“Natural” or “Regular” Peanut Butter: Which to Choose?

29 Sep

Image: Andy Newson

“Organic,” “natural,” and “unrefined” are words that get tossed around a lot these days. It seems like just about every food manufacturer and brand name has come out with “natural” or “organic” version of their existing products to compete with healthier brands. You may be wondering what the fuss is all about– after all, what does natural peanut butter have that makes it worth your time?

It’s not a question of what natural peanut butter has… it’s a question of what it doesn’t have. According to federal law, to qualify as “peanut butter,” both regular and natural brands must include a percentage of peanuts which allows for only a small percentage of fillers, including salt, sweeteners or stabilizers. (The Saratoga Peanut Butter Company, however, does not add stabilizers or fillers of any type. Our mission is to make great tasting combinations and unique blends using only the natural nuts and other tasty additions, like cranberries, cherries, flax, cinnamon, etc.) The health benefits of peanuts are present in any product with peanut butter on the label. So what’s the harm in buying cheap, readily-available processed butters, exactly?

Well, let’s look at what’s added:

1. Too much salt. A report from the CDC indicates that Americans eat twice as much salt as is recommended. According to one of the authors of the report, “Sodium has become so pervasive in our food supply that it’s difficult for the vast majority of Americans to stay within recommended limits.” 77% of this intake comes from processed foods, and regular peanut butter is a frequent offender. Skippy brand peanut butter, for example, has 50% more salt than natural peanut butter, and more sugar as well. Which brings us to…

2. Too much sugar. A recent USDA report showed that Americans consume about 1/4 of all their calories from added sugars, and it’s no wonder. Like most popular processed products, regular peanut butter is almost guaranteed to include extra sugar: most of that unrestricted percentage of ingredients is typically sweeteners. They aren’t always labeled as sugar, either– be on the lookout for high fructose corn syrup or even molasses. Peanut butters labeled as “low-fat” are particularly likely to have extra sweeteners. Of course, there’s nothing inherently wrong with real sugar, but eating too much of it may lead to weight gain and health problems like type II diabetes, and the fact that the market is saturated with products full of added sugar makes it harder to maintain your health.

3. Unnecessary stabilizers. Stabilizers are additives like hydrogenated oils, which keep peanut butter at a single consistency no matter the temperature. Even some manufacturers of “natural” peanut butter may add palm oil as a stabilizer, which adds 16-20% more saturated fat. Additives in peanut butter contain not only trans fats but also saturated fats, which have been linked to cardiovascular disease and several types of cancer. This is because the process of hydrogenating oils involves converting unsaturated fatty acids to saturated ones– hence the change in consistency.

There aren’t many good reasons to add these chemical stabilizers to peanut butter. Without stabilizers, the natural oils in peanut butter often rise to the top, and some peanut butter (though not Saratoga Peanut Butter Company brands) will go bad if unrefrigerated. That’s it. That’s why major manufacturers add these substances to their product: to make it look smoother, and to reassure consumers that it can be left on the shelf for eternity. Sure, you sometimes have to spend a few seconds mixing natural peanut butter to get an even consistency, but that’s a small price to pay for the knowledge that what you’re about to put in your mouth is nothing but heart-healthy peanuts and a little pinch of salt.

(One further thing to keep in mind: your choice of natural peanut butter can make a difference when it comes to baking. Sadly, many recipes are now written under the assumption that you’re going to use regular peanut butter, which (as we said before) has a different consistency and a very different taste. Because it has no added sugar, natural peanut butter can make some recipes taste saltier than they otherwise would, and the lack of artificial stabilizers can make foods like cookies spread more in the oven. Fortunately, it’s easy to correct for either of these issues when baking with natural peanut butter: if you find natural peanut butter not sweet enough, reduce the salt in the recipe by 1/4 tsp, and if you find that cookies made with natural peanut butter spread out too much, you can make them a bit smaller or slightly reduce the baking time.)

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