The lowdown on peanut butter

The lowdown on peanut butter

Do you LOVE peanut butter? It’s delicious, right? And if you don’t have allergies in your house, peanut butter can be a heart-healthy, affordable, convenient, nutritious protein source.

People often tell me they think it’s “bad.” Not so! (Either way, can we not think of food as good or bad, please? No judging. It’s your overall pattern of eating and other health habits that really matters.)

Here’s a quick run-down of your choices:

  • Natural With Oil on Top – hands down your best bet, just peanuts and possibly salt
  • No-Stir Natural – a couple of drawbacks, but still okay
  • Regular – some concerns here too
  • Light Peanut Butter – surprisingly, I wouldn’t recommend it
  • Whipped – has a slight edge, nutritionally, over regular (not natural) peanut butter, and is reportedly “INSANELY delicious,” according to my dietitian buddy, Emma Train.

Which one is right for you? The healthiest one you really enjoy! The differences are minor. And as for crunchy or smooth, it’s up to you. It won’t make a difference, healthwise.

Really, that’s all you need to know. But if you’re a fellow nutrition nerd, read on…

Natural Peanut Butter With Oil on Top

I think most people know this is the most nutritious choice. After all, you’re eating nothing but ground up peanuts and perhaps a bit of salt. Each two-tablespoon serving gets you about 7g of protein. When you consider that we’re aiming for at least 20g at every meal, it’s a good start. Pair it with a glass of milk (8g), a slice of whole-grain bread (5g), and you’re there.

But what about all of that fat, people ask? If you’ve been paying attention since the 90’s, you’ll know that eating fat is fine. Peanut butter is mostly unsaturated fats, which can actually lower cholesterol (a little). It’s also a good source of other nutrients, including the B vitamin niacin, magnesium, zinc, potassium, and manganese.

What about the salt/sodium? If you like salt-free natural peanut butter like Presidents Choice Blue Menu Just Peanuts, Costco’s Kirkland, or Kraft All Natural, that’s great. If not, keep it in perspective. The amount of salt added to peanut buter is small: It works out to just 110mg of sodium per two tablespoons (for perspective, Hypertension Canada recommends keeping your sodium to 2000mg per day). Hopefully the rest of your diet is low enough in processed and restaurant foods that you have room for that.

A few tips to help with the pesky stirring problem of natural PB:

  • Store it upside down in the cupboard until you’re ready to use it. That will make it easier to mix the oil into the solid part.
  • Once you’ve opened it and given it a good stir, store it in the fridge. This way it will separate much less and stay fresher longer.
  • When you get towards the bottom and things get dry, don’t be afraid to add a bit of extra oil — try peanut, canola or avocado oil. Mix it in with a fork and you’ll be back to having spreadable PB.
  • Need to sweeten it up? Add a few slices of banana or a few raspberries or some chia seed jam. That way you get some nutrition with your sweetness.

If you like natural peanut butter, go with it. If not, give it a try. You might develop a taste for it. But if you really, really don’t like it, your next best option is a bit of a tossup.

No-Stir Natural Peanut Butter

This sounds like the perfect compromise, but unfortunately, it’s not quite the same as the original naturals. Just check out the ingredients list: 

Palm oil and sugar may be “natural”, but that doesn’t necessarily mean healthier. Compare the Nutrition Facts. See the differences?

Skippy Natural
Smooth (No Stir)
Adams Natural,
Oil on Top
Serving Sie 1 tbsp (15g) 1 tbsp (15g)
Calories 100 100
Fat 8 g 8 g
Saturated 2 g 1 g
Trans 0 g 0 g
Cholesterol 0 mg 0 mg
Sodium 70 mg 55 mg
Carbohydrate 3 g 3 g
Fibre 0 g 1 g
Sugar 1 g 1 g
Protein 4 g  3 g
Vitamin A 0% 0%
Vitamin C 0% 0%
Calcium 0% 0%
Iron 0% 2%

The palm oil bumped up the saturated fat and squeezed out enough nuts to send the fibre and iron to zero (these values all get rounded to the nearest gram). Why is the protein higher? It’s usually right around 3.5g per tablespoon, so depending on the exact amount, it may round to 3g or 4g.

Surprised by anything that didn’t change? The sugar! That’s only because they round to the nearest gram. So in theory, the Adams brand could be 0.8g of sugar, the Skippy could be 1.4g, and they would both say 1g.

Adding sugar might sound bad, but keep it in perspective: A teaspoon of sugar is 4g, so you’d have to eat quite a bit of peanut butter to get even that much.

Bottom line: It’s hard to claim that this natural peanut butter is much better than regular. And since palm oil production is considered one of the world’s leading drivers of deforestation, I’d give it a pass. We can stir a jar of peanut butter, right?

Regular Peanut Butter

This is the PB that most people eat – about 93%, in the US at least, according to one report. The ingredient list typically looks a bit more ominous than the natural brands, as you can see in this Kraft Smooth:

Now I’m no fan of hydrogenated vegetable oil, but let’s not confuse it with partially hydrogenated vegetable oil, which creates harmful trans fats. Fully hydrogenated oil, as found in peanut butter, just bumps up the saturated fat, same as palm oil. Again, the differences are small: Over 80% of the fat is still unsaturated.

The other ingredients might sound unfamiliar, but they aren’t harmful. Even the vigilant Centre for Science in the Public Interest calls maltodextrin and mono- and diglycerides safe.

Would it be better to avoid them? Sure. But will they actually hurt you? Not likely. We have much bigger nutrition problems to worry about.

All of this amounts to surprisingly miniscule differences in terms of nutrients:

Kraft
Smooth
Adams Natural,
Oil on Top
Serving Sie 1 tbsp (15g) 1 tbsp (15g)
Calories 90 100
Fat 8 g 8 g
Saturated 1.5 g 1 g
Trans 0 g 0 g
Cholesterol 0 mg 0 mg
Sodium 60 mg 55 mg
Carbohydrate 4 g 3 g
Fibre 1 g 1 g
Sugar 1 g 1 g
Protein 3 g 3 g
Vitamin A 0% 0%
Vitamin C 0% 0%
Calcium 0% 0%
Iron 2% 2%

Bottom line about regular peanut butter: Not as healthy, but not terrible either. Finding your food sweet spot is about choosing the healthiest food you can truly enjoy so if you really, really can’t stand the oil on top, go with this.

Light Peanut Butter

Light sounds good, right? It’s a confusing term. Products labelled “light” are 25% lower in either fat or calories. The trouble with light peanut butter is, they took out 2g of (mostly healthy) fat and replaced it with 2g of rapidly digested carbohydrates (the corn maltodextrin and/or sugar). Turns out this raises cardiovascular risk. And you save just 10 calories per tablespoon. Not worth it.

Kraft
Smooth
Kraft Smooth Light
Serving Sie 1 tbsp (15g) 1 tbsp (15g)
Calories 90 80
Fat 8 g 6 g
Saturated 1.5 g 1 g
Trans 0 g 0 g
Cholesterol 0 mg 0 mg
Sodium 60 mg 65 mg
Carbohydrate 4 g 6 g
Fibre 1 g 1 g
Sugar 1 g 1 g
Protein 3 g 3 g
Vitamin A 0% 0%
Vitamin C 0% 0%
Calcium 0% 0%
Iron 2% 2%

If you really want to save a few calories, consider…

Whipped Peanut Butter

When I lined up all of the peanut butters to compare them side by side, I was surprised to see that whipped peanut butter saves a few calories without adding the extra carbohydrates. How? Just by incorporating a bit more air and a bit of fancy molasses. (Still, just one gram of sugar per serving, so it can’t be too much.)

I didn’t give it much thought until dietitian Emma enlightened me about it tasting so good. She also says it melts nicely into hot cereals and spreads better. As a bonus, that might make it an option for those with swallowing difficulties.

Kraft
Smooth
Kraft Whipped
Serving Sie 1 tbsp (15g) 1 tbsp (15g)
Calories 90 80
Fat 8 g 6 g
Saturated 1.5 g 1 g
Trans 0 g 0 g
Cholesterol 0 mg 0 mg
Sodium 60 mg 55 mg
Carbohydrate 4 g 3 g
Fibre 1 g 1 g
Sugar 1 g 1 g
Protein 3 g 3 g
Vitamin A 0% 0%
Vitamin C 0% 0%
Calcium 0% 0%
Iron 2% 2%

But again, perspective: Saving 20 calories on two tablespoons of peanut butter won’t make much of a difference in terms of weight management.

The Bottom Line

So is your favourite peanut butter “healthy” or “unhealthy”? Turns out health doesn’t work like that, and that kind of thinking can jeopardize your relationship with food. It’s the overall pattern of eating that really matters, along with your exercise, sleep, and self-care habits.

If you like the natural peanut butter with oil on top, good for you. But not everyone does, and we need a way to communicate that a food can be slightly less nutritious without being “bad”. Perhaps Fooducate has the right approach, rating various peanut butter products from A- to B-. No F’s here.

If you have regular old peanut butter occasionally, but still eat lots of fruit and vegetables, mostly whole grains, beans, other nuts and seeds, fish, and very few ultra-processed foods, don’t sweat it. Sure, they add a bit of sugar, salt, and common additives to it, but not very much. However, if you eat it every day, like we do, you might want to try the oil-on-top natural.

Whatever peanut butter you decide on, remember to enjoy it!

Comments are welcome here, on the Sweet Spot Nutrition Facebook page.

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