Amy Campbell, CDE, is a registered dietitian and the author of several books about diabetes, including 16 Myths of a Diabetic Diet and Staying Healthy with Diabetes: Nutrition and Meal Planning.
As a child, I’d usually bring my lunch to school. Typically, it consisted of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. If I were lucky, once in while I’d have peanut butter and marshmallow fluff (“fluffernutter”) sandwiches. I’m much older now, but I have not lost my love for peanut butter one bit. Every now and then, a toasted peanut butter sandwich hits the spot. I also admit that I have a weakness for Reese’s peanut butter cups. And let’s face it: what peanut butter lover has never eaten peanut butter straight out of the jar?
But peanut butter has been maligned. Some of it, perhaps, rightfully so—especially if you or your child happens to have a peanut allergy. Others have scratched peanut butter off their “To Eat” list because it’s high in calories and fat. Also, peanut butter purists complain about salt and sugar added to peanut butter. So, peanut butter often gets a bad rap.
That’s only part of the story, though. Let’s look at five reasons to include peanut butter in your eating plan:
- Protein. We Americans seem to think we can’t get enough protein—despite the fact that most of us do! But if you equate protein only with animal foods (think beef, chicken, cheese, eggs), you’re missing out. Plenty of evidence shows that plant-based diets can boost health and help prevent disease. In fact, plant foods can be excellent sources of protein and peanut butter is no exception. Two tablespoons of peanut butter contain eight grams of protein, the same amount of protein that you get from one ounce of meat, chicken, or fish.
- Potassium. You know you need potassium, although you may not quite know why. Potassium helps regulate fluid balance, heartbeat, and blood pressure. An eating plan higher in potassium and lower in sodium can help lower blood pressure and reduce the risk for heart disease and stroke. Peanut butter is a good source of potassium, coming in at close to 210 milligrams per two tablespoons.
- Healthy fat. Yes, peanut butter is high in fat, but it’s high in healthy, unsaturated fats. About half of the fat in peanut butter is monounsaturated and about 30 percent is polyunsaturated. Both of these fats help to promote heart health, unlike unhealthier saturated and trans fats. You might also find peanut butter with added omega-3 fatty acids (a type of fat that promotes heart health), such as Smart Balance.
- Antioxidants. We typically think of fruits and vegetables being key sources of antioxidants, and there’s no doubt about it. But peanuts (and peanut butter) are an awesome source of polyphenols, chemical compounds with healthy antioxidant properties. One of the polyphenols in peanuts and peanut butter is resveratrol, a substance that is thought to fight heart disease, stroke, and cancer.
- Weight control. It may seem like a stretch to view peanut butter as a food to help you manage your weight. In actuality, peanut butter is perfectly positioned to help you reach and stay at your weight goal, thanks to its protein, fat, and fiber content. These nutrients fill you up and keep you feeling full so that you’re not reaching for something else to eat a short while later.
And one more benefit of peanut butter: It’s relatively low in carbohydrate, coming in at just about seven grams of carbohydrate per two-tablespoon serving.
“Choosy mothers choose Jif” . . . or do they?
For those of you who are old enough, this slogan from the 1970s might ring a bell! Jif and Skippy peanut butters were popular brands back then. Today, there are many more brands and types of peanut butter to choose from. According to Food and Drug Administration regulations, peanut butter must contain at least 90 percent peanuts. Salt, sweeteners, and even hydrogenated oils are also allowed. Peanut butters that include anything else, whether it’s flavorings or other ingredients such as chocolate, must be called “peanut butter spreads.”
How do you spot a nutritious peanut butter? Are they all the same? Use these tips to help you choose wisely.
Skip added fats. Peanut butter naturally contains fat, and as I mentioned above, those fats are mostly the good kind. But some brands may contain hydrogenated oils (trans fat) or other unhealthful fats such as palm oil.
Skip added sugars. Sugar, in one form or another, is often added to many processed foods, including peanut butter. Read the ingredient list carefully. Sugar is sugar, whether it’s listed as sugar, honey, molasses, high fructose corn syrup, or evaporated cane. Keep in mind that flavored peanut butter spreads (e.g., those that contain chocolate or cinnamon) can be fairly high in sugar. Go for peanut butter that has no more than one to two grams of sugar per serving.
Skip the reduced-fat versions. As tempting as it can be to load up on lower-fat versions of foods, it’s best to remember that low- or reduced-fat doesn’t always mean reduced-calorie or reduced-carb. When fat is taken out, something else is usually put in and that’s generally some form of carbohydrate, such as sugar. For example, Jif Reduced-Fat Creamy peanut butter spread has the same number of calories as regular Jif, plus 15 grams of carb per serving (vs. eight grams carb in regular Jif).
Don’t be fooled by “natural.” You’ll see peanut butters labeled as being “natural,” but what does that really mean? “Natural” is an unregulated term. In general, though, natural peanut butters are those with the oil on the top that you need to stir in (hint: pouring it out leaves with you with unspreadable, cement-like peanut butter). And in general, natural peanut butters contain only peanuts (great) and salt. A good choice is Teddie Smooth Old Fashioned peanut butter. However, you might come across so-called natural peanut butters with added sugar and other oils, so again, read the ingredient list.
If other factors are important to you, such as going with organic and/or non-GMO products, you can certainly find peanut butters that satisfy those criteria. Justin’s brand is an example. Other brands of peanut butter that you might consider include: Trader Joe’s Organic, Whole Foods 365, Smucker’s Natural, and Nuts ‘N More.
Are you a peanut butter lover? How do you fit it into your meal plan? Tell us by adding your comment below.