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Peanut Butter. Should you buy organic?

"Don't mess with my peanut butter." That's what my husband said when I recently switched to an organic brand. "Isn't all PB wholesome and natural?" he queried. While PB&J is as American as Apple Pie, there could be a health glitch.

Have you checked out the ingredients in your favorite nutty staple? If you're not buying all natural or organic, you're likely getting more than you bargained for. Along with peanuts and salt, you're treating yourself to: sugar, partially hydrogenated vegetable oil, fully hydrogenated vegetable oils, mono-and diglycerides, and molasses. And if you've been following the brouhaha over trans fats and their deleterious effect on blood cholesterol, a loud alarm is now going off in your mind. Partially hydrogenated oils in my peanut butter! That's definitely BAD BAD BAD.

Check out the ingredients in any organic brand. There's significantly less label real estate taken up--peanuts, salt. That's it. Pretty simple. No need for explanations or definitions.

So what's the point of all that other stuff? Window dressing. The partially hydrogenated oils are used to keep the peanut butter creamy and consistent; meaning that the oil in the PB does not rise to the top as it does with all-natural and organic brands. With the natural stuff, you need to stir it up each time. And the extra sugar and molasses? Sweeter flavor. (However, my taste tester could not tell the difference.)

Partially hydrogenated oil is the ingredient tip off that trans fats are present. So why does the nutrition label for popular commercial brands like Jif, Skippy and Peter Pan list the trans fat content at 0 grams. What gives?

First, keep in mind that nutrition labeling is specific to one serving size, which in the case of PB is 2 Tablespoons (32 grams).

Second, for a reason that we do not understand, the FDA only requires listing trans fats if there are .5 grams or more in each serving. (So theoretically, as much as 8 grams could be included in a 16 ounce jar, even though zero is listed on the label. 8 grams is about what a medium order of French fries contains or a really big donut. But c'mon who eats an entire container of Peanut Butter?)

Third, a 2001 study of 11 peanut butter brands supported by the US Department of Agriculture concluded that even though PB does contain a minute amount of partially hydrogenated oils, there were "no detectable trans fats in any of the samples, with a detection limit of 0.01 percent of the sample weight." "That means that a 32-gram serving of any of the 11 brands could contain from zero to a little over three-thousandths (0.0032) of a gram of trans fats without being detected."

So while the trans fat risk is pretty darn small, what about the mono-and diglycerides? These common food additives are also fats and are used to increase shelf life and to decrease separation of the oil. Again, more window dressing. And you'll typically find this additive in high sugar and high fat products. Strict vegetarians should be wary because sometimes these fats are animal based.

Bottom line: if you have a strong aversion to seeing the oil separate in your peanut butter, sticking with the creamy commercial brands poses no real health risk. The calories, total fat, carbs, fiber, sodium, protein and sugars are very similar for organic and non-organic brands. We compared Jif to Safeway's Organic line. The organic brand came out ahead in terms of the sugar (1 gram less), fiber (1 gram more) and sodium (120mg versus 150 mg). Not huge differences. Jif however has 15% RDA of Vitamin E and 20% Niacin. Both deliver 4% of the RDA of iron.

We've made the switch. The price difference is small and I figure it's always smart to eliminate the "extras" whenever possible. But if you want to allocate your organic dollars to replacing foods that may pose a higher risk, take a look at our recent post on buying organic. There's a link to a site that lists foods in order of pesticide residue.

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