Nut butters are something you probably have in your pantry right now (or your fridge). They’re incredible sources of plant-based fats, B vitamins, and let’s be honest — they’re one of the tastiest condiments we can use in so many different ways. Whether you’re looking for something simple to spread on a sandwich or crackers, to dip raw veggies into, to add to a smoothie or cookies, want to use them in a salad dressing or dip recipe, try them as a base for an energy bar recipe, or even turn them into nut milk with a quick blend of water instead of using whole nuts that require soaking, nut butters are truly a versatile food we should all be using if we can. And, if you’re not able to enjoy nuts due to an allergy, be sure you use seed-based butters instead (pumpkin, sunflower and sesame), or just use coconut butter instead (another must-have).
But before you go and pick up just any old jar of nut butter at the store, it’s important that you know what to avoid. These containers may advertise themselves as healthy, sustainable, sugar-free, and even natural or organic. But many of them may also contain ingredients that don’t serve your health well. Plus, these added ingredients really aren’t necessary. If you’ve ever made your own nut butters at home or had the chance to hand-grind your own in the bulk section of many stores, you know that nuts and seeds are all you need to enjoy delicious butters of all kinds. There’s no need for additives or emulsifiers because nuts and seeds contain flavor and fats that help them churn into delicious butters without anything else needed.
So, without further ado, keep your eyes peeled for the ingredients below on the jar of your next nut or seed butter purchase. Read labels closely, and if you see these five, put the product back and pick up a different brand that’s much healthier for you.
1. Palm Oil
There’s a great deal of controversy about whether this oil is bad or good for us. There are also two different kinds of palm oil out there; one is made from the palm fruit and another is made from the palm kernel seed. Advocates of palm oil for health are referring to palm fruit oil, which is lower in saturated fat than palm kernel seed oil. Both are free of cholesterol (unlike animal-based saturated fats) and palm fruit oil is also high in carotenoids which provides antioxidants. However, you should know that there are higher-quality carotenoids found in vegetables like carrots and sweet potatoes without you needing a refined, extracted oil that’s likely produced with hexane or other chemicals during the process. Regardless as to which type of palm oil your nut or seed butter has, the problem lies in the fact that these two forms of the oil both come from the same tree. (the palm tree). We know that palm oil is one of the most detrimental oils in terms of sustainability in foreign lands, destroying the lives of wild animals every single day. Unless we actually see the lands that the palm oil comes from in our nut and seed butters, we really have no reason to deem them safe, no matter what the labels may tell us. Even food companies that make organic and natural products still use palm oil, many of which may be your favorite brands. Read the label to see if your nut butter contains palm oil — you may be surprised at what you find. In terms of health, we should also be aware that added oils to our diet contribute (mostly) empty calories and non-whole food sources of added fats. We’re much better off relying on raw nuts and seeds for fats instead of buying nut and seed butters that have refined sources of added oils.
2. Hydrogenated or Partially Hydrogenated Oil
These two types of oil refer to any kind of oil that has been chemically altered for the processing purpose of the oil. This is typically what makes nut butters like Jif so thick, creamy, and able to sit on a shelf for months and even a year before it goes bad. These oils are heated and whether fully hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated, both types contain excessive saturated fats with no health benefits that can lead to weight gain and heart problems. Partially hydrogenated oil also contains trans fats, even if the label says it’s trans-fat free since the FDA allows up to 0.5 grams of trans fats in trans-fat free products. Imagine that! You should also avoid soybean oils, which are almost always hydrogenated, and avoid refined vegetable oils. Even if these aren’t hydrogenated, they’re highly heated and can pose similar health problems for your weight in condensed amounts. Remember, no matter how healthy the product may look, if you see these two types of oils (in any form), put it back and pick up something else!
3. Excessive Sodium
USDA Food Administration/Flickr
Salt is not our enemy, but when it comes from refined or even mildly processed foods, we should really be cautious about how much we’re consuming. This is especially true with something such as nut butter that is condensed and has a smaller serving size. If the product you’re purchasing has over 100 milligrams of sodium per serving (2 tablespoons), you should look at choosing one with lower sodium or go for simple raw or freshly ground (plain) nut butter instead. If you make your own nut butter at home, it’s also better to use pink or another type of sea salt in very small amounts (just a pinch) instead of using refined and iodized salts. Excessive sodium in processed foods can lead to high blood pressure and poor heart health, not to mention it heightens cravings and makes it harder to control portion sizes.
4. Added Sugars
Added sugars found in nut butters include: sugar, brown sugar, molasses, honey, coconut sugar, coconut syrup, evaporated cane juice, evaporated cane syrup, cane juice, cane syrup, dextrose, maple syrup, agave, brown rice syrup, and tapioca syrup. Even though some of these may pose less damage than others, keep in mind that they are all added calories that provide little nutrition. It’s also important to remember that when you eat sugary and fatty foods at the same time, it can alter your body’s ability to use insulin efficiently. This can lead to blood sugar problems and possible weight gain. Though a little added sugar once in awhile is likely to do little harm, using it regularly from a food that you probably eat pretty normally on a day to day basis, such as nut butter, is not a great idea. It also trains your taste buds to crave sugar from non-whole food sources instead of from fruit, nature’s most perfect source of sugar that also contains fiber and more vitamins and minerals than any “healthy” sweetener out there. Plus, when you actually try plain raw almond butter or any other plain raw nut and seed butter, you actually get to taste the true flavor of the nut and seed instead of it being masked by a sugary goo!
Milk in nut butter? Sad to say, but yes, true. It’s largely found in Nutella or knock-off products that aren’t certified vegan, however, it can also be found in low-calorie peanut butters, diet nut butters, along with some nut butters that have added protein powder — yes, those actually exist. Milk may be listed as skim milk powder, dried milk powder, milk, whey, or casein, just to name a few. If you spot milk in the ingredient label, you’d best put it back; you can bet your bottom dollar this milk isn’t from a sustainable source. Not to mention that cow’s milk comes with some pretty scary health risks that will probably do you more harm than any good these nut butter products will. Make your own homemade version of Nutella at home instead, and leave out the maple syrup if you want it even healthier. If you want a punch of protein, add a scoop of hemp seeds or pea protein to your nut butters instead of buying pre-made protein nut butters.
Whether you choose raw or roasted nut butters, always go for those that only contain organic nuts and seeds. This will ensure your products are free of pesticides, chemicals, and fertilizers many nuts are exposed to. If you grind your own or buy raw nut butters, do keep them in the fridge and away from heat and light to prevent mold development, rancidity, and to preserve their fresh flavor. The only exception to this is coconut butter, which will remain stable at room temperatures due to its anti-bacterial properties and unique fatty acid structures.
Brands That Make Products Without These 5 Ingredients
Many brands out there make products that do not contain any of these ingredients. Some of these include regular nut and seed butters by Artisana, Dastony, Once Again, Wilderness Family Naturals, Woodstock Farms, organic unsweetened Sunbutter (not the other varieties), a few of the products made by Maranatha (such as their peanut butter and raw organic and raw regular almond butter), and Whole Foods 365 brand of plain peanut and almond butter, just to name some of the top brands out there. Keep in mind that some of these brands may still make a few specialty products with natural sweeteners like coconut sugar or agave (like chocolate nut butter), so use at your discretion or read labels to avoid.
The best part about raw nut and seed butters is they actually really do taste better than those with added ingredients; they’re much lighter, easier to digest, and contain more natural enzymes that benefit your health. Since they’re not highly heated, their vitamins and minerals are also better retained.
For some of our favorite recipes, try all of our nut and seed butters here and let us know what you look for when you purchase yours at the store.
Lead Image Source: Coulter Lewes/Flickr