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What’s in Your Peanut Butter?

Anyone who has worked with me in the last five years knows that I have a serious love for peanut butter. My employee picture should include me holding a jar of PB, because that’s pretty much my normal look around the office. So, of course, my ration of snacks include a giant jar of the gooey goodness. With so many options in the store, I recently decided to go with the natural variety of a popular brand because it has less sodium than its “regular” counterpart. Without thinking much of it, I continued happily eating away until I noticed something on the label – I was eating “Peanut Butter Spread”.

This made me wonder, “what’s peanut butter spread and is it different from peanut butter?” Then i noticed some products are even labeled “peanut spread”. So what is the difference between these labels? Have i stumbled upon some hierarchical placement within the peanut world?

Interestingly, this debate started in the 1940’s, when the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) was working between manufacturers and consumers. Throughout that period, the FDA didn’t have a clear definition of what constituted peanut butter, only that the product had to mostly contain peanuts and some salt. In fact, In 1959, some products labeled peanut butter had the peanut content reduced by as much as 20%. The rest included ingredients like salt, oils, honey, and other sweeteners.

In 1961, the FDA ruled that products labeled “peanut butter” had to contain at least 90% peanuts. The only other ingredients can be salt, sweeteners, and fully hydrogenated vegetable oils, like palm oil. Don’t confuse this with partially hydrogenated oils, which contain trans fats and are linked to heart disease. Natural peanut butters with peanuts as the only ingredient can also be labeled as peanut butter.

Products that contain other ingredients like palm oil, flavors, or other ingredients, but still contain at least 90% peanuts, have to be labeled as peanut butter spreads. Simple ingredients like these do not change the nutrition profile dramatically. If you compare the nutrition labels of several types of peanut butter products, even across brands, you will find that there is not much difference in fat content, sugar, and protein. The biggest difference may be in the sodium content if the manufacturer intended for the product to be lower in sodium.

Another variation you may see on shelves is reduced- or low- fat peanut butter products. The reduction in fat comes from fewer peanuts; peanuts are high in unsaturated fats – the good kind – so reducing the overall fat content means reducing the amount of peanuts. Labeled as peanut spreads, they contain less than 60% peanuts, with the remaining 40% being corn syrup, molasses, and partially hydrogenated oils. Due to the reduction in peanuts with the addition of other ingredients, it’s best to stick with regular peanut butter products.

Next time you are in the store choosing your favorite peanut butter, check out the label to see what you’re consuming. Since there may not be much of a difference in the overall nutrition content, the choice may just come down to taste, brand preference, and cost. It’s peanut butter jelly time!

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