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Many of us can recall the excitement of opening our lunch boxes at school and discovering that Mom packed our favorite sandwich—peanut butter and jelly. That unmistakable combination of creamy, sweet, and sometimes crunchy flavor is an American childhood favorite. And even if you’re no longer eating PB&J sandwiches for lunch almost every day, you may still enjoy peanut butter spread on celery sticks or apple slices from time to time. But is peanut butter healthy?
Peanut butter is known for being high in protein, fiber, heart-healthy fats, and essential vitamins, making it an optimal choice for a well-balanced diet. According to the USDA, two tablespoons of smooth peanut butter contains 188 calories, 15 grams of fat, 7 grams of protein, and 1.8 grams of fiber.
On the other hand, peanut butter could possibly work against your health goals, depending on how often you eat it, how much you eat, the varieties you choose, your daily diet, and your exercise routine. Certain varieties of peanut butter contain added sugar, oil, fat, and preservatives—ingredients that bring us back to the question “Is peanut butter healthy… or not?”
To make sure peanut butter doesn’t sabotage your health, consider these six tips the next time you go grocery shopping.
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#1. Read the labels carefully.
Not all peanut butters are created alike. Many brands contain unhealthy amounts of added sugar and salt that can make it unsuitable for diabetics and those with high blood pressure. Even some varieties labeled as “organic” or “natural” can still contain added sugar and salt, so read labels carefully. Also, beware of any brands containing preservatives and/or stabilizers.
#2. Watch your portions.
As mentioned earlier, two tablespoons of peanut butter contain 188 calories, so if you’re accustomed to eating more than that in one serving, you’ll want to cut down as much as you can. Due to its high fiber and protein content, two tablespoons of peanut butter should be more than enough to curb your hunger when paired with healthy fruits and vegetables as a snack. If you find you’re still hungry, reach for more veggies and fruit—without the peanut butter. (For more information, check out Portion Control: 10 Tips to Keep from Overeating.)
#3. Pair up your peanut butter with the right companions.
If you like your peanut butter spread on saltine crackers, baked in cookies, or in a sandwich with jelly or bacon, consider swapping out those high-carb, low-nutrition items for healthier items like celery, carrots, multigrain crackers, apples, and bananas. These combos will help you to stay satiated for longer periods of time, and you’ll consume less fat and added sugar. Make things even more interesting by mixing a tablespoon of peanut butter into your morning smoothie or adding some to your stir fry sauce at dinner for a Thai twist.
#4. Alternate peanut butter with other nut butters.
Almond butter generally contains more unsaturated fat and less saturated fat than peanut butter, plus it contains significantly more fiber, vitamin E, iron, and calcium than peanut butter. Again, read labels carefully to identify any added sugar, salt and oils.
#5. Make your own peanut butter.
Possibly the best way to control the ingredients sometimes found in commercial peanut butters is to avoid them altogether—and make your own peanut butter. If you have a food processor and 15 minutes to spare, you can whip up your own batch and adjust it to your taste and preferred consistency with just a touch of salt, honey, and/or oil. Learn the steps for making your own peanut butter here.
#6. Beware of a possible nut allergy.
While most peanut allergies start during childhood, they can develop at any time in life. Therefore, if you experience itching, hives, trouble breathing, stomach pain, or nausea shortly after eating peanut butter, avoid peanuts altogether until you can visit your doctor. If you truly have a peanut allergy, there are alternative butters you can try that are made from tree nuts (but only if you haven’t tested positive for a tree nut allergy); examples: spreads made from almonds, walnuts, or hazelnuts. Individuals with a peanut allergy can also try sunflower seed butter, cashew butter, or soy butter.
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Is Peanut Butter Healthy Even Though It Contains Saturated Fat?
One serving of peanut butter contains about three grams of saturated fat, which to many healthy eaters seems very high. Yet, according to nutritional experts, the pros of eating peanut butter outweigh the cons. Because of the healthy fats, vitamins, and minerals it contains, it can still be part of a balanced diet. (Such foods as olive oil, wheat germ, and tofu have similar nutritional values.)
Until recently, the FDA did not allow peanuts or peanut butter to be labeled as “healthy” because of its fat content, but the organization changed its guidelines in 2016 to recognize the peanut’s “high levels of unsaturated fats that provide a source of plant-based protein and overall beneficial nutrient profile.”
“For decades, research studies have recognized the health benefits of peanuts as a superfood that is nutrient dense with more than 30 essential vitamins and nutrients containing good fats,” said Bob Parker, president and CEO of the National Peanut Board. “The new FDA guidelines allow us to better educate Americans on the benefits of incorporating peanut and peanut products into their lifestyle to maintain a healthy diet.”
WHAT YOU SHOULD KNOW: Peanut Butter, Natural Peanut Butter, Peanut Butter Spread…What’s the Difference?
Is there a significant difference between peanut butter, natural peanut butter, and peanut butter spread? And which one is healthier? Well first, let’s look at how the FDA classifies peanut butter.
According to its regulations, peanut butter must contain at least 90 percent peanuts. The only other ingredients allowed are salt, sweeteners and hydrogenated vegetable oils. Most “natural” peanut butters only contain peanuts, but must still follow the same criteria. Other brands that contain anything outside of the three additional ingredients allowed must be labeled “peanut butter spread” and must still must contain 90 percent peanuts. (Many peanut butter spreads contain palm oil, which is higher in saturated fat than the hydrogenated vegetable oils found in regular or natural peanut butter.)
So, which one should you choose? That depends. According to the National Peanut Board, regular peanut butter (per the USDA Nutrient Database) contains one more gram of saturated fat and two more grams of sugar than the top-selling brand of natural butter. The same brand of natural peanut butter also contains one more gram of protein than regular peanut butter. It’s always important, however, the read the labels carefully because there are plenty of varieties and hybrids (such as natural peanut butter spread) to choose from.
If you’re strict about your saturated fat intake, you might be better off with the natural peanut butter, but if it merely comes down to preference, just know that you’ll still be getting a significant amount of nutrition from your favorite peanut butter.
Originally published in 2017, this post is regularly updated.