Peanut butter has been a part of the diet of most North Americans since their childhood. It is delicious, versatile and available everywhere. But in this day and age of shunning fat, where do peanuts and peanut butter fit into a healthy diet?
What is peanut butter?
From a botanical classification point of view peanuts are legumes which, similar to other legumes such as beans, peas and lentils, are the edible seeds or pods of plants. On the other hand, the way that peanuts are used and their nutritional qualities place them very squarely in the nut category. Peanuts are a good source of protein, containing 8 grams of protein in just 1 ounce (28 gm or about two tablespoonsful) of peanut butter. The same amount of peanut butter also contains 2 grams of fiber and is a rich source of many other nutrients important for health (1).
Peanut butter in its simplest state is simply ground up peanuts. It requires no additives to enhance its taste or storage capabilities. The only step needed before digging in to a new jar of peanut butter is to either stir the separated oil back into the peanut mash or pour some or all of it off. The oil on top of your peanut butter has separated during the processing of the peanuts, so if you are avoiding isolated oils in your diet, simply remove this oil. If you don’t mind thick peanut butter, remove all of it; if you want a peanut butter that has less oil but is still quite spreadable, just remove part of the oil. Whatever you choose, be sure to mix the remaining peanut butter very thoroughly so that the final product retains the same consistency right down to the bottom of the jar.
Let me state right now that this type of peanut butter, often called “natural peanut butter”, is the one of choice for health. It is not generally the most available type of peanut butter. Your local grocery store shelves likely hold many jars of peanut butter that are more solid, don’t have oil floating on the top and need no stirring to turn them into a homogeneous paste. Leave these jars on the shelf at the store and reach for that one with the separated oil. The others are full of unneeded and unhealthy additives.
The following are some unnecessary ingredients often added to peanut butter….
Peanuts naturally contain peanut oil and lots of it. There are 15 gm of fat in every 2 tablespoonsful of peanut butter. Why then do manufacturers feel the need to add more fat to peanut butter? According to the National Peanut Board, solid fats are used to keep the natural oils found in peanuts from separating and rising to the top of the jar, to make the product more spreadable and to preserve freshness for longer shelf stability (2). Partially hydrogenated oil was once the oil of choice to add to peanut butter but this type of oil contains trans-fats which have been banned in Canada since September 15, 2018 (except for a two-year grace period to remove inventory already on store shelves) (3). Fully hydrogenated oil and palm oil are now the preferred fats for adding to peanut butter by its manufacturers. Both these additives have negative effects on health.
Palm oil is an unusual plant oil because it is high in saturated fat. Saturated fats raise LDL-cholesterol which causes higher risk of cardiovascular disease (4). Fully hydrogenated oils contain a type of saturated fat called stearic acid that is created during the hydrogenation process and is considered to be less dangerous to health than trans-fats. However a large study from 2016 showed that all types of saturated fat, including stearic acid, are linked with increased heart disease risk (31). In addition, palm oil comes with significant environmental concerns. Studies show that palm oil plantations have been the cause of unprecedented rates of deforestation, wildlife depletion and greenhouse gas emissions. (5
All this aside, there is no need to add more fat to peanut butter. Peanuts ground into peanut butter with nothing else added stay fresh once opened for 5 to 6 months in the refrigerator, more than enough time to finish off a jar even if you’re only an occasional eater of peanut butter (6).
As in many processed foods, sugar is added to peanut butter in an effort to make it more appetizing. Unfortunately sugar masks the delectable natural taste of peanut butter. In fact peanut butter is one of the foods that produce “umami”, the fifth basic taste after sweet, sour, salty and bitter. It is designated as a complex, deeply flavourful and satisfying taste, certainly not one to be covered up by sweeteners (7). On top of this is the deleterious effect of added sugar on health. Excessive consumption of added sugars is associated with metabolic abnormalities and chronic health conditions such as obesity, diabetes, heart disease and Alzheimer’s Disease (8).
Our world is chock full of foods too high in salt and there is no valid reason to add peanut butter to that list. Salt is full of sodium and most countries now recommend a decrease in our sodium intake. Sodium is an essential nutrient. However Health Canada states that Canadians now consume an average of 3400 mg of sodium each day, more than double the amount needed for health. Too much sodium leads to high blood pressure and increased risk of stroke, heart disease and kidney disease. Excess sodium is also linked to increased risk of osteoporosis and stomach cancer (9).
Is peanut butter healthy?
Peanuts contain all three macronutrients, protein, fat and fiber, and all three are present in their most beneficial form for good health in peanuts. The protein is plant-based; the fat is unsaturated; the fiber is complex carbohydrate (10). Peanuts, being legumes, actually contain more protein than any other type of nut with levels similar to those of beans (10). In fact peanuts contain all twenty amino acids that human beings need, including all the essential amino acids (those that our bodies cannot produce and need to acquire from food), and is one of the best food sources of the amino acid, arginine (10). The carbohydrates in peanuts are in a whole complex form that is absorbed slowly and does not result in spikes in blood sugar. Peanuts are also rich in antioxidants and other bioactive compounds, fiber, minerals and vitamins. (1,10,11).
You can see that peanut butter is indeed nutrient-dense but it is also energy-dense. This means that it will supply lots of calories along with its healthy components. Peanuts and peanut butter are easy snacks and often consumed during physically-demanding activities. But keep in mind that two tablespoonsful of peanut butter provide about 170 calories and 15 grams of fat so it is easy to eat a lot of fat and calories in one sitting.
A closer look at the health benefits of peanut butter
PEANUT BUTTER IS HEART HEALTHY
A large study encompassing 72,000 people including Americans of European and African descent and Chinese individuals in China looked at the relationship between consumption of nuts and longevity. Results showed that those who ate the most nuts, especially peanuts, had a lower risk of death from cardiovascular disease and less risk of early death from all causes (12). A 2017 study of more than 76,000 women from the Nurses’ Health Study and almost 93,000 men from the Harvard Professionals Follow-up Study found that the more nuts consumed, the lower the incidence of cardiovascular disease and coronary heart disease. In particular, consumption of peanuts more than twice a week was associated with a 13% lower risk of cardiovascular disease and a 15% lower risk of coronary heart disease (13). Many other studies have shown that increasing nut consumption, including that of peanut butter, results in improved blood lipid levels, reduced risk of colorectal cancer and cardiovascular disease and as much as 40% reduction in mortality from cardiovascular or coronary artery disease (10).
These studies have been performed in people from diverse races and economic statuses and the health benefits were found to be the same across the board.
PEANUT BUTTER PROMOTES HEALTHIER BLOOD VESSELS
Peanuts have the highest level of the amino acid arginine among foods (10). Arginine boosts the production of the important molecule, nitric oxide. Nitric oxide performs several beneficial actions in blood vessels – it promotes relaxation and dilation of arteries improving blood flow and lowering blood pressure; it prevents blood components from becoming sticky and so decreases the development of atherosclerotic plaques in arteries; and it decreases inflammation (14,15,16).
PEANUT BUTTER MAY PREVENT CANCER
A study completed in 2018 looked at peanuts, pine nuts and almonds in over 2,700 people and found that a higher intake of any of these nuts (constituting at least three servings a week) was strongly associated with a reduction in the risk for colorectal cancer (17). An earlier study followed over 9,000 preteen girls and found that those eating peanut butter at least three days a week had a 39% lower risk of the development of benign breast disease, a risk factor for breast cancer (18).
PEANUT BUTTER IS BENEFICIAL FOR THE BRAIN
A 2017 study showed that eating nuts can improve brain cognition and memory. In addition peanuts in particular induce better sleep and improve immunity (19). Peanuts are high in niacin, a nutrient that studies have correlated with lower incidence of cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s Disease (20).
PEANUT BUTTER CONTAINS BIOACTIVE COMPOUNDS WITH MULTIPLE BENEFITS (10)
Peanut butter is a good source of many bioactive compounds (10). The antioxidant capacity of peanuts is higher than that of green tea and red wine (21).
Here is a rundown of some of the bioactive compounds found in peanut butter.
Resveratrol is an antioxidant that can increase endurance and longevity, reduce inflammation and decrease the risk of cardiovascular disease, Alzheimer’s Disease and cancer (22,23). All parts of peanuts contain resveratrol and peanut butter contains almost as much resveratrol by weight as grape juice (24).
Phytosterols have the ability to block the absorption of cholesterol from the diet and peanut butter is a very good source of phytosterols (22).
Phenolic acids are antioxidants that protect against oxidative damage and diseases such as coronary heart disease, strokes and various cancers. Peanuts are an excellent source of phenolic acids, and if they are roasted with their skins on, the bioavailability of these antioxidants is increased so much that they surpass even berries as a food source of phenolic acids (24,25).
Flavonoids are protective against heart disease and cancer. Peanuts are considered an excellent source of flavonoids (24).
Co-Enzyme Q10 is a significant lipid antioxidant that scavenges for free radicals and mutations in DNA. Coenzyme Q10 also helps produce energy, boosts the immune system and protects the heart during any period of lack of oxygen (for example high altitudes or clogged arteries) (26). Legumes such as peanuts and soybeans are the best non-animal-based sources of Coenzyme Q10 (10).
HIGHER INTAKE OF PEANUT BUTTER IS ASSOCIATED WITH LESS WEIGHT GAIN
A 2017 study published in the European Journal of Nutrition found that people who ate the most nuts—including peanuts—gained less weight and had a 5% lower risk of becoming overweight or obese over the five-year study period compared with those who didn’t eat them (27). Researchers observed that even though peanuts are high in calories, they are also rich in protein and fiber so that their eaters feel satisfied before they overeat.
PEANUT BUTTER IS AN EXCELLENT SOURCE OF VITAMINS AND MINERALS (1,10)
A small amount of peanut butter supplies a surprising of the daily requirement for many vitamins and minerals. Here are the various vitamins and minerals that you can acquire from eating two tablespoonsful (28 Gm or 1 ounce) a day of peanut butter.
Vitamin B3 (Niacin): 19% of the required daily amount of niacin. Niacin is important for the brain, nerves, digestive tract and skin and in the conversion of food to energy.
Vitamin B1 (Thiamin): 15% of the required daily amount of thiamin. This vitamin is important for energy metabolism and communication between nerves and within the immune system.
Vitamin B9 (Folate): 15% of the required daily amount of folate. Folate is essential for the production of DNA and other genetic material and for the production and maintenance of cells throughout life but especially during pregnancy and infancy.
Vitamin B-6 (Pyridoxine): 14% of the required daily amount of pyridoxine. Pyridoxine is important in the support of enzyme reactions in the body and is necessary for the health of the heart and the immune system.
Vitamin E: 14% of the required daily amount of Vitamin E. This vitamin is considered to be a difficult vitamin to get enough of but it is present in a relatively high amount in peanut butter.
Vitamin B5 (Panthothenic acid): 9% of the required daily amount of pantothenic acid. Pantothenic acid helps convert the food you eat, especially fatty acids, into energy and it is also necessary for the production of blood cells.
Vitamin B2 (Riboflavin): 2.5% of the required daily amount of riboflavin. Like all B vitamins, riboflavin plays a role in energy production but it is also important for the skin, the lining of the digestive tract, the eyes and blood cells.
Manganese: 21% of the required daily amount of manganese. Manganese is a constituent of many enzymes that are important in such body processes as bone formation, reduction of oxidative stress, wound healing and the conversion of fats and protein into energy.
Phosphorus: 14% of the required daily amount of phosphorus. Phosphorus helps in the production of healthy cells and bones and the conversion of food to energy.
Magnesium: 12% of the required daily amount of magnesium. Magnesium plays a role in over 300 chemical processes in the body. Some of these are nerve, muscle and immune system functions, reduction of inflammation, energy production, regulation of the heart beat and keeping bones strong.
Zinc: 6% of the required daily amount of zinc. Zinc is essential for the proper function of the immune system. It also plays a role in cell division and growth, wound healing, the senses of smell and taste and the digestion of carbohydrates.
Copper: 6% of the required daily amount of copper. Copper works with iron to form red blood cells. It also helps in immune function and to maintain healthy bones, nerves and blood vessels.
Potassium: 5% of the required daily amount of potassium. Potassium is an electrolyte than helps nerves function and muscles contract. It is needed for a regular heart beat and it helps in the elimination of waste products.
Iron: 4% of the required daily amount of iron. Iron is essential for blood production and the transfer of oxygen from the blood to the lungs and other tissues. Iron is also needed for proper immune system function and in respiration and energy metabolism.
Calcium: 2% of the required daily amount of calcium. Calcium is another electrolyte and is active in muscle contraction, normal heart rhythm, blood clotting, formation of bone and teeth and the normal function of many enzymes.
A word of caution
Peanuts can contain a toxin called aflatoxin that has been linked to increased cancer risk in human beings. Aflatoxins are produced by certain fungi that are found on agricultural crops such as corn, cottonseed, peanuts and tree nuts (28). The Canadian government regularly tests susceptible crops for aflatoxin and recent tests of nut butters found no samples that posed a concern to human health (29). However in the interest of health it is best to consider peanut butter to be a product where it is important to buy from reputable companies who take aflatoxin contamination seriously. Tests show that generally the lowest concentrations of aflatoxins were found in the most well-known brands. Consider avoiding using the do-it-yourself peanut butter machines in health food stores. If these machines are not thoroughly cleaned regularly and if peanuts are left sitting in them for long periods of time they are susceptible to aflatoxin contamination (30). If you choose to buy your own peanuts and grind them at home be sure to throw out any nuts that are moldy, shriveled or discoloured and keep you equipment clean.
How to choose the best peanut butter for health
Choose a peanut butter from a well-known manufacturer.
Check the labels and choose a peanut butter that contains ONLY peanuts and nothing else. This type of peanut butter is often labelled as “natural” and some of its oil can be seen floating at the top of the jar.
Keep your peanut butter refrigerated once it has been opened.
Finally, enjoy your peanut butter in every way you can think of. Spread it on whole grain toast or make a peanut butter and spinach sandwich. Take some along on hikes or bicycle rides as a quick and satisfying snack for when your energy starts to lag. Cook up a peanut sauce for a tasty change of flavour in your vegetable stew. Making peanut butter a regular part of your diet is both enjoyable and nutritious.
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