds of honey, sinful cookie butter from Trader Joe’s and my daughter’s almond butter.

I didn’t feel good about confessing this to Tim McMillan, a seventh generation farmer at Southern Grace Farms in Enigma, Ga. His family has grown peanuts since at least the 1940s.

“Some of these things may just be a new fad,” he told me.

He hasn’t yet brought himself to actually buy and taste the non-peanut concoctions popping up at stores in nearby Tifton.

“I’m a peanut butter man,” McMillan explained.

“Naturally we are concerned. We don’t want to lose any market share.”

He called Delta’s move “terribly disappointing.” (That’s essentially what the Georgia Peanut Commission said, too.)

“It sure would be nice if they supported us,” he said.

Seems like the neighborly thing to do, especially in a state that sent a peanut farmer to the White House and produces billions of pounds of peanuts a year, supplying nearly half the nation’s harvest.

Delta has said peanuts might get future rotations on the airline’s snack list. For now, though, its lineup includes Biscoff cookies, almonds, olive oil and sea salt pretzels and KIND oats and honey bars with toasted coconut.

More than the lost peanut sales, being dropped by one of the world’s biggest airlines means losing the marketing opportunity of having peanuts in front of more than 180 million captive passengers a year.

Yet the peanut juggernaut isn’t cracked; it’s growing.

“Domestic consumption is at an all-time high,” said Adam Rabinowitz, a University of Georgia professor and peanut economist. “Even exports are at an all time high.”

U.S. per capita consumption of peanuts is 7.4 pounds a year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. That’s the highest since at least 1980 (when it was 4.8 pounds). It dwarfs almonds (less than 2 pounds per capita, but also growing). In fact, it dwarfs all the other tree nuts combined.

Spreads beat jams

According to Euromonitor, the retail value of nut and seed spreads has grown over the last five years in the U.S., while jams and preserves generally have fallen in value, which I guess means there’s a split going on in PB&J world.

The retail value of chocolate spreads have rocketed over that period, though maybe our Georgia peanut farmer is on to something with that “fad” comment. The market value of chocolate spreads has declined in the last two years.

“Peanuts are the cheapest — or, I should say, the least expensive — of all the nut options,” Rabinowitz said. “And it’s just a healthy option.”

He speculated that some consumers incorrectly assume the more expensive a food item is, the more healthy it is. But the nutritional value of almonds and peanuts look very similar.

Also, earlier this year a panel of experts at the National Institutes of Health issued new guidelines suggesting introduction of peanuts to some infants as a way to limit the chances of them developing peanut allergies.

Rabinowitz, a Long Island native, told me his son had to temporarily give up peanut butter and jelly sandwiches when he went to a daycare center that enforced a peanut-free zone.

“We went through an assortment of the nut butters. It just doesn’t produce the same type of sandwich,” he said.

Yet the draw to jazz things up remains strong.

Come to think of it, isn’t that something the peanut industry ought to embrace, given its own history of innovation? Peanut butter on bananas? On waffles? Apples? Ice cream? Crackers, celery, pretzels?

Next up: Almonds dipped in peanut butter and topped with Nutella.

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AJC Unofficial Business columnist Matt Kempner offers you a unique look at the business scene in metro Atlanta and beyond. You'll find more on, including these columns:

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