But thanks in part to a USDA funded grant program, researchers are developing marketing strategies that will capitalize on pecans’ growing popularity as a health and nutrition food product.

Recently, USDA awarded a $2.4 million grant to market the benefits of pecans. The researchers are working with colleagues at the University of Georgia and Texas A&M. Their focus is helping pecan growers stay competitive by capitalizing on the crop's nutritional benefits.

Cooperative Extension specialist Richard Heerema says New Mexico State University became interested in participating in the grant because researchers have seen a major shift in the way consumers and nutritionists have come to look at pecans. Meanwhile, researchers at Texas A&M have been busy breeding new varieties of pecans.

Pawnee is a new, extremely early-ripening variety developed by TAMU breeders and recommended especially for the Texas Panhandle. It is a medium-size pecan with good kernel quality. Researchers say additional years of evaluation are needed before recommending it for all of Texas, but so far the variety appears to have a natural resistance to aphids, a leading pecan pest.

Concerning nutritional value, one ounce of pecans (about 19 pieces) has 195 calories, 3 grams of fiber and both heart-healthy mono and polyunsaturated fats. Pecans also contain such minerals as zinc, magnesium, copper, iron and selenium. A 2011 study published in the Journal of Nutrition reported vitamin E and other compounds found in pecans may help prevent heart disease.