It’s in nearly everybody’s pantry, beckoning to us, but is it a decent food for the physique-conscious person? Here are the pros and cons.
I’ve always felt a little iffy about Skippy and Jiff, and I’m not talking about the creepy kids next door that play lacrosse for their private school. I’m talking about peanut butter. I appreciate its flavor, but I’ve always had misgivings about it as a bodybuilding food or even a health food.
Sure, I know peanut butter is high in protein. On a gram-for-gram basis, it has about the same amount as beef – 100 grams of peanut butter (3.5 ounces) have between 22 and 25 grams of protein, while an equivalent amount of beef has about 25 grams. (And yeah, I know the amino acid profile of PB is inferior to that of beef, but save that argument for later in the article.)
The main difference, the main problem, between the two foods is this: The 100-gram serving of PB (about 7 tablespoons) contains about 597 calories. One could quickly get a little creamy or chunky around the waistline from regularly indulging in that kind of caloric orgy.
So last week, right around a midnight dreary, I pondered, weak and weary, over the contents of my cupboard while looking for a snack, and there it sat – the ever-present jar of peanut butter. And I was faced with those same iffy feelings about whether it’s healthy enough to let into my strict dietary world.
It turns out there were a lot of factors to take into consideration.
When peanut butter was first introduced to the Western world in the early part of the last century, it consisted of merely roasted and ground-up peanuts. Grocers who bought tubs of the stuff from manufacturers were instructed to stir it frequently with a wooden paddle. Failure to do so would result in what looked like pond water – murky liquid floating on top of sediment, albeit without bluegill and snails.
Then, in 1921, a Californian named Joseph Rosefield figured out how to “partially hydrogenate” peanut butter, which involved converting the oil into something that’s a solid or semi-solid at room temperature. Enter the Skippy brand of peanut butter. No more laborsome stirring. No more spoilage.
This more stable version could now be shipped across the country and stacked on warehouse shelves, leading the way for the national brands we know today.
The trouble was/is, as you well know, that this process involves adding trans fats to the peanut butter, most varieties of which can cause your blood to turn into something almost as creamy as peanut butter. Not good.
It’s a myth, however, that modern grocery store peanut butters like Skippy and Jiff contain trans fats. Those fat were, after all, banned in 2018. Even so, just to make sure, the U.S. Department of Agriculture analyzed 13 brands of popular peanut butters and found that the amount of partially hydrogenated oil in them was so minuscule that they couldn’t detect any trans fats.
What modern grocery store brands do contain, though, are fully hydrogenated oils. While they’re not as dangerous as trans fats, it’s difficult to classify them as healthy. In the case of peanut butter, the oils are mostly stearic acid, which is a type of saturated fat, albeit one less detrimental to health than some other fats (and, in fact, healthful in small doses).
The natural question that arises is this: Are natural peanut butters (roasted, crushed peanuts with a little salt added) better than conventional peanut butters? Well, yes, but only because they don’t contain added ingredients like sugar, corn maltodextrin (a sugar substitute), mono- and di-glycerides, and the added aforementioned hydrogenated vegetable oils.
You may have noticed, though, that several conventional grocery store peanut butters, Skippy among them, sell “natural,” no-stir versions. In most cases, this just means that the regular form might contain rapeseed or soybean oil while the “natural” form might contain palm oil.
It’s a small and deceptive difference, but worth taking into consideration.
Earlier, I mentioned that a 3.5-ounce portion of peanut butter contains about 597 calories. Most of that, of course, comes from fat that’s intrinsic to the PB. Here’s where a health-conscious consumer might get conflicted.
Half of that fat comes from oleic acid, the same healthy monosaturated fat that’s made olive oil famous. However, it also contains a high amount of linoleic acid, which is an essential omega-6 fatty acid.
The potential trouble is this: In recent years, it’s become widely believed that humans should ingest a particular ratio of fats for optimal health. Generally, this ratio should consist of only 2 or 3 part of omega-6 fatty acids for every 1 part of omega-3 fatty acids (the kind fish oil is known for).
Unfortunately, modern-day, non-farm living humans have made a joke of this ratio. Most estimates put the average Westerner’s fatty acid ratio at around 20 to 1 instead of 2 or 3 to 1. The problem? A skewed ratio supposedly leads to high levels of inflammation and ups the risk of chronic diseases.
This is far from conclusive, though. A few high-quality studies have cast doubt on this theory as they’ve found that linoleic acid doesn’t increase blood levels of inflammatory markers. Nevertheless, you could always play it safe and choose to smear peanut butter on high omega-3 content sardines instead of apples or bread. Okay, maybe not.
What I do occasionally, though, is take two tablespoons of powdered peanut butter (from which 90% of the fat has been removed) and mix it with three-fourths of a tablespoon of mild-tasting olive oil and use that as a spread. It may sound repulsive, but it’s not bad, and you simultaneously protect yourself from upsetting the omega-6/omega-3 apple cart (olive oil consists mostly of omega-9 fatty acids).
Alternately, and most conveniently, you could just swallow a Flameout capsule or two before eating your sandwich made with conventional grocery store peanut butter.
(Incidentally, Elvis Pressley was inordinately fond of peanut butter sandwiches, but they were nothing like the type your momma made you. Elvis’ peanut butter sandwich consisted of bread, lots of peanut butter, mashed banana, and four strips of bacon, all fried in butter. It was inspired by the “Fools Gold Loaf,” which was something he encountered at a diner after a 1976 concert. That “sandwich” consisted of a full loaf of sourdough bread, a jar of peanut butter, a pound of bacon, and a jar of jelly. No wonder Elvis’ true cause of death was “defecation associated sudden death,” i.e., he had a “mega-colon” that was two or three times the size of normal. His autopsy found that it was impacted with clay-like barium – and maybe peanut butter – from an X-ray procedure he’d undergone four months prior to his death.)
As mentioned, a typical 3.5 ounce serving has between 22 and 25 grams of protein, nearly equivalent to what you’d get in an equally sized portion of beef. However, regularly eating 3.5-ounce servings (about 7 tablespoons) would put you close to Elvis-sandwich territory and put you at risk of eventually dying on the toidy.
A more realistic two-tablespoon serving would only contain about 7-8 grams of protein and 188 calories. Unfortunately, for most athletes, 7 or 8 grams of protein is hardly worth it. It’s almost like ordering a one-egg omelet.
Additionally, most varieties of peanut butter are low in the essential amino acid methionine. There’s two ways to look at that. Eating a methionine-poor protein source most likely isn’t a big deal as far as building/rebuilding muscles as long as you’re getting some additional methionine through your other protein sources that day.
On the other hand, it might be a good idea to short-change yourself on the amino acid, at least occasionally, as low-methionine diets have been shown to extend the lifespan of rats and mice. Whether it works that way in humans is still unknown, though.
I hesitate to go into this aspect of peanut butter too deeply because just about any/every light-processed or unprocessed plant food is relatively rich in vitamins and minerals. And do you really need/want to know how many micrograms of folate are in your peanut butter?
Suffice it to say, peanut butter is a rich source of vitamin E (60% of the daily value, or DV), niacin (84% of the DV), magnesium (37%), copper (56%), manganese (65%), and, as promised, folate (18%). But again, that’s the amount of nutrients contained in a hefty 3.5-ounce serving.
Likewise, peanut butter is rich in iron, potassium, zinc, and selenium. And, as you might expect, it also contains formidable amounts of certain polyphenols, among them phenolic acids, flavonoids, A-type procyanidins, p-coumaric acid, and even resveratrol. A decent amount of fiber, too (8.4 grams per 100 grams).
Peanuts don’t grow on trees.
No, that’s not some idiom suggesting that peanuts are scarce. The thing is, peanuts aren’t true nuts – they’re legumes. As such, most grow on the ground or, more accurately, just under the ground. That makes them susceptible to picking up molds and, by association, mycotoxins, which are toxic compounds.
Among the most powerful of these mycotoxins is aflatoxin, which can cause nausea, abdominal pain, and convulsions, all because of its attack on the liver. Long-term exposure can cause cirrhosis and even liver cancer.
Luckily, the molds that produce aflatoxin are easy to detect because they fluoresce under black light. Some modern peanut butter factories, as part of the production process, shine these lights down on the peanut conveyor belt. This allows them to spot the tainted peanuts and toss them out before they end up in your peanut butter.
This aflatoxin might be a potential problem when it comes to buying “homemade” peanut butter from your food co-op. While the owners of the co-ops might still have black lights at home pointed at their Jimmy Hendrix posters, it’s unlikely they use them when making peanut butter. That’s why buying grocery store brands of peanut butter might be a safer choice.
The USDA reports that there are eight pesticides commonly found in traditional peanut butters, so it might be a good idea to buy organic varieties. To play it extra safe, you should also look for butters made from Valencia, aka “Jungle,” peanuts. Unlike most other varieties, Valencia are usually grown on bushes off the ground, so they’re not prone to the mold issues discussed above. They’re also a bit sweeter, making for one fine-tasting peanut butter.
Trader Joe’s makes a good brand. It’s available, of course, in Trader Joe’s stores or you can order it from Amazon.
Contrary to what you might think, peanut butter can go rancid. Even though conventional store brands are fortified with stabilizers and hydrogenated oils, they’ll generally last unopened for 6 to 9 months on the shelf. If, however, they’re opened, they’ll last about 2 to 3 months in the pantry or 6 to 9 months in the fridge. After that, they might start to smell a bit funky, which tells you that the oils have started to turn rancid.
Natural peanut butters, however, don’t have any of the additives found in conventional peanut butter, so they’ll do best when refrigerated after opening. Even so, they’ll still do fine for a few weeks at room temperature. Again, the best way to tell if it’s still good is to give it a good whiff.
(Speaking of giving peanut butter a good whiff, Dana Small, a Yale University neuroscientist, has developed a simple way to identify asymptomatic carriers of COVID-19: Simply open a jar of peanut butter and smell it. One of the symptoms of the virus is a severe loss of smell, so if you can detect that strong, familiar odor, you’re probably not a carrier. If, however, you smell nada, chances are you’re Typhoid Mary’s cousin, COVID Larry.)
Really, the only thing natural (nothing but peanuts and a pinch of salt) peanut butter has going against it (assuming you considered all the precautions and the remedies I mentioned) is its caloric content. But as is the case with all calorie-dense foods, portion control is prudent.
Of course, given that the protein and fat it contains is pretty satiating, it may prevent you from eating something that a physique-conscious person shouldn’t, so eating this calorie-dense food may be a wash.
Go ahead and have it as a bedtime or anytime snack without guilt. Just don’t go Elvis.
Make any nutrition strategy better:
- Rabiatu Bonku and Jianmei Yu, Health aspects of peanuts as an outcome of its chemical composition, Food Science and Wellness, 27 December 2019.
- Maria Carin and Amalia Carelli, Peanut oil: Compositional data, European Journal of Lipid Science, 14 July 2010.
- Mary Roach, Gulp, Adventures of the Alimentary Canal, W.W. Norton, New York, 2013.
- Kate Wheeling, A Brief History of Peanut Butter, The Smithsonian Magazine, January 2021.
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