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What’s the Problem with Peanut Butter?

With peanut allergies on the rise, it's no wonder some people are swapping out jelly's creamy counterpart for other nut butters. Question is, why are non-allergic folks passing up on PB too?

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Two slices of bread affixed to each other with the sticky and sweet contents of PB&J has long been an iconic symbol of American childhood. And for some adults who consume about three pounds of the creamy (or chunky) stuff on average annually, it may still be part of their weekly meal plan. But with the peanut allergy rate tripling in recent years—affecting approximately 3 million people, including 4 percent of school-age kids, according to Food Allergy Research and Education—the affordable and filling food is now starting to lose some mass appeal.

Peanut butter isn’t just turning off concerned parents and those with food allergies. Health-conscious food shoppers are also making the swap for seemingly healthier nut butters made with almonds, cashews, or sunflower seeds. Interestingly enough, the nutritional differences between these butters in terms of calories, fat and protein—with the exception of sunflower seed butter—are slight. In fact, peanut butter may actually be the better option for you, offering the most protein of the bunch. Here is a comparison of the nutrition of popular nut butters:

Nut Butter (~2 Tbsp) Calories Fat Protein Nutritional Perks
Unsalted Peanut Butter 175 cal 13g 8g Unsalted peanut butter is the best option for peanut purists, as it is high in unsaturated fats, contains fiber, minerals, and potassium.
Unsalted Almond Butter 202 cal 18.9g 4.8g Rich in vitamin E, monounsaturated fats, fiber, calcium, potassium, magnesium, and iron than peanut butter. It’s also typically lower in sugar, and free of hydrogenated oil.
Unsalted Cashew Butter 188 cal 15.8g 5.6g Good source of magnesium, a mineral important for building strong bones.
Unsalted Sunflower Seed Butter 93 cal 8g 3g Contains significantly more magnesium, phosphorus, zinc, copper, selenium and monounsaturated fats than almond or peanut butter. Also has the highest amount of minerals per serving.

If peanut butter is nutritionally on par or superior to its peers, why is it getting a bum rap among non-allergic consumers, too?

First let’s look at the different kinds of peanut butter: regular and natural. Regular peanut butter contains partially hydrogenated oil (less than 1 gram, on average), added sugar, and doesn’t separate like natural peanut butter. Natural peanut butter usually only contains peanuts and sometimes salt. Organic peanut butter is a natural variety made with peanuts that were grown without pesticides and contain no genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Products advertised as “all natural” may be misleading, says Kelly Pritchett, R.D., National Media Spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, because this just means the product is free of hydrogenated oils, so some natural peanut butters’ hydrogenated oils can be replaced with palm oil, a form of vegetable oil. All natural peanut butters can also contain added sugar.

The Problem with Regular Peanut Butter
Hydrogenated oils (trans fats) were designed to keep food on the shelf for long periods without the fats becoming rancid, but they’re not good for your body and the government has made efforts to remove them from packaged products to reduce exposure. Different fats affect your good cholesterol (HDL) and bad cholesterol (LDL) in different ways. Good cholesterol helps clear out the artery-clogging bad cholesterol. Unsaturated fats raise HDL, which is a good thing. Saturated fats raise LDL, which is a bad thing. Hydrogenated oils are a double-whammy, as they lower your HDL and raise your LDL.

Products are allowed to advertise that they are trans fat-free as long as they contain less than 0.5 gram trans fats per serving. While avoiding trans fats entirely is the best idea, it is unlikely that such very small amounts will cause much harm as long as the person is not entirely sedentary and does not have high cholesterol—these individuals should try to avoid trans fats completely. In general it’s best to look for a jar with peanuts as the only ingredient, without salt and sugar, and it should be the kind you have to stir, says Pritchett.

The Problem with Peanuts
The dangers of consuming copious amounts of peanut butter don’t lie in the calories and fat alone. Peanuts have a mold that grows inside the shell called Aespergillus niger, or black mold. This mold (also found on pistachios, Brazil nuts, seeds, beans, corn and wheat products) gives off a toxin called aflatoxin which has been shown to be toxic to the liver in rodent studies, so presumably could be harmful to humans as well. Farmers try to minimize aflatoxin contamination by applying treatment to their crops, but so far, this hasn’t proven 100 percent effective against the dangerous mold growth. To help minimize risk, the FDA tests foods that may contain aflatoxins. Peanuts and peanut butter are the most rigorously tested products by the FDA because they are widely consumed. “You may reduce aflatoxin exposure by choosing only major brands of nut butters, nuts, and discarding any nuts that look moldy, or shriveled,” says Pritchett.

Besides the risk of food allergies and mold, peanut butters may also contain harmful bacteria from the crop of nuts. Just last summer, six brands of peanut butter as well as almond butter were recalled for possible salmonella contamination. If they aren’t grown organically, peanuts and other nuts are often treated with pesticides and are genetically modified organisms (GMOs). This means the plants’ DNA has been modified without using natural methods of reproduction. The crops produced this way are often sprayed with herbicide that kills weeds without threatening their harvest, but some people are concerned that these herbicides might cause cancer and we don’t know the long-term effects of consuming GMO foods. For a list of companies that are non-GMO, check out NonGMOProject.org. As for peanut butter and other nut butters, it comes down to consumer choice if you are trying to avoid GMOs, says Pritchett. “At the moment, we don’t have enough evidence to suggest that non-GMO peanut butter is better,” she says.

Related: Understanding the Science and Controversy of GMOs

The Bottom Line
While Pritchett says she thinks it’s good idea to switch up the your nut butters occasionally, since almond butter is higher in monounsaturated fats, vitamin E, and magnesium than peanut butter, it’s up to your taste preference since the health benefits aren’t monumental. The idea that other nut butters are significantly better for you than peanut butter is generally a misnomer, says Christopher Ochner, PhD, a USANA nutritionist.

While alternative nut butters such as almond and cashew butters are usually less processed compared to peanut butter, they’re two to three times more expensive, too. Processing aside, peanut butter is very similar to other butters in terms of macronutrient profile, and the nutritional differences are incremental, not life-changing unless you have a peanut allergy, of course, he explains.

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