I'm so fortunate to have clients that ask me several excellent nutrition questions daily. This blog is inspired by my clients questions and contains everything you need to know about nut butters. All of your questions are answered from "which nut butter is healthiest?", "what ingredients should I avoid?" "should I eat PB2 peanut butter instead?" "what are partially hydrogenated oils, and mono- and diglycerides?" Stay tuned for my new blog series - "Everything You Need To Know About" - I will be posting a new food topic each week, starting this week with nut butters!
Let's start with the health benefits. Nut butters (peanut, almond, cashew, etc.) are a good source of healthy fats and protein. As for the whole "almond butter is better than peanut butter" debate, variety is better. Each nut has their own unique nutrient content, so by occasionally switching between all the different kinds, you will be getting a wider variety of nutrients. Almond butter is slightly higher in monounsaturated fats and minerals, and peanut butter is slightly higher in protein. Cashew butter is a good source of magnesium, and walnut butter has more omega-3 than them all.
As with any food high in healthy fats, portion control is key. For athletes trying to maintain or put on weight, nuts and nut butters make an excellent snack because of their high calorie content. One handful of nuts can provide you with 200+ calories, and nut butters can be easily added to smoothies, oatmeal, or bread for additional calories. Nuts are also an excellent snack for weight loss because the high fat content makes them filling - an apple with a tablespoon or two of peanut butter will keep you full longer than just an apple by itself.
So whether you are buying peanut, almond, or any other nut butter, there's a few ingredients to look for. As with any ingredient label, less is more. You can make nut butter using just that - nuts! If buying peanut butter, the only ingredient on the label should be "peanuts". There should be natural separation (meaning you'll see some oil at the top), and all you do is give it a good stir before each use. If it's not separating, that is a sign they added thickeners or emulsifiers (unnaturally manufactured additives) holding it all together. Here's what JIF puts in their peanut butter…
Ingredients To Avoid:
Sugar & Molasses - these are unnecessary ingredients in peanut butter. If you ever buy "reduced fat" peanut butter, you'll notice that regular peanut butter vs. reduced fat peanut butter are actually very close in calorie, even reducing the fat content. That's because food companies increase the sugar content of reduced fat foods to enhance the flavor that's missing without those fats. So now not only will you be missing out on the unsaturated heart-healthy fats from nuts, but you are eating a nut butter higher in sugar and additives.
Partially Hydrogenated Vegetable Oil - this is the food industries very long word for "trans fat". Trans fat is a man-made, very unsafe fat that is scientifically proven to lower good cholesterol and increase bad cholesterol. It greatly increases your risk of heart disease. In the US, if a food product has <0.5 grams trans fat per serving, the food company can list the product as being "trans fat free" or "0 trans fat". However, this added trans fat can add up very easily - especially if more than one serving is consumed. You can't always trust food claims which is why it's so important to read the ingredient label - if you see the words "partially hydrogenated oils" it means the food contains some trans fat, even if it's less than 0.5 grams.
Fully Hydrogenated Vegetable Oils - Another way food manufacturers hydrogenate liquid oils to make them solid at room temperature and more self-stable. This ingredient isn't known to contain trans fat like partially hydrogenated oils, but it's still an unnecessary addition to peanut butter.
Mono- and Diglycerides - These additives are emulsifiers that help keep separation of natural ingredients from occurring, and increases the shelf life of processed foods. You will find these listed on several food labels of highly processed, packaged goods such as baked goods, candy, soft drinks, etc. and they may also contain trans fat.
What about PB2? It's low-calorie, should I switch to that?
My simple, short answer - No. PB2 is "powdered" peanut butter that is highly processed in order to "defat" peanuts - literally meaning taking all those heart-healthy fats I talked about in the beginning OUT of your peanut butter! Leaving you with a powdered flavoring that you mix with water - since you no longer have those healthy unsaturated oils.
Here is an example of what the ingredient label should look like the next time you buy nut butters. "Ingredients: Dry Roasted Peanuts"