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When is a nut not a nut? When it’s a tiger nut

It’s been on the periphery of food trends lists for the last few years, but alt-milk company Rude Health’s new launch may mean the tiger nut has finally arrived.

21 September 2017
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In a nutshell

  • Tiger nuts aren’t, in fact, nuts, but tubers of a grass-like plant called Cyperus esculentus
  • They have a creamy, naturally sweet coconut flavour
  • They can be consumed whole, as a gluten-free flour or as a milk alternative

This week, Rude Health’s new Tiger Nut Drink hits the aisles of Waitrose and the, err, warehouses of Ocado (£2.50 per litre).

Aside from making Sparkie rush to test out its alt-milk credentials – first reports are: “generally sweet and creamy; would be lovely in a dairy-free porridge” – it also triggered our trend sensors.

Tiger nuts have been not-quite-something for some time now, loitering on the edges of trend reports and having their ‘big comeback’ hailed by various corners of the press. And yet, not much has happened – until now.

Rude Health is a leader in the non-dairy market, and this latest launch is bound to spark the interest of consumers as they ask, ‘Um, so, exactly what is a tiger nut?’

The not-a-nut nut

Like the coconut and the peanut (and a mind-blowing number of others, but let’s not go into that here), the tiger nut has the ambiguous honour of being a nut that’s not really a nut. It’s the tuber (thickened part of the stem) of a grass-like plant called yellow nutsedge (Cyperus esculentus), which is not native to the UK but grows readily in its climate.

The nuts themselves are better known in Spain, where they’re called chufa and are used to make the traditional Spanish drink horchata de chuf: a creamy, sweet, milk-style drink served over ice.

On paper, tiger nuts tick all the current trend boxes: the flour is ideal for gluten-free baking, they can be the base for plant-based ‘milks,’ they have an impressive nutritional profile (high in iron, magnesium and vitamins C and E) and they even plug into the gut-health trend by being a source of resistant starch, a prebiotic which can help build friendly bacteria.

Final bonus: by not actually being a nut, they’re exempt from nut-allergy concerns too.

So it’s somewhat odd they haven’t had more of a presence before now. 

Gaining ground

Aside from Rude Health being a game-changer here in the UK, our sources tell us things are afoot elsewhere in Europe. The small start-up Nordic Chufa, for example, is determined to increase tiger nuts’ profile across Scandinavia.

“We started with selling whole, dried chufa in whole stores because people who shop [there] are used to soaking ingredients and doing things themselves. They are more curious. But we are trying to get more products developed using chufa flour so that everybody can see how it can be used,” says Lis Christiansen, founder of the brand.

Meanwhile, food researchers from the Universitat Autonoma de Barcelona have been taste-testing the flour against other gluten-free alternatives.

The results? Tiger nuts came out pretty well. When made into a flour, it performed on par with soya in terms of consumer preference and volume but also had a longer shelf life. 

Apparently, combining chickpea and tiger nut flours to make loaves leads to a cleaner label, less fat and a better nutritional profile than most gluten-free breads. And making bread with tiger milk gives it a slightly sweet, brioche-like taste and texture. In fact, 61% of those aged 20-60 who tried it said that it was their favourite

So what are the opportunities in the UK? Over to Sparkie…

 

Sparkie says:

Tiger nuts were actually a popular semi-sweet treat in the '50s, but as butter and sugar became more widely available again, we turned our backs on them – partly, I guess, because people didn’t want to be reminded of tougher, post-war times. Now though they’re plugging into so many trends – free-from, allergy-free – that they can easily be repositioned in the market.

In terms of challenges, there’s not a strong commercial supply chain for them yet. But there’s definitely a fledgling industry – the fact that they can be easily grown across Europe is a positive. The longevity test will always come down to taste though. Anything can claim to be a superfood, but if it doesn’t taste good, it’s going to becoming a passing fad fairly quickly.

The research so far suggests that tiger nuts might be best combined with other products. Rude Health hasn’t added any sugar to its milk, but it has combined it with rice milk – which is naturally quite sweet – to make it more palatable.

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