Is Peanut Butter Good for You?

peanut butter

The standard recipe for peanut butter is pretty simple: peanuts.

Yet, different brands may add other ingredients to change flavor, texture, or even alter its nutritional profile. Some of these additives can be questionable. And others can be downright dangerous.

Where and how the peanuts used for peanut butter are grown can also affect the healthfulness of the end product.

Here Are 6 Things to Consider When Choosing Peanut Butter:

1. Sugar

As in all-too-many processed foods, food manufacturers use sugar to add sweetness to peanut butter. I was recently at the store looking for a new brand of peanut butter to try. I was appalled by how many of them (even varieties labeled as being “natural”) contained added sugar.

I’m sure you don’t need another lecture on the health problems caused by added sugar. It’s a primary culprit behind obesity, heart disease, Alzheimer’s, and practically every other major chronic disease of our times. And it’s not just in donuts and candy. A surprising amount of the sugar in the modern diet is snuck in as an additive to foods (like peanut butter!).

2. Salt

Salted peanut butter can carry up to 50 to 75 milligrams of sodium per tablespoon.

If you use peanut butter often and want to reduce your sodium intake, look for unsalted versions. And if you make your own peanut butter at home, buy unsalted peanuts.

3. Oil

As if 15 grams of fat in every two tablespoons wasn’t enough, many peanut butters also contain added oils.

Some of the biggest peanut butter brands, like Skippy, use fully hydrogenated oil, which has been linked to many health problems, including heart disease.

Many of the more natural brands of “no-stir” peanut butter contain added palm oil. This comes with ethical concerns. Palm oil plantations are a major driver of deforestation in the rainforests of Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand. Bulldozing old-growth forests to plant rows of oil palms destroys the homes of native people and already endangered species, like orangutans.

There are also reports of palm oil corporations violating human rights. They clear farmland and forests without permission. And the companies involved provide unsafe working conditions and inadequate pay to their workers. If you’re going to eat palm oil and you don’t want to contribute to these major problems, look for a “fair trade” certification as a step in the right direction.

4. Aflatoxins

Here’s a nutty fact: peanuts don’t actually grow on trees or bushes. They grow underground.

Peanuts grow best in hot climates, which means they’re at heightened risk of containing aflatoxins. Aflatoxins are a group of toxins that can be produced by fungi in humid conditions. They’re concerning because they have been known to increase cancer risk in humans.

Other foods at risk for containing aflatoxins include corn, figs, cereals, cottonseed, and tree nuts.

How do you choose a peanut butter with the lowest amount of aflatoxins?

Consumers Union tested a variety of peanut butter brands. They found that the lowest concentrations of aflatoxins were in the most well-known brands.

This is probably because they had the best hygiene and most effective testing methods. On the contrary, fresh ground peanut butter found at the supermarket had the highest aflatoxin levels.

In general, I’m a fan of fresh foods and local production. But due to the aflatoxin concern, when it comes to peanut butter, I recommend that you opt for a variety produced by a well-known company. And one that contains only peanuts (and maybe salt) as ingredients.

This is one food where it’s best to steer clear of the bulk bins and “fresh ground” found in many natural foods stores.

If you choose to buy your own peanuts and grind your own butter at home, be sure to examine and throw out any nuts that don’t look right. Moldy, shriveled, or discolored peanuts belong in the compost pile, not in your peanut butter.

And as a side note, researchers at Johns Hopkins University found some evidence that certain plant compounds may be able to counteract the negative effects of aflatoxins. These include chlorophyll in green vegetables, like spinach, and phytochemicals in such root vegetables as carrots and parsnips.

5. Pesticides

Unless you buy organic peanut butter, chances are, that unassuming jar contains more pesticides than you’d like.

According to the USDA Pesticide Data Program, there are eight pesticides commonly found in peanut butter.

The most common is Piperonyl butoxide, a known endocrine disruptor, a possible carcinogen, and a threat to honeybees.

When consuming peanut butter, the best way to reduce your exposure to pesticides is to buy a certified organic brand.

6. Genetically Modified Ingredients

Another reason to avoid peanut butters with added hydrogenated oil? The oil used usually comes from a genetically modified crop.

Rapeseed, soybean, or cottonseed oil are some of the most commonly used. And the majority of these crops are genetically modified in the United States.

There’s been talk of another genetically modified component that may eventually reach jars of peanut butter everywhere: allergy-free peanuts.

Scientists are hoping to be able to alter the genes for the proteins in peanuts that cause allergic reactions. They haven’t accomplished this yet. And there are some doubts that the end result would be as rosy as promised. However, it is something to keep in mind for the future if you want to avoid GMOs. (For more on non-GMO and organic certification, click here.)

A Note on Peanut Allergies

Odds are that you know someone who has a peanut allergy.

What’s interesting is that there’s evidence that suggests we might not be as allergic to food itself as we are to what’s being done to food.

For instance, in the United States, our food system is teeming with GMOs, artificial flavorings and ingredients, fillers, chemicals, and dyes. Peanut butter is no exception.

Peanut allergies have seen a dramatic increase in the last decade. Around 2.5% of children are now allergic to peanuts, which is a 21% increase since 2010.

The good news is that we’re more aware of this as a society. And medical professionals are better equipped to diagnose and treat them. Parents also have more ways to help prevent their kids from developing peanut allergies.

In 2017, the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases released new guidelines for how and when to start introducing infants to peanuts to reduce their risk — as early as 4 to 6 months old.

And it goes without saying, but it’s worth saying again: If you have a peanut allergy, don’t eat peanuts.

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