A 2011 clinical study from Loma Linda University found that pecans could help reduce biomarkers associated with cardiovascular disease and possibly metabolic syndrome. Metabolic syndrome is the tendency of several conditions to occur together, including obesity, insulin resistance, diabetes or pre-diabetes, high blood pressure and high levels of fat in the blood.

A qualified health claim from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration also says “scientific evidence suggests but does not prove that eating 1.5 ounces per day of most nuts (such as pecans), as part of a diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol may reduce the risk of heart disease,” which equates to between 18 and 20 pecan halves.

“Some consumers are very unaware of the nut’s benefit,” Pegg said. “But there is a lot they don’t know about pecans.”

What consumers do know is that they like them. Pecan exports to China have skyrocketed since 2004, from 5,455 tons when the nut was first introduced to 40,273 tons (about 80.5 million pounds) in 2009, according to the Texas Pecan Growers Association. Chinese eat pecans in many ways like Americans eat peanuts — street vendors soak them in flavoring solutions, roast them, crack them and sell them by the bagful, Pegg said. And now India is also showing interest in importing the nut.

Georgia is the highest pecan-producing state in the U.S., producing 75 million pounds in 2010, an off year of production for this alternate-bearing tree. Texas and New Mexico followed with 70 million pounds and 66 million pounds, respectively.

Pecan trees typically have a two-year cycle. They produce more nuts in odd years in Georgia than they do during even years. That, too, is something Pegg hopes his team can change through the project’s horticultural initiatives. A more consistent supply could lead to higher profits and more stable prices.

Pegg’s UGA grant collaborators include M. Lenny Wells, a UGA Cooperative Extension horticulture pecan specialist on the UGA Tifton campus. Wells and faculty at Texas A&M and New Mexico State universities will be running horticultural studies and developing outreach materials.

Pegg and Philip Greenspan, an associate professor of pharmaceutical and biomedical sciences in the UGA College of Pharmacy, will be conducting pecan analytical and biological studies.

John McKissick, an agricultural economist and professor emeritus in the UGA College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, and Sharon Kane, a food business development specialist with the UGA Center for Agribusiness and Economic Development, will be examining both the production and marketing economics of pecans.

When USDA Assistant Agriculture Secretary Kathleen Merrigan announced Pegg had received the grant, he was in Gdansk, Poland, as an invited guest lecturer at the Gdansk University of Technology. During his two weeks of lectures on functional foods, nutraceuticals and foods for health, he fit in a little pecan promotion.

“I mentioned that pecans have the highest antioxidant levels of tree nuts, and one of the students asked me ‘what is a pecan?’” he said. “In Europe, they’re very familiar with hazelnuts and walnuts, but they haven’t heard of pecans.”

For a look at that huge Chinese market and what it could mean for pecan growers, visit http://southeastfarmpress.com/orchard-crops/china-huge-market-georgia-pecans.

That demand in China is also helping drive up prices for Georgia pecans. That story can be found at http://southeastfarmpress.com/orchard-crops/slow-harvest-high-demand-pushing-pecan-prices.