Peanut butter is a staple in America. Whether creamy or crunchy, it is certainly popular among kids, and even adults consume it regularly. After all, peanut butter is considered healthy because of its protein content, among other nutritional offerings, such as B vitamins and magnesium. However, peanut butter also contains fat, sugar and salt, three ingredients that are known to be unhealthy. Because of that, there is some discussion about whether peanut butter is really healthy. The truth is that, just like many foods, it depends on the ingredients in the peanut butter in question.
For starters, not all fat found in peanut butter is bad. Some types support brain and heart health by lowering bad cholesterol. This comes along with the other benefits of peanut butter, such as the aforementioned protein and B vitamins, but also vitamin E and minerals like iron, which is good for bones, and potassium, which contributes to heart health. However, while the fats may not be a problem, the salt and sugar are a large part of what determines if a given brand of peanut butter is healthy. The healthiest peanut butter is made from just peanuts.
Go Nuts for Nuts
While they may not look like much, nuts are a very popular and healthy food, and peanuts are no exception. They are used in a large number of dishes in countries and cultures all over the world. On top of that, the consumption of nuts has been associated with a number of important health benefits. For example, they help reduce the risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and cancer. As such, they contribute to overall longevity, which has been proven in multiple studies. That said, there is concern that additives in peanut butter may interfere with their health benefits.
However, nuts by themselves are not very appetizing. While salt, sugar, and oil are added to peanut butter to give it a more enjoyable flavor and texture, they also have an impact on the peanut butter’s nutritional content. Excess salt in the diet, for example, can cause problems with dehydration, as well as damage to many of the body’s systems. For example, they can harden the arteries, putting a strain on the heart. Sugar is also associated with health problems. In excess, it can contribute to obesity, which itself can exacerbate other health conditions, including diabetes and various heart problems.
Again, it’s clear that the nuts themselves are not causing this problem. Evidence from a 10-year study conducted on both peanuts and peanut butter simultaneously points out the benefits of peanuts, while failing to identify an effect on mortality from peanut butter. It’s thought that perhaps unhealthy trans fats in peanut butter can suppress the beneficial effects that normally would be present. Many food products, peanut butter included, have trans fat in them in order to alter their texture, though the amount of trans fat, much like any salt and sugar content, varies depending on the brand.
Trans Fats vs. Natural Peanut Butter
Traditionally, trans fats are added to various processed foods in order to thicken oils. This prevents ingredients within a food product from separating easily. In the case of your average commercial peanut butter, trans fat, in the form of partially hydrogenated vegetable oil, is employed to keep the peanut oil from separating from the other ingredients. If you’ve ever seen old-fashioned peanut butter in your grandma’s kitchen, you’ve probably noticed that the peanut butter is less sweet, and it has a separate layer of oil sitting on the top. It’s probably also in the refrigerator, not in the cabinet.
While this kind of peanut butter may look unappetizing and have a different flavor than the brands you’re used to, it’s basically natural peanut butter. Chances are good that it’s healthier for you too. Excess consumption of trans fats have been linked to health risks, and that may be why more and more brands of peanut butter are advertising zero trans fats on their labels. Still, there are other artificial ingredients in peanut butter that may be unhealthy, or at least a little less nutritious than the real deal, particularly if they feature a lot of added sugars or salt.
So, what should you do? If you want to eat the healthiest peanut butter possible, go for a natural kind. Aside from labeling, you’ll be able to tell based on the color and texture. Natural peanut butter will likely be a little darker and grainier, and the flavor difference will likewise be obvious—it’s less sweet. These differences indicate a lack of trans fats and preservatives (which is why natural peanut butter is best kept in the refrigerator). Just take it out of the fridge early when you want to use it, and stir it up before you spread it.