As American as apple pie, peanut butter has made its mark on American cuisine since the early 1900s. Whether it's partnering with jelly on bread or is the featured ingredient in cookie dough, it's an enduring favorite. Most households have a jar of it in the kitchen at all times.
But is peanut butter good for you? Well, like most nut butters, peanut butter is high in fat and calories (with around 190 calories and 16 grams of fat per 2 tablespoons). But the good news is, you get a lot of nutrition for your 190-calorie investment. Nuts and nut butters are a great source of protein, fiber, vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals.
In 2003 the FDA approved a qualified health claim for peanuts and certain tree nuts. It basically says that scientific evidence suggests that eating 1.5 ounces per day of most nuts (as part of a diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol) may reduce the risk of heart disease.
Most of the research suggesting health benefits to nuts has involved lowering the risk of heart or cardiovascular disease or their risk factors. But there is some evidence nuts may help with other diseases as well. For example, peanuts are a source of the phytochemical resveratrol (also found in grape skins and red wine). A recent German study explored resveratrol's possible cancer-preventing effects in colorectal cells.
Acts Like a Nut
The funny thing is, the peanut is actually a legume, native to South America, that happens to look and taste like a nut.
Nutritionally, peanuts act like nuts, too. About half their weight comes from fat, with the rest split fairly evenly between protein and carbohydrate (with fiber). About half of their total fat comes from monounsaturated fat, the kind that is linked to more healthful blood lipid levels. One-third of the fat comes from polyunsaturated fat (all of which is omega-6 fatty acid, not the superhealthy omega-3). About 14% of the fat is naturally saturated.
What to Look for in Peanut Butter
When shopping for peanut butter, look for a natural style product with little to no added fat or sugar. Some companies add partially hydrogenated oils to the regular type of peanut butter. And depending on the amount added, this could add trans fats into the equation.
When it comes to sodium, even most natural brands of peanut butter add some salt for flavor. A little goes a long way, though. Around 120 milligrams sodium per 2 tablespoons usually does the trick!
Here is a comparison of a few brands of peanut butter:
JIF. JIF is made mostly from roasted peanuts with a little bit of sugar thrown in, along with a bit (2% or less) of molasses, partially hydrogenated soybean oil, and fully hydrogenated rapeseed and soybean oil. Each 2-tablespoon serving contains:
- 190 calories
- 16 grams of fat, 3 grams of which are saturated
- 0 grams trans fat (to make this label claim, the product must have 0.4 grams of trans fat or less per serving)
- 3 grams of sugar
- 8 grams of protein
- 2 grams of fiber
JIF does make a reduced-fat variety. But don't be surprised to see that it contains the same number of calories per serving as regular JIF, even though there are 4 grams less fat per serving. This is because there are 8 grams more carbohydrate per serving (thanks at least in part to the extra 1 gram of sugar.
Smart Balance Omega Natural Peanut Butter. Not only has peanut butter gone "omega" with added flax oil, this peanut butter also contains no hydrogenated oil and no refined sugar (they do add a small bit of molasses). It still contains 3 grams of saturated fat per 2-tablespoon serving though. That's because in addition to the high omega-3 flaxseed oil, it contains palm fruit oil, which could add some saturated fat to the small amount naturally in peanuts (1.3 grams saturated fat per 2 tablespoons of roasted peanuts). Each 2-tablespoon serving has:
- 200 calories
- 17 grams of fat
- 3 grams of saturated fat
- 0 grams of trans fat
- 12 grams monounsaturated fat
- 2 grams polyunsaturated fat (1 gram of which is from plant omega-3s)
- 1 gram sugar
- 7 grams protein
- 2 grams of fiber
Laura Scudder's Natural Style Reduced Fat. Natural-style peanut butter goes mainstream with Laura Scudder's Natural Style Reduced Fat Smooth Peanut Butter. This peanut butter is reduced fat because some of the peanuts they use are fat-reduced ground peanuts, plus there's no added fat. Maltodextrin is added instead, probably to help bind the peanut butter (maltodextrin is a moderately sweet compound produced from starch). Each 2-tablespoon serving has:
- 200 calories
- 12 grams of fat
- 2 grams saturated fat
- 0 grams trans fat
- 2 grams sugar
- 9 grams protein
- 2 grams fiber
'PB' Without the 'J'
Here are 10 tips for eating peanut butter beyond the PB&J:
- Spread peanut butter on whole-grain toast or bagels instead of butter or cream cheese.
- Add peanut butter to fat-free or low-fat salad dressings (with compatible flavors) for added thickness and flavor. Beat them together until smooth -- using an electric mixer, small food processor, or whisk.
- Add peanut butter to muffin or pancake batters instead of butter or margarine (when the taste is compatible).
- Add peanut butter to smoothies, especially chocolate- or banana-flavored smoothies.
- Add peanut butter to stir-fry sauces for added flavor and thickness.
- When making peanut butter cookies, keep the peanut butter, but for the butter/margarine the recipe calls for, substitute a less-fat margarine (one with 8 grams of fat or less per tablespoon).
- Peanut butter adds plant fat and protein to make a well-rounded, satisfying snack out of whole-wheat crackers, sliced apples or bananas, or celery sticks.
- Make a vanilla or chocolate peanut butter treat by mixing a tablespoon of natural peanut butter into 1/2 cup of light vanilla or chocolate ice cream or frozen yogurt.
- Add peanut butter to granola bar recipes for extra flavor and to help bind the oats and other ingredients together.
- Use whole-grain bread and less-sugar jam to whip up a healthier peanut butter sandwich (see recipe below).
A Better PB&J
With whole-wheat bread, less sugar jam, and natural style peanut butter, the traditional PB&J turns into a high-fiber, high-nutrient sandwich that isn't dripping in calories or fat.
2 slices 100% whole-wheat or whole-grain bread
1 tablespoon natural (reduced-fat if available) smooth peanut butter (like Laura Scudder's)
1 tablespoon less-sugar jam or jelly
- Spread natural peanut butter on top of one of the slices.
- Spread less-sugar jam or jelly on top of the other slice.
- Put pieces of bread together to make sandwich. Cut diagonally and enjoy!
Yield: 1 sandwich
Per serving: 308 calories, 12 g protein, 47 g carbohydrate, 9 g fat, 1.7 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 6 g fiber, 430 mg sodium. Calories from fat: 26%.
Peanut Butter Safety
In 2009, the FDA warned consumers not to eat certain jars of peanut butter produced by a particular plant in Georgia, which may be contaminated with salmonella. (The warning applies to Peter Pan and Great Value brands with the product code on the lid of the jar beginning with "2111" purchased since October 2004.)
Historically, it has been the potentially carcinogenic aflatoxin -- produced by particular fungi -- that was the thing to watch in peanut butter, not the notorious salmonella (usually linked to poultry and raw eggs). Aflatoxin can contaminate grains and nuts before harvest or during storage. Corn and peanuts are thought to be at highest risk of aflatoxin contamination.
One of the best things you can do to minimize aflatoxins in the future is to store your grains and nuts in a dry, cool environment. That's why I always refrigerate my peanut butter and freeze nuts that I'm not going to use right away.
To prevent rancidity in your peanut butter, keep your jar of natural-style peanut butter in the refrigerator. And if you don't go through a lot of peanut butter, buy the smaller sized jars.