An almond-butter-and-jelly sandwich? Just maybe

Is the world ready for an almond-flavored milk drink? Or almond butter? Or an almond cereal?

The almond industry hopes so. In an effort to boost sales, almond processors are gearing up to sell a host of new foods using the nut, which in the past has been mainly eaten at receptions or other parties.

The industry is being forced to crack new markets because its export sales have declined dramatically this year, owing to the strong US dollar and competition from nuts grown in Spain and Italy.

Last year, 65 percent of California's crop was exported. This year, Emil Loe, manager of the Almond Board of California, estimates that ''no more than 50 percent'' of the nuts will be exported.

In addition, some growers still have significant quantities of nuts squirreled away from last year's crop, which was a record in the United States. Although this year's crop is expected to be at least 15 percent smaller than last year's, the industry believes there will be a substantial amount of almonds around by the time harvest season rolls around next September and October, unless it convinces consumers that almonds are the greatest thing since . . . peanuts, maybe.

Thus, the processors went to Washington earlier this year and got a federal marketing order to keep 2 percent of the crop off the market, using the nuts to process and test-market almond butter. So in the next few months, consumers will probably start to see almond butter, or some variety of it. Almond butter is somewhat like peanut butter.

In fact, according to Clyde Harter, manager of almond industry relations for Tenneco West, a subsidiary of Tenneco Inc., the industry's biggest problem is that ''it's hard to tell the difference between peanut butter and almond butter.'' Tenneco West has been selling almond butter on a made-to-order basis at its House of Almonds subsidiary for several years and says it ''has been selling pretty good.'' However, Mr. Harter says he believes the industry has to make almond butter taste more distinctive before consumers start spreading it on bread glopped with jelly.

Furthermore, without the benefit of the federal marketing order, almond butter would be more expensive than peanut butter. With the order, they sell for about the same price.

Apparently, this lack of distinction between almond butter and peanut butter has not deterred some potential users.

According to C.C. Hubbard, vice-president for sales and marketing at T.M. Duche Nut Company in Orland, Calif., at least one candy company is considering producing an ''almond cup,'' much like Reece's peanut butter cup.

''It's for E.T. 2,'' Mr. Hubbard jokes. (E.T., the film creature, woolfed down Reece's pieces, which are made with peanut meal.)

Still other food processors are testing almond butter for use in granola bars and with cookies. Mr. Hubbard says one manufacturer of Girl Scout cookies intends to add almond bars to the list of munchies sold by the girls in green. And a chocolate manufacturer is playing down the chocolate aspect of its product in ads and touting its use of almonds.

The nuts will also start to show up in other foods. According to Mr. Hubbard, General Foods, Nabisco, General Mills, Standard Brands, and other food companies have been doing extensive product research on almonds. In the next 12 to 18 months, he says, at least one cereal manufacturer will introduce seven new products using almonds. Quaker Oats already has an almond product on the market and has reportedly carved out 5 percent of the cereal market with it.

Aside from price and availability, an additional appeal to the food processors is nutrition. As Mr. Loe of the Almond Board notes, almonds contain no fat.

Besides introducing new processed products using almonds, some processors are introducing new variations on the old crunchy product. Roger J. Baccigaluppi, president of the California Almond Growers Exchange, which markets almonds under the Blue Diamond label, says his organization has just introduced dry roasted unsalted almonds as well as dry roasted salted with a smokehouse flavor. It took Blue Diamond six years to perfect its smokehouse flavor. Within a few months, Mr. Baccigaluppi says, his organization intends to market a consumer-size almond paste for use in home baking or candymaking. For years Europeans have enjoyed almond candy - called marzipan - but it has never really caught on in the US.

Mr. Baccigaluppi says processors are also working hard on developing an almond-flavored milk or soft drink. Although such a drink is currently sold in Italy and Spain, he says the right formula hasn't been found for the US market yet. But, he adds, ''We think there is a great market out there for something nutritious.''

Still other processors are just plain expanding their product line. Rita McFarland, owner of Maudsley's, in Bakersfield, Calif., says she started carrying almond oil last year in Mandsley's mail order business. She says consumers like the oil for salad dressings and cooking because of its low cholesterol content. Tenneco West, which markets under the brand name Sun Giant, aside from developing new products, is quickly expanding its chain, House of Almonds. In the past year, 10 new stores have opened up on the West Coast and Mr. Harter says Tenneco West is considering expanding the chain nationally.

Because of the new products, increased advertising, and consumer awareness of the nutritional aspect of the almond, domestic consumption is growing. Domestic sales are up close to 20 percent this year, to nearly half a pound of almonds a year per person. In Japan, where there is less competition from the European producers, the sales increases are even more spectacular: up 28 percent last year and 58 percent this year.

All of these sales increases are necessary if the industry is to avoid getting caught in a crunch. With the right growing conditions, says Mr. Loe of the Almond Board, it won't be long before the growers produce a crop of 500 million pounds. This would be 25 percent higher than last year's record crop.

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