The pecan, a Georgia crop staple, packs a much higher antioxidant punch than its nut-cousin the almond.

But what the little-known nut is high in is overshadowed by what it’s low in — research, marketing and consumer data.

With a four-year, $1.2 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, University of Georgia food scientist Ron Pegg and his team now have the funding to transform the pecan’s image from holiday baking ingredient to year-round powerhouse. Their goal is to give consumers more information on the nutrient-packed nut and provide pecan growers with long-term profitability by improving their production efficiency and productivity.

With UGA as the lead, the National Institute of Food and Agriculture Specialty Crop Research Initiative grant also involves collaborators from Texas A&M and New Mexico State universities.

Pegg’s research on pecans started with peanuts. As a food scientist in the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, his specialty is looking at the nutrients and bioactives — like vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, phytochemicals and blood pressure- and cholesterol-lowering components — that certain foods possess.

From 2007 to 2009, Pegg worked with Ron Eitenmiller, an emeritus food science professor at UGA, on a nutritional study that examined the health potentials of new peanut varieties.

During that time, they were approached by pecan producer Jon Robison of the Georgia Pecan Growers Association to see if more could be learned about the pecan’s nutritional and health benefits. That led to a meeting with Hilton Segler, who was GPGA president at the time, and Duke Lane Jr. and Buddy Leger of the Georgia Agricultural Commodity Commission for Pecans.

Funding from the commission helped Pegg generate the preliminary data on pecan bioactives, which led to the USDA award and four years to work on pecan improvement.

“In looking at pecans versus other tree nuts, pecans are the highest in antioxidant activity,” Pegg said. “We’re extending our research looking at antioxidant activity, and we’re finding higher values than those listed in the USDA oxygen radical absorbance capacity database.”

Antioxidants may assist the body’s natural defense mechanisms as they keep in check the potentially harmful effects of free radicals, which, according to Pegg, are reactive oxygen and nitrogen species that the body produces from normal metabolism. Free radicals are also encountered in the environment.