Is peanut butter really good for you, or is it just another fat-rich processed food?
The answer depends on which brand you buy.
By Janey Macleod
Photo © Mike Lewis
Vegetarians, vegans and folk on a dairy-free diet appreciate the value of peanut butter. As well as being a tasty alternative to dairy butter and cheese, it's a versatile cooking ingredient in its own right (see, for example, our West African Peanut Stew). More importantly, it's very beneficial nutrition-wise. Peanut butter contains around 30 percent protein, and is also a worthwhile source of iron, niacin (vitamin B3) and fiber.
But not all brands of peanut butter are equally healthy. In fact, many contain undesirable additives that do more harm than good. So before you buy your next jar, be sure to check the ingredients.
Avoid the additives
The worst offender is palm oil, a cheap oil that's added to peanut butter to prevent the natural oil from separating out. Unfortunately, palm oil is high in saturated fats. Brands that use palm oil contain 16 to 20 percent more saturated fats than those that don't.
As an alternative to palm oil, some brands contain mono- and di-glycerides of fatty acids, also known as glyceryl monostearate or distearate, or E471. This is used as an artificial stabilizer. These brands are also high in saturates.
Sugar is another common additive, though it's often disguised on the label as dextrose, sucrose or fructose. Sugar adds to the calorie count of the product without any nutritional benefit. Of course, it's also a factor in causing many undesirable conditions, from obesity to dental decay.
The 'natural' option
If you want to avoid these and other additives, look for a brand of peanut butter that contains peanuts and nothing else - or, at the very worst, small quantities of added salt. Although too much salt can lead to high blood pressure, small amounts are safe. A sodium rating less than 0.4 grams per 100 grams is acceptable (this is equivalent to about one sixth of a gram of salt per generous serving of peanut butter); anything higher is not.
Fortunately, there are several brands of peanut butter on the market that are completely free of additives. Typically described as 'natural' peanut butters, they include Meridian (available in Europe and Australia), and Food Mill, Natural Value and Maranatha (in the US).
These and other natural brands can be found in health food stores as well as larger supermarkets. You can also order them on line, for example you can now buy The Peanut Shop's products (see photo) from Amazon.Com, or those from the Peanut Butter & Co at Amazon in the UK.
But while these additive-free brands are healthier than their mass-market competitors, they are still high in fat. Even without any added palm oil or stabilizers, peanut butter contains around 42% fat with about 8% saturates. But that compares very favorably with dairy butter (34% saturates) and hard cheeses (around 21% saturates).
The main disadvantage of the additive-free brands is that, because they contain no emulsifiers, the natural peanut oil tends to separate out. But that's not really a problem, as it's easy to stir it back in. It's even possible to buy a special mixing gadget for stirring in the oil. It does nothing that you can't do almost as easily with a tablespoon, although it does tend to reduce spillage and mess.
Natural peanut butter also has a shorter shelf life than the mass-market variety and needs to be refrigerated after opening.
Please note: Neither Veg World nor its contributors are qualified to give medical or nutritional advice. If in doubt, always consult a suitably-qualified professional.