Is Peanut Butter Healthy?
Few things bring back memories of childhood better than a delicious peanut butter sandwich. This staple of lunch bags across the nation is easy, cheap, and full of protein. The best part is that it’s delicious!
We’re told that peanut butter is a healthy source of protein and that it’s good for us. Many major brands even have added vitamins and minerals to really improve the nutritional content. Is peanut butter really healthy, though?
It’s not a simple yes-or-no, but with the information we’ve gathered here, you should be able to make an informed choice on where and how to incorporate this classic staple into your family’s diet.
Are all peanut butters the same?
Derived from grinding peanuts until they reach a pasty, delicious consistency, the many different peanut butters you see on your grocer’s shelf all have the same very basic ingredient: peanuts.
Where they differ and where the debate about the healthfulness of the spread comes into question is in what else goes into it. Peanut butters themselves – that is, pure peanuts and maybe salt – are high in protein and moderate in fats and carbs.
Common brands add other things though – sugar, high fructose corn syrup, palm oil, hydrogenated seed oils – to improve flavour and consistency. Natural peanut butters tends to separate, so they need to be stirred, which is a minor step but without stirring they’re quite difficult to spread or enjoy.
Are these additives unhealthy? Again, it depends. A spread that has peanuts and a little salt is fine but hydrogenated vegetable oil is decidedly bad for you. The same goes with high fructose corn syrup. Some butters include palm or coconut oil and those are both healthy, natural oils which make the product have a better consistency, so those are okay.
Essentially when it comes to choose between the peanut butters you have available, you really want something that is just:
- Naturally occurring oils
What you want to avoid are:
- High fructose corn syrup, corn syrup, or other “syrups” as they’re all very high in fructose
- Hydrogenated seed oils
- Products where sugar is the second ingredient
Now that we know that all peanut butters aren’t equal, let’s look at what makes them healthy.
What makes peanut butters healthy?
As we mentioned before, the high amount of protein in peanuts is an easily accessible and delicious way to get your daily allowance. Kids love it for the most part, and so it’s pretty easy to incorporate into any meal plan.
In addition to this great macro ratio of protein, carbs, and fat, peanuts contain a healthy dose of a lot of essential nutrients, including:
- Magnesium – the daily recommended dose is roughly 400mg, and peanuts pack about 50mg per serving. Since magnesium is needed for proper heart function and aids in digestion among other things, hitting that 400mg mark is very important.
- Zinc – Necessary for your immune system and muscle development, the .9mg of zinc in peanuts is roughly 13% of your daily recommended intake.
- Vitamin B6 – You need B6 for a host of critical biological processes, including for energy and heart health. Peanut butters have roughly half of your daily dose per serving, so load up!
- Niacin – You need about 15mg of niacin per day to ensure properly energy levels, and peanuts have 4mg per serving.
- Vitamin E – roughly 45% of your recommended daily allowance per serving. Since vitamin E is critical for healthy skin and lowering inflammation, you’ll want to hit that daily recommended allowance and peanuts will get you nearly halfway there.
With all this said, all these vitamins and minerals are great but all peanut butters are pretty calorie-dense. You can get your recommended daily allowance of various vitamins through eating spinach, cauliflower, or asparagus with far less calories. This is another good reason to aim for a product that has less oils and sugar, which will both inflate the calorie-to-nutrient ratio.
Is there anything unhealthy about peanut butters?
There are two main concerns with peanut products in general that get brought up a lot:
- The fact that peanuts are legumes, and so contain lectins and phytic acid
- Aflatoxins, which are toxins created by a type of fungus that lives underground on peanuts before they’re harvested
What are lectins?
Lectins are plant protein that seems to act as a deterrent to being eaten. They are implicated in leaky gut syndrome and a host of other physical issues, including increased immune response, potentially causing rashes and inflammation. Legumes like peanuts and beans have a higher concentration of lectins than other plants, and so if you’re concerned about them, it’s worth noting.
It’s also worth noting that lectins are largely destroyed by heat, so for roasted peanut butters, you should be okay. Raw peanut butters should be avoided.
What is phytic acid?
Phytic acid is another plant chemical that’s likely aimed at making animals not want to eat them. Phytic acid binds with nutrients and prevents your body from fully or efficiently absorbing them. Though they don’t do much damage on their own, if you eat a lot of other nuts and legumes, peanuts will add onto the effect of the phytic acid you’re already ingesting.
What are aflatoxins?
As we mentioned earlier, aflatoxins are produced by fungus that exists pretty much everywhere underground and loves to live on peanuts. The toxin is very carcinogenic, particularly implicated in liver issues. The good news is that roasting also destroys most of these toxins, but even the USDA admits that total avoidance is impossible if you’re eating peanut products.
With this information, it’s best to limit your exposure in general – keep it at a few servings a week and you’ll be fine.
So bottom line – are peanut butters healthy?
Peanut butters are inexpensive and nearly universally loved. They’re full of calories which need to be monitored, but they’ve got some solid nutrition as well. Finally, they pack some great protein and healthy mono-unsaturated fats, vitamin E, magnesium, and zinc.
If you avoid the dirt-cheap store brands full of industrial vegetable oils and sugar, and stick with something as natural as possible, you can avoid a lot of the unhealthy aspects. If you want to eat a lot of peanut products in general, it’s probably a good idea to limit other legumes.
Avoid raw peanut butters as there will be more lectins and more aflatoxins. Sneaking some into a smoothie or having a PBJ now and then is still a convenient, healthy and delicious way to do lunch.
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