How to Choose The Best Nut Butter
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By Fiona Riddle
Americans reportedly consume 700 million pounds of peanut butter each year, which is about 3 pounds per person. Not to mention the numerous other options available (almond, cashew, hazelnut, etc.) – that’s a lot of nut butter!
“Aside from tasting great, nut butters are incredibly popular because they are an affordable and beneficial source of protein and healthy fats …”
Aside from tasting great, nut butters are incredibly popular because they are an affordable and beneficial source of protein and healthy fats, especially for vegans and vegetarians. Peanut butter and nut butters have even been shown to reduce the risk of developing Type 2 Diabetes. Not all nut butters are created equal, however, and it’s important to choose options that will have the most health benefits.
Ideally, the best options are made from a single ingredient, for example just peanuts or almonds. However, those options tend to cost more, for both the producer and consumer. Consequently, producers often mix in cheaper ingredients like oils, sweeteners, and other additives. When purchasing nut butter, always read the ingredient label to see what’s actually in the jar. And watch out for marketing buzzwords on the front like “natural,” as this does not mean it’s the healthiest choice.
“If you’ve ever purchased peanut butter made from only peanuts, you’ve probably noticed the layer of oil that sits on top.”
If you’ve ever purchased peanut butter made from only peanuts, you’ve probably noticed the layer of oil that sits on top. This is due to natural separation when the peanuts are ground and processed into “butter” and is a sign that the jar has no emulsifiers. While the nut butter sits, the oil rises to the top forming a separate layer.
Since many people find it a nuisance to have to stir their freshly opened jars, companies add other oils to prevent this separation. You’ll often see these oils, such as palm oil, soybean oil and canola oil, added to “no-stir” varieties. These refined, bleached and deodorized (RBD) oils are highly processed through multiple chemical treatments.
Additionally, synthetic antioxidants, such as BHA and BHT, are often added to canola oil and soybean oil to prevent them from going rancid too rapidly. In animal models, BHA and BHT have been found to promote tumor growth, and BHA is classified as a possible human carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer.
Soybean oil, which is the most widely consumed oil in America, has also been linked with metabolic and neurological changes in the brains of mice. The 2015 study found that the consumption of soybean oil may lead to obesity and diabetes, and newer research suggests it may affect serious neurological disorders such as autism, Alzheimer’s disease, anxiety and depression.
While these oils may not be detrimental to your health in small amounts, they are prevalent in most ultra-processed foods and are often consumed in excess. It may be beneficial to limit consumption and avoid nut butters that contain these oils when possible, especially if eaten daily.
If you’ve ever read the label of a jar of Jif peanut butter, you’ve probably noticed the ingredients mono- and diglycerides on the label. These fats are emulsifiers often added to nut butters as yet another way to prevent natural separation and maintain a creamy texture. Monoglycerides contain small amounts of trans fats, which have been linked with cardiovascular disease, diabetes, cancer, and numerous other illnesses. While there is no evidence to support these glycerides specifically having negative health consequences, they offer no nutritional value and are not a necessary additive.
“Sweeteners are another common additive in nut butters since they are cheaper than the nuts themselves and make nut butter even more difficult to resist.”
Sweeteners are another common additive in nut butters since they are cheaper than the nuts themselves and make nut butter even more difficult to resist. Two of the most popular brands, Jif and Skippy, both have added sugar (molasses) in their classic peanut butters, 2g and 3g respectively.
This is a seemingly small amount, however most consumers do not stop at only a single 2 tablespoon serving a day. A few large spoonfuls of this peanut butter could be making up ⅓ of your recommended daily sugar intake. These added sugars are important to pay attention to as they are a main contributor to the growing rate of obesity in America, and “a reduction in sugar consumption” may help to reduce this growing rate.
Consuming excess added sugar has specifically been associated with an increased risk of childhood obesity. While peanut butter and jelly sandwiches are a staple in the diet of American children, they are often loaded with sugar. The average serving of jelly has around 10g of added sugar, and most store-bought bread has a few grams as well. Pair that with sugar-laden peanut butter, and your child’s lunch may contain almost 20g of added sugar (not factoring in added sugar in sides and snacks).
When choosing nut butter, opt for the most minimal ingredient list possible, preferably only the nuts themselves and maybe a pinch of salt. Ideally, avoid making sweetened options a staple in your diet as these varieties make it easy to consume excess amounts of sugar, especially when part of a “Standard American Diet” high in refined carbs and ultra-processed foods.
Fiona Riddle is a Certified Health Coach with a degree in Psychology from UCLA. She is passionate about a holistic approach to health when working with her private coaching clients. She is an avid cook, constantly creating and sharing new recipes on her Instagram (@feelgoodwithfi) to showcase simple clean home cooking. She has helped clients take their health into their own hands and successfully boost their energy and confidence through sustainable lifestyle changes. www.feelgoodwithfi.com