Peanut Butter: Tasty, Healthy, and It’s Not Just For Kids

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Happy Belated Peanut Butter and Jelly Day! (And thanks to Foodimentary for bringing this holiday to my attention.)

An odd follow up to lobster bisque for my regular readers, I know. However, I’ve actually been meaning to write about peanut butter for quite some time now, so this week seemed the perfect week to do so. In addition to its national recognition, I also stumbled upon another peanut butter shout out on the Bon Appétit food blog, where the new editor Adam Rapoport discussed his regular breakfast of grumpy red eyes and chunky peanut butter on whole grain toast.

Why peanut butter?

I love peanut butter. Not like I love divine lobster bisque or decadent chocolate brownies, of course, which are infrequent treats that are not a part of my usual diet.  On the other hand, peanut butter is creamy, delicious, satisfying, and good for you, so it actually can be a part of your regular repertoire. An almost-daily pleasure for me. I even keep a jar at my office alongside a loaf of whole grain bread, and peanut butter on toast is a frequent late morning breakfast or early afternoon snack at work. Incidentally, I recently learned that my colleagues and research assistants apparently find my affection for peanut butter on toast rather amusing. Yes it’s true, you might often hear me say “Wait, I just need to make myself a piece of toast!” if you try to drag me into a mind-numbing meeting, but I still fail to see why this is funny. It’s not like I’m neurotic about it or anything placing exactly one piece of bread in the toaster until it’s the perfect level of crisp brownness, lovingly spreading the succulent butter on the hot toast, waiting until it melts perfectly, and then carefully cutting it in half. I just like it, that’s all. Can’t a girl eat her peanut butter in peace? Geesh.

Anyhow, writing about peanut butter is a good chance to highlight the nutrition facts about something so many people love and some people fear. (Not in a healthy, “I have a peanut allergy and don’t want to die” sort of way, but an irrational belief based on nutrition misunderstandings or misinformation.)  Hence today’s Top Ten Peanut Butter Facts below, in no particular order.

Top Ten Peanut Butter Facts

  1. Great Choice for Breakfast, Snack, or Lunch
  2. Add Whole Fruits, Veggies, or Grains to Boost the Nutrition
  3. High in Heart-Healthy Fats
  4. Inexpensive Source of Plant-based Protein
  5. No Cholesterol
  6. Contains Fiber and Phytonutrients
  7. Good Source of Other Minerals and Vitamins
  8. Can Be Included in Successful Weight-loss Diets
  9. Associated with Reduced Risk of Cardiovascular Disease
  10. Useful Ingredient in Cooking

Dietary Details

Peanut butter is an energy- and nutrient-dense food that provides lots of good stuff. Yup, it’s high in fat, but mainly the good kinds—monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids—that are related to reduced risk of cardiovascular diseases and some cancers. (Kind of like avocados used in making guacamole, another very high fat food that’s amazingly healthy.)  It’s because of all of that fat that it has so many calories, about 180-200 kcal or so in 2 tablespoons, the amount used generally in a sandwich or on a slice of toast.(Remember that fat has the most energy per gram – 9 kcal/g—compared to protein and carbs—4 kcal/g.)

Even though it’s high in calories, research has found that nuts and peanut butter can be included in weight loss diets, as long as calories are controlled (as with all diets).  Because of its particular macronutrient profile, mainly comprising protein, fat, and a bit of fiber, it is a highly satiating food that will keep you feeling full, a key in regulating hunger and appetite. When combined with whole foods such as grains (as in bread or toast), fruit, or veggies, you get an additional boost to your fiber and nutrient intakes, creating a more nutritionally complete meal.

While most people think first of red wine as a major source of resveratrol – and it is – peanuts also contain this powerful antioxidant related to reduced risk of heart disease. Peanuts also provide folate, niacin, vitamin E, manganese, copper, and a host of polyphenols with high antioxidant capacity perhaps responsible for improved glycemic control and reduced risk of some cancers. Peanut butter is not a source of dietary cholesterol, and I always chuckle when I see a “no cholesterol” label on some jars. Cholesterol is an animal product and as such never occurs in plant foods like peanut butter. Unless it’s combined with bacon. (Hey, people are obsessed with bacon. It could happen.)

The healthfulness of peanut butter can depend on the brand you purchase, so read the ingredient list and nutrition facts panel. Most brands contain sodium, although there are many no-salt options available. Others may include hydrogenated oils, which you don’t need in your diet.  You might consider trying a natural peanut butter whose ingredients include only peanuts.  While these types will separate and need to be mixed and refrigerated, they are so much better than the “regular” varieties found on supermarket shelves. (Take this from someone who grew up on Skippy but now can’t eat anything other than natural; there’s just no comparison in taste and texture.) Don’t even consider a reduced-fat peanut butter. A feat of food technology given this food mainly comprises fat—read the ingredient list!—this product has stripped peanut butter of all its healthful and tasty properties and is taking advantage of consumers who still think fat is the villain. You know better than that, I hope. (For more on this, read my post on why the devil is in the details when it comes to diet.)

For more details on the healthfulness of peanut butter, including information related to athletic performance, check out this article by sports nutritionist Nancy Clark, MS, RD.

Peanut Butter Postscript: Way Beyond Sandwiches and Toast

Last but definitely not least, don’t forget that peanut butter has a lot of other uses than it’s basic role in sandwiches or on toast. I like to spread it on whole grain crackers or brown rice cakes for a snack. I know plenty of others who fill celery crevices or slather bananas or apples with it. There are no doubt many other creative concoctions out there that currently evade me. Peanut butter is also a fabulous ingredient used in a number of Asian-inspired dishes, including salmon with sesame noodles and tuna satay. Whole peanuts can also be tossed on lots of different meals to add flavor and crunch, like Pad Thai (above photo). And let’s not forget about my most recent post-workout / holiday goodie concoction, granola-filled peanut butter balls.

So go ahead.Make peanut butter and peanuts a regular part of your diet. Track the calories if you’re on a diet, but otherwise enjoy fully its health-giving, delightful properties. Do be careful about how often you eat it at work, lest you get a nutty reputation like mine. (I couldn’t resist the pun, I’m sorry. That said, I’m pretty sure said reputation is way beyond the peanut butter thing.)  But the fact is that while I joked about this earlier, my coworkers have noted this in a good way, because as a nutrition scientist the foods on my plate are often scrutinized, and an afternoon snack of a peanut butter on toast with a piece of fruit is a much better choice than chips, cookies, or candy bars.  Whether meal or snack, peanut butter and peanuts are uniquely satisfying foods that can play a regular role in your diet, so stop fearing the fat and get your peanut on. Yeah, okay. Maybe not. But you know what I mean.

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Dr. P. K. Newby is a nutrition scientist and author with expertise in the prevention of obesity and chronic diseases through diet and the relations between agriculture, food production, and public health. She brings together her passions for food, cooking, science, and sustainability through her writing and videos to help people eat their way towards better health, one delectable bite at a time. Because healthy food shouldn’t suck.

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