Macadamias: the Australian 'super nut' that's booming in Asia

Macadamia nuts are perhaps the best known native Australian food, popular for their creamy, nutty flavour. Now, nutritionists are gaining greater understanding of their complex health benefits.

Raw unshelled macadamias
A growing appetite for macadamia in Asia and other parts of the world is welcome news for Australian farmers
Wikimedia commons

Macadamias are cholesterol-free and high in monounsaturated fats (good) fats as well as being a great source of protein and dietary fibre, loaded with essential vitamins and minerals including calcium, selenium and B vitamins. Awareness of these health benefits has been disseminated to the wider public, raising the nut’s profile from that of a luxury snack to an important part of a health-conscious diet. 

From the first commercial plantings in the Northern Rivers area of New South Wales in 1974, the macadamia nut industry, currently worth around $200 million a year, has come a very long way. And the industry's future is looking bright, with the promise of tapping currently unexplored markets.

Affluent consumers in India and Asia are keen to receive not only the nuts themselves but expertise, as locals become interested in starting their own macadamia farms and look to Australian growers for expert knowledge. Substantial investment in Australia's macadamia industry over the past 40 years resulted in a lot of useful R&D, making Australia the leading source of macadamia-nut-growing innovation.

In Japan, a new trade agreement with Australia has dropped the three percent tariff on imported Aussie macadamias – taking about $500 off the price of a tonne of Australian macadamia kernel into the industry’s second-biggest trading partner. And increasingly, new research has shown that countries such as Japan, Korea and China are viewing the nuts differently.  

In the past, macadamias may have been viewed in Asian countries as a rich, perhaps unhealthy luxury, layered in chocolate, only to be picked up as a gift while on holiday – but more recently, macadamias are making their way onto restraunt menus in Asia as a healthy part of mordern cooking, and an 'everyday' food consumed more widely, and without the chocolate.  

In 2014, the macadamia crop topped 40,000 tonnes, with better kernel quality than in previous years and an increasing portion of the harvest heading to Asia. Booming consumption has been matched by increased production from investments in research and development.

Jolyon Burnett, CEO of the Australian Macadamia Society, said higher farmgate prices were already flowing back into macadamia orchards in the form of improved tree nutrition and better management of pests and diseases.

R&D in the industry has been funded by a levy established by the early founders of the macadamia industry which, according to Australian Macadamia Society CEO Jolyon Burnett, has been instrumental in keeping innovation alive and ensuring that macadamia-growing has become "...a well-established, globally-traded and commercially-successful industry”. Burnett also attributes the growth of Australia's macadamia industry to the fact that from very early on, the focus was on exports so the industry did not become tied to the domestic market.

Like most of agriculture, macadamia farming in Australia has not been without its difficult times. It has suffered consecutive years of loss resulting from bad weather, low sales prices and a fall in land prices. In the 1980s, it also experienced a massive crash, which essentially separated farms that operated as cottage industries from those that were able and willing to invest in innovations such as mechanised harvesting.

Despite such setbacks, Australia's macadamia farms are doing well now,  for the most part, and farmers are excited about the prospect of these emerging markets in Asia and, in particular, about increased Chinese demand for nut-in-shell. 

In 2014. near-record prices of up to $4 a kilogram were achieved for nut-in-shell on the back of strong global demand – a substantial increase on the $3.20/kg of the previous season’s crop and the $1.20/kg returns of seven years ago.

This season is shaping up to be shorter than those of the past few, which should aid in farmers' efforts to keep lace bug in check, and – weather permitting – macadamia farmers can look forward to a decidedly healthy 2015.

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