Casual Fridays: Do grocery stores give us the right mix of nuts?

Last week we asked our readers what their favorite types of mixed nuts were. Does the mixture that comes in the can actually approximate real-world preferences, or are the nut-packagers just giving us the cheapest nuts, with no allowances for our actual likes and dislikes?

We received over 600 responses. Readers rated seven types of nuts typically found in jars of mixed nuts on a scale 0 (don't like at all) to 5 (like very much). This morning I bought two cans of nuts from the grocery store and Nora carefully sorted, counted, and measured the contents of each can. Here are the contents of the $5 store-brand can of mixed nuts:


And here's the Planters "Deluxe" mixture of mixed nuts, which cost $7 for about 25 percent fewer nuts.


Does paying a premium buy a mixture that more closely matches our readers preferences? The graph below compares our survey results to the store-brand mixture:


I set a rating of 2 on our scale equal to 0 percent, figuring if our readers rated a product lower than 2 they didn't really want to see any in our mixture. Then I distributed the remainder of the ratings over a range of 100, to match up to the actual quantity of nuts in the can. As you can see, the store-brand jar fills up with nearly 40 percent peanuts, when our readers would prefer only around 10 percent peanuts. Brazil nuts, the least-liked nuts in our results, still accounted for 16 percent of all the nuts in the can. Clearly the ideal mixture for our readers would have fewer Brazil nuts and peanuts, and more almonds, cashews, pecans, and walnuts.

So does splurging on Planters Deluxe mixed nuts generate a better mix? Here's the same chart for the Deluxe nuts:


Clearly Planters recognizes that cashews and almonds are the preferred nuts, but we probably could have gotten away with fewer of them. Substituting peanuts, pecans, and walnuts for some of those expensive cashews and almonds might save some money and still leave a typical group of cocktail-party guests just as satisfied.

Maybe mixing the two cans of nuts would generate a better mix. This graph shows what would happen if we mixed the cheap nuts with the expensive nuts:


Not bad, but there are still too many peanuts and Brazil nuts, and not enough pecans and walnuts.

Our results do suggest a different solution. We also asked our readers what type of food they preferred to eat at parties, and here are those results:


Nuts are just the fourth-most popular food at parties, behind corn chips, cheese, and heavy hors d'oeuvre. The best solution to the nut problem might be just not to serve them at all.

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This post will from now on be known as "The Nut Case".

Are the nuts counted by weight, by volume, or by number of nuts? The word "quantity" seems to indicate number of nuts, but I'm guessing it's actually by volume since that's what the graph label says.

We did volume because we didn't have an accurate enough balance to measure weight. Number would be a bad way to go since a single Brazil nut probably has the volume of 10 peanuts.

I just thought I'd point out that since that majority of your participants DON'T like to east nuts (at parties) they may not be the best indicator of what nut companies should put in their mixes.

Perhaps you can show the nut preference of those who like nuts? or was the sample size in this case too small?

My first thought is to trust the supplier until you discover their reasoning, and any possible flaws. If this is a niche market they most likely must give the customer what they want or they just won't be able to sell any.

As (no joke) former brand manager on Planters, I read this article with great interest. There are literally dozens of possible confounds of your study, and one blatant confound is that you're comparing a "regular" mixed nut private label sku with a "deluxe" (no peanuts) mixed nut Planters sku. There are subcategories within this category and a more appropriate comparison would have been a "basic" mixed nut comparison of a more "deluxe" one. If your point is that no one offers the "right" mix, I would argue that your study might be severely flawed. For instance, someone may love peanuts and have no interest in any other nut, so including them in a mixed nut analysis is not only inappropriate but will skew your overall mix analysis. Also, if you've ever eaten walnuts you'll note that they have a much more bitter taste than other nuts...they are most often used in baking and rarely sold as a "snack" because they have a very different taste profile from other nuts, and the reason they aren't sold in mixed nuts is not because of some incredible oversight but because they are so incongruous in taste and texture to other nuts that they can "ruin" the overall mixed nut eating experience. Just an example of how asking a question--"what nut do you like?"--and then using that for a very different analysis--"what nuts will people like in a mixed nut assortment?" is faulty experimentation. If I asked you "what do you like in a significant other?" the invidual attributes may not add up in totality to someone that wouldn't be ideal at all.

Check for all the different varieties of mixed nuts that Planters offers...which you won't be surprised to know, given that they represent hundreds of millions of dollars of annual revenue for the company, are extensively researched using meticulously designed studies!

In terms of your last point, nuts are a less frequently purchased snack with highly seasonal purchase patterns, a strong skew to 55+ consumers, and myriad other confounds to the overall conclusion of "don't serve nuts at parties."

You know what might be my favorite snack at a party? Those yummy little hot dogs...but whenever I'm at a formal party, they never serve them? Why? Because a party is not a party is not a party. Your constructs are terribly defined and this research tells a story which, while interesting, probably doesn't have a shred of external validity. (But I enjoyed reading it.)

Good points, Jay, and I acknowledge that this is not a perfect study design -- it's mainly a fun 'casual' project.

But I'd still like to know -- why all the Brazil nuts, even in the "deluxe" mixes?

The Planters Deluxe Mix is pretty close in terms of Brazil the PLB is really the mystery. Given the need for a low price point with acceptable margin on PLB, I'd guess that Brazil nuts might have been cheaper than cashews at this point. Commodity prices on nuts can vary widely, and I think it might be reasonable to assume that a PLB are driven by those at least as much as by consumer preference. Further, quality control on PLB is often "iffy" (and not very transparent, who knows who produced that product?) so you simply might have bought one outlier can where the production machine was too generous with Brazil nuts that day. Tough to generalize PLB based on one can...

One thing I think may be accurate (if memory serves me correctly)...consumers generally want more pecans than they are given. Why? They're so tasty...but very expensive.

Brazil nuts are my favorites!

Yeah, I love those Brazil nuts, too. Several years ago, while I was trying to gouge out the last bit of Brazil meat from it's hard shell, I sacrificed the biting surface of my lower front tooth. Warning: Don't let your Brazilian appetite override sensible tooth maintenance.

Quite interesting research, but in my opinion it has a major flaw - there is no economics inside. Different nuts has different prices and it is a primary factor in production.

For example, to block purely economic approach in selling mixed nuts most countries limit the maximum % of weight of the cheapest nut (i.e. peanuts) in the box.

So, IMO, listing current stock prices of every nut type found in the box could clearly show (and probaly explain) the cough cough "Magic Formulas That Were Made Using Powerful Science" of both those cans.

By Vlad Golovach (not verified) on 04 Jul 2008 #permalink

Back in the 1960's there was a rumor that Brazil nuts contained hallucinogens. I ate 3 pounds of fresh nuts, going to bed disappointed several hours later. I was high upon waking. The high lasted several days accompanied by lots of very pleasant visual effects, peaking about 15 hours after ingestion. The side effects: oily skin and "brazil nut mouth" for a week and zero constipation for 50 years.