Peanut hucksters are a fixture of American culture, showing up along Southern backroads and in songs about ballgames. But Ethan Patzer and Cristal Teneyck didn’t have anything boiled or bagged to hawk last month at a street festival on the outskirts of Washington, D.C.
“Peanut milk!” Teneyck roared. “Try some peanut milk today!”
Teneyck was perched behind the walk-up counter of a retrofitted Airstream trailer that contains all of the American peanut industry’s hopes for its future. She and Patzer are traveling around the country in the National Peanut Board-sponsored promotional vehicle, trying to get nondairy drinkers hooked on the first new category of peanut products since 1894, when a St. Louis businessman devised a machine to make peanuts as spreadable as butter.
“There were alternative milks on the shelf, and we felt like peanuts could fit in that space quite well,” says National Peanut Board president Bob Parker. “Peanuts are just a fraction of the cost of tree nuts, and so we thought we could achieve nutritional goals that others couldn’t.”
In other words, farmers across the Southeast were chafing at the success of almond milk, which experienced a 250 percent sales surge between 2010 and 2015. And since peanuts command about 22 cents a pound, as compared to $3 for almonds, they were sure they could grind a higher volume of peanuts, which means more protein for consumers, and more money for growers, into a 32-fluid-ounce carton without ruffling household grocery budgets.
But the strategy will only work if Americans take to the flavor of peanut milk, now being produced exclusively by an upstate New York manufacturer. Under the brand name Elmhurst, Steuben Foods this spring began selling plain and chocolate-flavored “Milked Peanuts.”
Chocolate is the clear favorite of festivalgoers, according to Patzer, who poured peanut milk for 5,000 people at Cincinnati’s Flying Pig Marathon before rolling on to Arlington, Va.
“You’ll like the chocolate,” he assured Richard Ellis and Michael Brown of Ballston, Va.
“That’s good,” Ellis told the chronically upbeat Patzer, who’s prone to flashing thumbs-up signs. “A little bit like a chocolate Frosty,” Brown agreed, referencing the Wendy’s fast food chain’s signature dessert.
But when the men stepped away from the trailer, they revised their opinions slightly.
“It’s not bad: A little bitter,” Brown said. Ellis agreed: “It takes some getting used to.”
Peanut butter pickle
What’s ahead for peanuts is significant in the Southeast because the region produces 98 percent of the nation’s peanuts. Georgia is responsible for about half of that figure, with the remainder coming from Florida, Alabama, Texas, South Carolina and North Carolina, in that order.
“Peanut is a crop our growers like to grow and would like to grow more of,” said Parker, the National Peanut Board president.
Proving Parker’s point, South Carolina growers in 2017 planted a record 122,000 acres, with each acre yielding two tons of peanuts. Indeed, when the National Peanut Board this spring met in Charleston, one of the bandied phrases was “excess stock.”
That surplus is attributable in part to the fate that awaits peanuts that aren’t marked for export. Most of the time, they end up becoming peanut butter. But peanut butter makers aren’t asking for any more peanuts, because the U.S. is already eating nearly as much peanut butter as it possibly can. The average American puts away 6.6 pounds of peanut butter every year, or roughly one peanut butter sandwich a week.
Per capita consumption always increases slightly when the economy falters, but peanut promoters accept that there isn’t anything like an untapped market for peanut butter. There is currently at least one jar of peanut butter in 94 percent of American pantries. And as Parker says, “That 6 percent that do not have a jar of peanut butter are not going to add it. So how do you grow that market?”
Snacks and candies are part of the solution, but neither have the revolutionary potential of peanut milk, or so its most passionate boosters claim.
Acknowledging that “there are a lot of challenges to getting early adopters,” National Peanut Board Marketing Vice President Ryan Lepicier urged members at the Charleston meeting in March to be on the lookout for cocktails made with peanut milk, as well as the signature Airstream trailer.
“It’s not the most practical vehicle, but it is eye candy,” he promised. “It brings people in.”
Sticking with peanuts
In some of the households that don’t stock peanut butter, the decision is both conscious and final. Food Allergy Research & Education, an advocacy group, estimates that more than 4 million Americans are allergic to peanuts. Reactions “can range from a tingling sensation around the mouth and lips and hives to death,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Yet peanut growers were heartened in 2015 by the outcome of a much-publicized study involving infants at risk for developing a peanut allergy. The children were either fed peanuts or kept from eating them. After five years, skin prick tests showed 3 percent of the children who consumed peanuts were allergic to peanuts. By contrast, 17 percent of children who avoided peanuts were allergic.
Because the National Peanut Board has a vested interest in cultivating future generations of peanut butter fans, it immediately began pushing parents to expose their children to peanuts at an early age. The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases last year essentially endorsed the farmers’ position, recommending that babies be given peanut powder before they’re 6 months old.
A pediatric allergist quoted in The New York Times’ coverage of the new guidelines specifically suggested parents “mix a couple of teaspoons of smooth peanut butter with a couple of teaspoons of warm water and stir until it has a smooth soupy or purée-like consistency.” Although that’s not precisely the method that Steuben Foods uses to make Milked Peanuts, the end result of the doctor’s recipe is peanut milk.
Peanut allergies are now so widespread that Parker’s own grandson is allergic to peanuts. Parker’s daughter is hoping peanut milk might help to prevent the onset of a similar allergy in her younger son, now 4 months old. But she wasn’t able to find a carton of it at her local grocery store.
“Growers are feeling good about it, but they want to see distribution expand faster,” Parker admits. “It just takes a lot of production to fill up all of the Walmart stores.” (His daughter finally found the peanut milk online; it’s sold through Amazon).
And if Parker’s youngest grandson remains peanut tolerant, he may again encounter peanut milk on the other side of his childhood: Researchers are now working on vegan soft-serve ice peanut milk for college dining halls.