Is Peanut Butter Good or Bad For You? Health Benefits Explained
You’re going to find a lot of conflicting information online about what’s healthy and what’s not. Some people write off fast foods entirely, while others are quick to point out just how nutritionally balanced a smart fast food choice can be. Peanut butter is another one of those controversial foods.
Peanut butter, when made well and used correctly, can play an important role in your diet. Not only does it boast tons of protein, vitamins, and minerals, but it’s really delicious. Peanut butter is one of the yummiest ways to fight mid-day cravings, provided you’re using it wisely. Don’t grab a spoon and dip straight into the jar. Grab a tablespoon and measure out a sensible portion for a quick recipe.
What’s in Peanut Butter? A Breakdown of the Ingredients
There are over a dozen brands of peanut butter on store shelves, and ingredients will always slightly vary from manufacturer to manufacturer. We took the ingredients list from the top-selling brand of peanut butter to evaluate it for its nutrition. Ingredients are labeled on a food product by highest to lowest concentration, so you should always expect to see peanuts at the top of the list.
Peanuts aren’t actually nuts. They’re technically a bean. Their unique nature makes them perfect for creating cooking oils, alternative flours, and supplemental protein powders. They’re very high in protein, very high in fiber, and a great source of healthy omega-6 fats. Peanuts are also a fatty legume, and it’s important to remember that not all fats are bad. Avocados, eggs, and fish are also high in the same kinds of heart-healthy fats.
We all know what sugar is, and many health conscious people have a tendency to run in the opposite direction when they see it. Some sugar naturally occurs in peanuts. Most peanut butter manufacturers add a bit more sugar to up the sweetness. Most experts recommend not to exceed 25 grams of added sugars per day for women and 37 grams of added sugar per day for men. A serving of peanut butter usually contains about 2 grams of added sugar, making its overall impact negligible.
Molasses is technically also sugar. Molasses is processed from sugar cane and is a manufacturing byproduct of refined white table sugar. When sugar is extracted from the plant, all the nutrients within the plant are left behind. These nutrients are left sweet from the source in a thick, sticky, dark brown sappy substance called molasses.
Molasses is full of many valuable trace nutrients. Think of molasses as healthy sugar. It has the sweetness, but it offers so much more than flavor at a similar amount of calories per tablespoon. Unlike table sugar, molasses contains significant amounts of manganese, magnesium, selenium, copper, iron, vitamin B6, and potassium.
Hydrogenated Vegetable Oil
There is no actual butter in peanut butter. The buttery texture is achieved through blending peanuts with an oil to keep them creamy, rich, and spreadable. At room temperature, vegetable oil can easily be poured into a frying pan. Adding hydrogen to an oil (hydrogenating it) makes it more of a full-bodied solid, kind of like coconut oil. This helps peanut butter retain its texture.
Vegetable oil isn’t something that’s particularly good for you, but it’s not something harmful in small amounts. Your body needs fats and uses them to function. It’s better to have small amounts of oil in a healthy context than it would be to have something like a basket of deep fried food, where the presence of oil would be overabundant.
Mono- and Di-glycerides
Glycerides are esters formed from glycerols and fatty acids. They’re hydrophobic. This means they keep things from sticking together. Glycerides come from sugar alcohols, and they’re very hydrophobic. These ingredients keep peanut butter creamy. They’re what causes a jar of peanut butter that’s been sitting in the pantry for a while to separate a little bit, leading you to stir it up well before you use it.
Salt is just salt. In small amounts, salt is good for you. Salt is an electrolyte. It helps your body to retain water, and is necessary in small amounts to prevent dehydration. A little bit of salt hides in things like sports drinks for this very purpose. In peanut butter, it simply balances out the sweetness.
What’s Good and Bad About Peanut Butter
There are plenty of great things about peanut butter, although everything comes with pros and cons. You’ve probably heard nutritionists eagerly preach that nuts are the perfect midday snack.
What they aren’t telling you is that their idea of a plant-based snack is probably vastly different from your idea of a plant-based snack. The way they want you to eat nuts and the portions they want you to eat them in probably doesn’t look like anything like the picture you have in your head.
Good: Proteins and Healthy Fats
One quick look at every health or dieting blog will tell you that carbs are worse than the boogeyman. They’re treated like an enemy of the state, and we’re told to limit or outright eliminate them. This is really bad advice. Whole carbs, like sprouted grain bread, brown rice, oatmeal, and baked sweet potatoes are filling, highly nutritious, and amazing at keeping your blood sugar stable.
The only problem is that they aren’t very portable or tasty on their own. You can’t bake a potato at your desk at work when you want a quick snack. It’s a rather involved process. Bread alone doesn’t make for a good snack, and you probably don’t want to have a sandwich between lunch and dinner. Oatmeal works perfectly fine for breakfast, but it’s not great munching food when you’re reading awesome blogs or watching your favorite murder mystery.
Peanuts and peanut butter are perfectly healthy snacking foods. They have just enough carbs per ounce to keep you satisfied. They’re very rich in protein, fiber, and healthy fat that will leave you feeling fuller for longer. Peanut butter also tastes much better than most healthy snacks. Who wants a bag of raw carrot sticks when peanut butter is an option?
Not So Good: Unnecessary Sugars and Oils
Peanuts are naturally somewhat sweet. They don’t necessarily require added sugar. The only purpose of the oil in peanut butter is to keep it spreadable. If you’re trying to limit your oil and sugar intake, it’s hard to find peanut butter or peanut butter alternatives that have neither added ingredient.
Also Not So Good: Tricky Portion Sizes
The leading brand of peanut butter has 190 calories per serving. At first, that doesn’t really seem like a lot of calories for a snack. It’s easy to fit in 190 calories of protein, fiber, iron, calcium, potassium, vitamin E, and niacin into your diet. The problem isn’t with the nutrition per serving of peanut butter, but the actual amount of the serving.
One serving of peanut butter is two tablespoons, or ⅛ of a cup. This is about the size of a ping pong ball. An average sized single serving container of yogurt, which appears small, contains about 12 tablespoons of yogurt. This gives you an accurate idea of just how little 2 tablespoons really is.
It’s easy to go very overboard with peanut butter portion sizes. You make yourself a peanut butter sandwich and you’ve accidentally included nearly 400 calories into what you believed was a simple, light, quick, tasty pick me up. Doing that just twice a week can lead to a weight gain of more than ten pounds a year. That’s what makes peanut butter tricky. That’s how it gets away from you.
Getting the Benefits of Peanut Butter
Peanut butter can be used constructively in regular portions as a healthy and filling snack. In the case of peanut butter-infused protein bars, just look at the nutrition facts. Peanut butter, when diluted with healthy ingredients like whole peanuts, oats, dates, and even dark chocolate can make for a very nutritious snack without sneaky calories or unnecessary fats.
Lower calorie sources of sweetness that boast additional health benefits can be used instead of added refined table sugar. Things like yacon syrup, a sweetener derived from the root of the yacon plant, can be used as a natural alternative to white sugar which has had all of its beneficial nutrients removed.
There’s no such thing as a “dangerous” or “bad” food, unless something is inherently poisonous to humans. Even pizza can play a part in a healthy diet. Peanut butter boasts too many wonderful nutritional benefits to be completely written off due to a little oil and some sugar. Instead, change the way you consume peanut butter.
Rather than eating peanut butter by itself, use it as a flavorful ingredient in a balanced snack. Protein bars, energy balls, protein shakes, smoothies, and even protein cookies are simple, delicious, and healthy ways to enjoy a little bit of peanut butter every single day.