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Peanut Butter and Your Health: What’s the Problem?

Peanut Butter and Your Health: What's the Problem?

If your first inclination is to scream, “Nothing!” then you are somewhat correct. If you’re like me, you might find yourself getting a little bit protective over this beloved nut butter. The truth is peanut butter isn’t entirely evil, nor is it necessarily evil at all. But like many things that seem, or in this case taste, a little too good to be true, peanut butter calls for some additional considerations. Otherwise it can all too quickly prove problematic and become difficult to digest.

First let’s start with the good stuff. Peanut butter acts as a great source of protein and fiber; and is rich in vitamins and nutrients, such as potassium. This naturally cholesterol-free food is packed with unsaturated fats, serving as an added benefit when it comes to heart-health.

Peanut butter is tasty enough to hold its own on a spoon. It can be spread atop a piece of fruit, or sandwiched between pieces of bread. It can be used to adorn your favorite dish, or even used as the key ingredient in a signature peanut sauce to add a sweet, yet tangy flavor to an endless amount of dishes. And that’s not even including the endless dessert options that peanut butter stars in. Yes, the glory of and the problem with peanut butter is that it can readily and easily be incorporated into just about every single meal. This brings us to the first area of concern—the amount being consumed.

Quantity Counts

Not only is peanut butter the leading use of peanuts in the U.S., according to the National Peanut Board, the average American consumes more than six pounds of peanuts and peanut butter products each year. What’s more, the amount of peanut butter eaten in a year could wrap the earth in a ribbon of 18-ounce peanut butter jars one and one-third times. That’s just nuts.

An average serving size of peanut butter is 2 tbsp. However, most of us who consume peanut butter tend to consume double that and then some. In turn, eating five servings at a time can add 1,000 additional calories onto your daily allowance, with a large portion of these being fat calories that are stored in (and visibly on) your body.

But I thought peanut butter contains good fats? Well, yes and no. With the good, comes the bad. Sadly, many of the most tasty peanut butters, even those touted as healthy options, contain a couple of standout added ingredients that prove problematic.

Ingredients vs. Outside Forces

Certain brands of peanut butter that are high in saturated fats, sugar or salt can lead to health issues such as heart problems and hypertension. The addition of salt spikes the sodium into a heightened range. And although sugar gives peanut butter sweetness, it increases the fat calories. Since portion control is key, the double-edged sword that comes along with sugar is the more you have, the more you want. And although we’ve trained our brains to think of oil as a healthy alternative, hydrogenated oil is typically used as a preservative, and increases the amount of trans fats present in the butter, adding to the risk of heart disease, cancer and even diabetes.

Still, it’s not just the added ingredients or the oils you have to watch out for, it’s the outside variables that make their way in through the shell of what is actually not even a nut at all, but rather a legume. Because of this legume’s porous shell, peanuts are at greater risk than nuts for soaking up both pesticides and bacteria. Trust me when I say from personal experience, being a part of a peanut butter recall for salmonella is no joking matter.

While fungicides can eliminate the risk of certain bacteria, they make the food far from natural. On the flipside, natural butters have the potential to soak up more of the carcinogen aflatoxin that is produced by naturally occurring fungus in the soil. Although it’s been a couple of years since aflatoxin’s presence in peanut butter was brought into the public eye for scrutiny, it does remain a present source and has a tendency to grow and flourish, particularly in natural peanut butters. That said, refrigeration of these butters helps to discourage such growth.

Many stores now provide you the option of grinding your own peanut butter, allowing you the ability to see what exactly is going into your container. Still, although this may seem like the visibly safest choice, due to the risk for aflatoxin, you should immediately refrigerate as you would other natural nut butters.

In addition to meeting levels outlined by the U.S. government, there are some brands that have worked to craft their peanut butters to be virtually, if not entirely, aflatoxin-free, such as Maranatha, who also offers almond, cashew and other specialty nut butter alternatives.

Nutty Alternatives

Speaking of alternatives, not only has almond milk now officially overtaken soy for the number one “cool kid” slot in the world of non-dairy milk, they are moving on up over on the nut butter aisle as well. Like peanut butter, almond butter is vitamin and nutrient dense, and packed with protein. To keep it close to its natural state, there are almond options available without added salt, sugars, and oil.

Although it’s typically sold at a higher price point than peanut butter, thanks to an increase in popularity, its accessibility is increasing, and price becoming more manageable. Purchasing is the most convenient option; however, if you want to soak up all the benefits, consider making your own almond butter.

Then there are cashews. Despite lacking the omega-3 fatty acids that many nuts contain, cashews should not be overlooked as they boast amino acids and magnesium. Albeit higher in calories, cashew butter spreads easily on your favorite snack. And making it is simple.

The list of nut butters doesn’t stop here. Be sure to check out this guide to choosing the right nut butter for more options. If you aren’t set on which nut butter you wish to try, Justin’s offers nut butters in packet form, so you don’t have to take on the full commitment of an entire jar. Or if you are looking to get away from nuts all together, consider a few not so nutty selections.

Before the Store

While there are certainly ample, notable substitutes out there to avoid peanut butter altogether, including nuts, seeds and just about everything in between, if you aren’t quite ready to break away from peanut butter cold turkey just yet, here are three key things to remember before running to the store and restocking your cabinet.

1. Selection: In addition to checking out the FDA recall list, identify a brand with low or no added salt and sugar,  and one that does not use any added oils as preservatives.

2. Moderation: Regardless of your selection, limit your intake of peanut butter. This allows the food to be repositioned as a splurge, rather than a necessary staple. If you still feel yourself calling out for more, this is the prime opportunity to gradually introduce different alternatives into the mix.

3. Storage: If selecting a natural peanut butter that requires some stirring, or electing to grind your own in store or at home, remember to refrigerate. And only purchase, or make, an amount that can be consumed within a reasonable time frame since the lack of preservatives leads to a shorter shelf-life.

Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

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