Associated Press - by Russ Bynum
A University of Georgia researcher on Friday was awarded a $1.2 million federal grant to study the nutritional benefits of pecans and offer those findings to help promote the nuts, which are fetching record prices thanks to exploding demand in China and other markets overseas.
Georgia is the nation's largest pecan producer. The state is projected to produce 90 million pounds this year, more than a third of the expected U.S. total, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The USDA grant will fund research by UGA food science professor Ronald Pegg, who is working to expound on studies that suggest eating pecans may help protect against heart disease. He also is looking into antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties and other benefits that may be unique to pecans.
"A lot of people look at these nuts as having fat," said Dr. Rakesh Singh, head of the university's Department of Food Science and Technology. "If they just look at the total fat, they may think these nuts aren't good for you. But these are healthy fats they've got."
Pegg was traveling out of the U.S. and couldn't be reached Friday.
His pecan project is among 29 studies nationwide awarded $46 million in federal funding Friday for research on specialty crops — defined as fruits, vegetables, nuts, spice, herbs and medicinal plants.
Assistant Agriculture Secretary Kathleen Merrigan, who announced the recipients during a visit to Atlanta, said the projects include studies on food safety, plant genetics, preventing crop diseases and other topics aimed at improving fresh produce.
"As a suite, we hope they overall advance the competitiveness of this sector and therefore advance our cause for a healthier diet," Merrigan said.
Pecan prices have skyrocketed in recent years because of ravenous demand in China, where the nuts are considered a delicacy.
Duke Lane, president of the Georgia Pecan Growers Association, said other countries such as India, Canada and Dubai are also showing an increasing appetite for pecans. Growers are seeing record prices for the second year in a row, in part because of the growing demand combined. Prices also have been driven up by lower yields because of withering drought in Georgia and Texas, the No. 2 pecan state.
Lane said early prices this fall are about $3 per pound of unshelled pecans, up from an average of $2.35 per pound a year ago.
"China didn't even know a few years ago what a pecan was," Lane said. "We're all really pleased and excited about the route things are taking us."