One food that I eat almost every day is peanut butter. I put it in my oatmeal or smoothies for breakfast, eat it on toast or an apple for snacks, and usually have a few (or a lot of) bites after dinner. I have very little portion control when it comes to peanut butter, and I can go through a jar in a surprisingly few number of days. I really don’t keep many decadent foods in my kitchen, so peanut butter is usually my go-to treat. It can satisfy sweet and salty cravings while still offering healthy fats and protein.
I’m not super diligent about my portion sizing or watching the amount of peanut butter I eat. Since I do consume so much, however, I am picky about what types I buy and what ingredients I am willing to consume.
One of the most common ingredients found in conventional, big brand peanut butters that I avoid is hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oil. Partial hydrogenation is a process that turns oil from its natural, liquid state into a more solid product. It changes the mouth feel of the oil and gives it (or any product containing it) a longer shelf life. Partially hydrogenated oils are trans fats, meaning they can increase LDL (bad cholesterol), make arteries more rigid and become clogged, and can lead to coronary heart disease and diabetes. Their purpose in commercial peanut butters, besides extending shelf life, is simply to make them easier to spread and more “visually appealing”.
If you pick up a jar of natural peanut butter without hydrogenated oil in the ingredient list, you’ll notice some oil floating at the top. (According to the big brands, this is not “visually appealing.”) That is peanut oil that is naturally released when the peanuts are ground. Peanut oil, when consumed in moderation, can be good for you – much better than hydrogenated oil! It is low in saturated fat, is cholesterol free, and is rich in mono-unsaturated fatty acids. It can reduce levels of LDL (bad cholesterol), increase levels of HDL (good cholesterol), and help the body absorb vitamins.
Apparently consumers think the naturally-occurring oil that floats at the top of natural peanut butter is messy and inconvenient. Hydrogenated oils were introduced into commercial peanut butters partly because people didn’t want to have to stir the product.
To me, not wanting to stir your food is not a good enough reason to willingly consume artery clogging trans fats. Peanut butter is so calorie rich, in fact, that most of our arms could use a little stirring workout before consumption.
If you notice on the Skippy label, the company actually spells out the reason for the hydrogenated vegetable oils: “to prevent separation.” When ground, however, peanuts naturally release and separate from some of their oil. Preventing that separation and introducing hydrogenated oil into the product is both unnecessary and unhealthy.
Some producers of conventional peanut butters have switched from using partially hydrogenated oils to palm oil (see Smart Balance above and Natural JIF below). While palm oil has not gone through the hydrogenation process, it is still not a healthier solution.
The Huffington Post explains it well:
“…brands have been adding palm oil to their recipe… Using this ingredient may be considered cheating a bit in the realm of natural peanut butter, and it’s also a bit problematic in terms of your health and the environment’s health. Not only is palm oil extremely high in saturated fat, but it’s also controversial for the harm it causes to the environment — rainforests and peatlands in Malaysia and Indonesia have been cleared out to increase production of the palm trees that produce palm oil. Weighing the tradeoff between eating creamier “natural” peanut butter and eating something that’s potentially harmful is a decision you’ll have to make for yourself.”
Well, I made my decision to switch to real natural peanut butter (and almond butter) about a year ago, and I’ve never looked back!
The bulk bin grinders are my favorite sources – you can literally see the plain nuts being ground in front of your eyes and feeding directly into your jar. Most health food stores have these – in Charlotte I go to Healthy Home Market or Earth Fare, but most Whole Foods have them, too.
With these grinders, the only ingredient you pay for and consume are the nuts. This product is fresh, healthy, unprocessed, and tastes so much better than any jar of JIF! While the fat and calorie counts are still high in this all-natural peanut butter, you can feel better knowing that fats are healthy, the oils are natural, you aren’t ingesting chemical compounds or unnecessary sugars. Also, since this kind of peanut butter is so fresh, the oils rarely have time to separate before I finish my jar, and it spreads just as well as conventional peanut butter.
If you don’t have access to bulk grinders, there are many jarred nut butters out there that are also delicious, unprocessed, and only contain nuts. My favorite brands are Woodstock and Crazy Richard’s, and both are sold at my local Harris Teeter.
With the natural and health foods markets booming the way they are today, there are tons of options to clean up your diet and reduce your impact on the environment. There are no reasons why you need to keep consuming trans fats, hydrogenated oils, and other processed additives. Switching from conventional to all-natural peanut butter is a great step towards a cleaner diet, and it won’t leave you lacking flavor or texture – promise!
Have you made the switch? How do you think conventional peanut butters compare to the natural kinds?