Peanut butter is a staple in the cupboards for many of us. It is the perfect addition to toast, fresh bread, smoothies, dips or as a snack on its own. Peanut butter and bacon sandwiches are my first guests on any road trip and we have all been caught doing a Joe Black, licking the spoon of salty goodness at some time or another. Peanut butter is often recommended as a high energy, high protein addition for meal plans to assist weight gain or it can be used as a “good fat” for meals and snacks in weight loss approaches. The problem however is that not all peanut butters are the same. Let’s take a look at the peanut gallery we have in South Africa:
Peanut butter options can divided into two categories. Category A is 100 % peanuts. Category B is peanuts with a mixture of oil, salt, sugar and/or another preservative. Across the board every 100 g of peanut butter will give you about 600 calories, 50 g of fat, 22-25 g of protein, 14-25 g of carbohydrate (depending on sugar added or not) and 150-200 mg of salt. A serving of peanut butter is about 30 g or 2 tablespoons. As you can see it is a high energy, high fat and high protein food. Diabetics are advised against sugar containing versions (although this only saves you 3 g per serving!) and hypertensives are advised against salt containing versions.
What no one tells you about is the other added ingredients and that is my focus for this post. First on the menu, added fat. Now we know peanuts are already high in fat so why would they add more? One reason: as a stabilizer to stop the peanut and its natural oil from separating. Remember the days when you had to mix your peanut butter or be left with a paste good enough to plaster walls? That doesn’t happen anymore becaue of the added fats. These added fats will be called stabilizers on the label or hydrogenated vegetable oils, usually a blend of soy/palm/sunflower oil. Hydrogenated vegetable oils are the ones we should be on the lookout for due to their role in cardiovascular disease. When oils or fats are hydrogenated they are bombarded with hydrogen atoms to make a more stable, longer lasting fat. However this produces trans fats when not fully hydrogenated which are the really bad guys with a strong link to heart disease.
I know Mr Yum Yum will now stand up and say: “But levels are extremely low” or “they are fully hydrogenated and thus not a trans fat!”. This is somewhat true and levels are very low, low enough to fall below the threshold needed to label them as trans fats if they were not fully hydrogenated. But this does not mean they are trans fat free and my opinion is that none is better than some, especially if it is in something we might be eating every day. My advice, which hold true for ALL products, is to stay away from anything with added vegetable oils.
The second added ingredient that might be on the label is TBHQ (tert-butylhydroquinone). A noddy badge for whoever knew that already. TBHQ is an antioxidant used quite often in foods as it is a good preservative of fats, especially unsaturated (not fully hydrated) ones. While there are some concerns of a link to cancer there has been sufficient evidence provided to allow the European Food Safety Authority to rule it “safe to consume TBHQ in small quantities”. I wouldn’t necessarily base dietary recommendations around this ingredient but again, less is better.
Anyway my first choice for peanut butter would be a stabilizer and antioxidant free version such as Woolworths Organic Peanut butter or similar versions that you might get at health shops. It is not the organic bit that interests me, rather the simple ingredients. Read the labels of the peanut butter you are buying and try to get something that is 100% peanuts. Or better yet you can make your own:
- 450 g peanuts (shelled and skinned)
- 1 tsp honey
- 1 tsp salt
Gently roast your peanuts over a medium heat in a dry frying pan. This will help with flavour and a smoother peanut butter. Let the nuts cool slightly and then put them in a food processor along with the honey and salt and blend for 5 minutes. The nuts will move from a chopped look, through a crumble, to a paste and finally into a butter. Stop every minute or so to scrape down the nut fragments that are trying to escape. You can add a teaspoon of nut oil or canola oil (all good for monounsaturated fats) and blitz for another 90 seconds if you are struggling to get a nice smooth butter. Once done keep the butter in an airtight container, it should last 2-3 weeks.
But wait there is more, even better yet you can use other nuts to improve the overall fat profile of the butter. Some nuts will give you more monounsaturated fats at the expense of polyunsaturated fats. My pick here is macadamia nut butter. Try that in the recipe above by substituting the peanuts for macadamias, they are higher in fat too so they should make a nice smooth butter.