A Healthy Addiction to Peanut Butter?

By Jen Chan

I admit, I have a peanut butter addiction. I kick off every morning with peanut butter toast, eye Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups in the grocery aisle, and can hardly imagine apples without it.  For the longest time, I considered myself to be weird for sneaking spoonfuls out of the jar, but evidentially I’m not alone with this obsession. According to the National Peanut Board, Americans annually spend $800 million per year on peanut butter and an average of 1.5 billion pounds of it is consumed annually in the US alone. [1] That is a lot.

Like most people, I justify my mass consumption with health reasons. “Oh it has a lot of protein.” “It is made with peanuts; therefore it’s good for you!” But wait. Is that true? Is peanut butter truly a healthy addiction?

Inside the Jar

Before tackling that question, we need to step back for a second.  To start, what is peanut butter? By culinary definition, peanut butter is literally just roasted peanuts pulverized by a food processer until it’s smooth. On the industrial level, FDA standards require for “peanut butter” to consist of 90% peanuts.[2]

TLDR Conclusion # 1: Peanut butter has a ton of peanuts.

Nuts get a pretty bad rap because of their high fat and calorie content, but here is a fun fact: peanuts are not nuts.  They are actually legumes.

Wow, that’s a bit of a curve ball. Legumes, are edible seeds which grow in pods such as peas and soybeans. So the next time the peanut’s “food family” comes to mind, think beans instead of almonds.

Legumes are protein power houses, but the bad news is their large caloric content.  Because of its high energy density and large amount of fat, dieters often shun peanuts; but, research reveals that peanuts eaten in moderation may help weight loss. For instance, on average children who ate peanuts had a lower body mass index than non-peanut-eaters[3]. Additionally, contrary to popular belief, a study published by the American Society for Nutrition concluded that peanut consumption reduces coronary heart disease risk.[4]

TLDR Conclusion # 2: Peanuts are legumes with high fat and calories, but they may be good for you in moderation

Now, 10% of “other stuff” actually makes a pretty big difference.  Let’s look at one of America’s most popular peanut butter brands[5] vs. the pure peanut blend we mentioned before. Check it out:

The left hand side is all-natural peanut butter which consists of peanuts and a hint of salt. The right side is America’s #2 commercial peanut butter: Skippy.

Displaying 20150501_152349.jpg

Left: Natural Peanut Butter, Right: Commercial Peanut Butter

Whoa. The Skippy one is noticeably smoother, creamier, and possesses a substantially more congealed texture than its 100% peanut counterpart. To examine the overall healthiness of this product, we will break this down into bite sized pieces.

The “Other Stuff”

Taking a quick glimpse at my jar of Skippy, it is clear that there are a few more ingredients added:

  1. Sugar
  2. Hydrogenated oil

This doesn’t seem like very much.  Let’s look at what each of these entails.

  1. Sugar –  Added sugars are considered unhealthy because they simply do not contribute to the body. Therefore, any food which has additional sugar is not considered “good for you.” [6] Skippy Peanut butter possesses 3 grams of sugar for every two-tablespoon serving. Comparatively, that is surprisingly little. Nutella, for instance, possesses 20g sugar for the same serving size.

Here is the math: 4g of Sugar = 1 teaspoon of sugar. Taking this into account, we can see that Skippy possesses less than a teaspoon of sugar in every serving. That’s not too bad.

TLDR Conclusion #3: There’s Not Much Sugar

  1. Hydrogenated oil – Now, this one is pretty iffy. Vegetable oil is typically hydrogenated to increase its melting point, thereby increasing the solidity of the final product [7]. This explains why Skippy peanut butter was substantially more firm than the natural brand. The greatest drawback of the hydrogenation process is that it creates trans fats, which are proven to increase levels of low density lipoprotein (LDL, i.e. “bad cholesterol”).  Harvard’s School of Public Health also found that trans fats directly reduce the healthiness of blood vessels, meaning an increased risk of heart disease.

Clearly, this is pretty bad. However, on the jars of commercial peanut butters no trans fats are reported. Why? Because there is an incredibly tiny amount of it.  Approximately 1-2% of the jar’s total weight consists of hydrogenated oils. Tests of 11 peanut butter brands conducted by the US Department of Agriculture found no detectable trans fats in any sample. [8]

TLDR Conclusion #4:  There are hydrogenated oils in commercial peanut butters, but this is a very marginal amount

Conclusion

In theory, this food product can be considered healthy. In its purest form, peanut butter is simply mashed peanuts; therefore, the product possesses “healthy fats,” high energy content, and may even reduce risk of heart disease.  However, commercial peanut butter brands also possess two unhealthy elements: sugar and hydrogenated oils.  Fortunately, both of these “bad” ingredients are quite marginal but it is still noteworthy. In other words, here is the major takeaway to the peanut butter-lovers of America: go eat  your peanut butter, but don’t go nuts with it. After all, peanut butter is actually a bean, not a nut.

Sources:

[1] “Fun Facts.” National Peanut Board. National Peanut Board, n.d. Web. 29 Apr. 2015.

[2] “Food Standard Innovations: Peanut Butter’s Sticky Standard.” Food Standard Innovations: Peanut Butter’s Sticky Standard. Food and Drug Administration, n.d. Web. 29 Apr. 2015.

[3] Brody, Jane E. “Nuts Are a Nutritional Powerhouse.” Well Nuts Are a Nutritional Powerhouse Comments. New York Times, 30 Mar. 2015. Web. 02 May 2015.

[4] Kris-Etherton, Penny M., Frank B. Hu, Emilio Ross, and Joan Sabate. “The Role of Tree Nuts and Peanuts in the Prevention of Coronary Heart Disease: Multiple Potential Mechanisms.” The Journal of Nutrition. American Society for Nutrition, 2007. Web. 02 May 2015.

[5] Boyle, Matt. “The Popularity Issue: Peanut Butter: Jif.” Bloomberg.com. Bloomberg, n.d. Web. 29 Apr. 2015.

[6] “Added Sugar in the Diet.” The Nutrition Source. Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, n.d. Web. 02 May 2015.

[7] “Hydrogenation of Unsaturated Fats and Trans Fat.” – Chemwiki. University of California, Davis, n.d. Web. 02 May 2015.

[8] McBride, Judy. “Related Topics.” No Trans Fat in Peanut Butter. United States Department of Agriculture, 12 June 2001. Web. 02 May 2015.

Got a topic? Email Editor Jen Chan at jchan@chomplab.net

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