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Spread It Around: Popular Peanut Butter, Past and Present (Part I)

by Stephanie Zonis

Deep_Fried_PeanutsMany foods have been invented in the US, but few have achieved the lasting popularity of peanut butter. The National Peanut Board states that peanut butter is consumed in 94% of American households, a degree of saturation most food products can only dream about. The Texas Peanut Board notes that close to ninety million jars of peanut butter are sold annually in the US, which works out to roughly three jars every second. Americans eat 700 million pounds of peanut butter every year. Peanut butter is always one of the most requested items at food banks. In short, a great many citizens of this fair nation cannot get enough of the stuff.

The National Peanut Board estimates that the average American child will eat 1,500 peanut butter and jelly sandwiches before graduating from high school, but it would be a mistake to dismiss peanut butter as something eaten only by kids. A startling number of adults, including the author of this article, eat peanut butter on an almost-daily basis. The number of peanut butter start-ups in the US is surprising, to say the least, but there are tiny companies all over the US in pursuit of better peanut butter, flavored and/or unflavored. It's time we took a closer look at this all-American classic.

A (Very Brief) History of Peanut Butter

Peanut butter originated in the US in the 1890's. Jon Krampner notes that peanut butter was originally made from a blend of Spanish and Virginia peanuts; the Spanish peanuts were used for flavor because of their high oil content, while the Virginia peanuts, with their lower oil content, balanced out the Spanish peanuts for a better consistency. There was no smooth or chunky peanut butter; it all had a coarse, granular texture. There were no hydrogenated oils in peanut butter to act as emulsifiers, so all peanut butters, upon standing, separated, requiring that the oil be stirred back in before the product was consumed. And because it was not emulsified, the oil that rose to the top tended to go rancid sooner rather than later (this was reinforced by the custom of offering peanut butter to consumers in large open containers in grocery stores. In the earlier days of the 20th century, when refrigerators were impractically expensive and before air conditioning, it isn't difficult to understand how peanut oil that collected atop peanut butter would go rancid quickly, especially in states with warmer climates). Partly because peanut butter had a relatively short shelf-life, there were no nationally-distributed brands; all peanut butters were available locally or regionally only. And, far from being a food of the masses, peanut butter began as a taste treat for the well-heeled.

For more of the history of this product, including the unlikely connection between boll weevils and peanut butter, I recommend Krampner's excellent book, Creamy & Crunchy: An Informal History of Peanut Butter, the All-American Food.

What Peanut Butter Is and How It's Made

The FDA standards for peanut butter under Title 21 mandate that peanut butter contain at least 90% peanuts and not exceed a 55% fat content. Anything with less than 90% peanuts is labeled as a peanut butter spread or a peanut butter blend.

Peanuts are the only edible-crop plant that flower above ground but produce fruit below ground. Typically, peanuts planted in April or May are harvested in September or October, depending upon variety, where they're grown, and growing conditions. Once harvested, the peanuts are dried briefly, then brought to a buying point. There, the peanuts undergo further drying (the drying reduces the moisture content in the peanuts to a point where they can be stored safely) and cleaning. Trained state and federal inspectors then inspect and grade the peanuts, after which the peanuts are shelled.

The peanuts are roasted in special ovens. They are cooled quickly to stop the cooking process, prevent the loss of too much oil, and retain an even color. Following this, the outer skin is usually removed mechanically in a process called “blanching” (note that a few manufacturers leave the skins on and even advertise that fact, as some people prefer the taste of peanut butter made from unblanched peanuts).The peanut kernels are split, the hearts are removed, and the split nuts are cleaned and sorted for a final time.

Grinding is done in two stages, as one lengthy grinding process would generate too much heat and impair the flavor of the peanut butter. The initial grinding results in a medium grind, while a second grinding gives a smooth texture. Chunky peanut butter is made when manufacturers add larger peanut pieces to smooth peanut butter; alternatively, manufacturers can alter the grinding machines to produce larger peanut pieces in the mix. Where other ingredients are added (sweeteners, salt, emulsifiers, etc.), they are added during the second grinding.

What's in My Peanut Butter?

This is a list of most of the standard ingredients for peanut butters. Flavor variations will, of course, contain more ingredients.

Peanuts. Given that other ingredients cannot make up more than 10% of peanut butter, it's going to contain a lot of peanuts. According to Jon Krampner, there are four kinds of peanuts grown in the US: runners, Virginias, Spanish, and Valencias. Your peanut butter is most likely to be made from runners, which comprise 80% of the US crop (99% of the crop in Georgia). Virginias, which were the basis of the peanut butter industry in the 1920's, have declined in popularity with growers, and are now about 15% of the total US peanut crop. Spanish peanuts, which make up about 4% of the US crop, are noted for a somewhat sweet flavor, high oil content, and reddish-brown skins. And finally, there are Valencias. Notoriously difficult to grow, Valencias are only 1 to 2% of the entire US crop. They are the sweetest variety and have bright red skins. Compared to other peanut varieties, runners are less costly, produce higher yields, and are easier to grow and harvest, so the majority of peanut butter manufacturers use them.

Mono- and Diglycerides. These are derivatives of fatty acids used as emulsifiers. Emulsifiers are used in food products to create a smooth, homogenous, and stable blend. Used by manufacturers for those consumers who don't want to have to stir oil back into their peanut butter before they eat it.

Hydrogenated Oils (cottonseed, soybean, and/or rapeseed). Hydrogenated oils have their fatty acids converted to a different form; this is accomplished by forcing hydrogen gas into these oils at high pressure. Hydrogenated oil is far more shelf-stable than untreated oil, meaning that it will not go rancid nearly as quickly. That's important for a product like peanut butter, as many supermarket peanut butters are expected to have a lengthy shelf-life. After peanuts are roasted, have their skins removed, and are ground, hydrogenated oils are mixed in with other ingredients (such as sweetener or salt). A process of heating, followed by rapid cooling, crystallizes the hydrogenated fatty acids, which trap the peanut oil released by grinding. Note that fully hydrogenated oils are not trans fats, which are now shunned by most people due to negative health effects. Fully hydrogenated oils, however, may have other harmful effects on health.

Salt, Sea Salt. The majority of peanut butters contain added salt, although some brands have unsalted varieties available. Admittedly, I am a salt minimalist. In addition, it's not a state secret that most Americans have too much salt in their diet, nor that the great majority of this salt comes from convenience or packaged foods. The desire for salt starts with childhood eating habits. While peanut butter is far from being the only culprit among foods with added salt, given the large number of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches most kids will eat before they reach adulthood and the preponderance of other processed/convenience foods in the standard American diet, peanut butter with salt added might be something to re-think. A modest amount of salt in peanut butter won't hurt most kids (or adults), but it has to be examined as part of the total dietary picture, and some of the quantities I found in peanut butter were not modest. The CDC has recommended that Americans age 2 and up consume less than 2,300 milligrams of sodium per day, yet I found one reduced fat peanut butter that has 230 milligrams of sodium in a single two tablespoon serving, or 10% of a day's suggested maximum. I found multiple brands with between 125 and 150 milligrams of sodium in a serving. I simply do not understand the need for these quantities of added salt in peanut butter.

Molasses, Corn Syrup Solids, Honey, Dried Cane Syrup, Sugar, Brown Sugar, Agave, Maple Syrup. Peanuts have a small quantity of natural sugars(the amount depends on the variety of peanut). As is true with salt, the majority of grocery store peanut butters, even those that are “unflavored”, contain added sweeteners. Many flavored peanut butters veer toward the sweet end of the spectrum, and of course such varieties will contain some form of added sweetener.

Palm Oil. Palm oil is an edible oil obtained from the fruits of the oil palm. It is the world's number one source of vegetable oil, having overtaken soy a few years ago. So prevalent is the use of palm oil that a 2010 report at Environment 360 asserts that palm oil is used in roughly half of all packaged goods found on supermarket shelves (that includes cosmetics and personal care products as well as food items).  Food producers seeking alternatives to trans fats and other oils seen as less healthy caused demand for palm oil to double between 2000 and 2010.

There remains considerable debate on whether palm oil is safe and “healthy”, or whether it promotes heart disease (saturated fat is a major constituent of palm oil). What is certain is that palm oil is cheaper than soybean oil, due in part to the high yield of oil palms. Palm oil is also semi-solid at room temperature; unlike many other commonly-used oils, it does not need to be hardened if a manufacturer wants to employ it as a shortening. What is also known is that palm oil cultivation can be tremendously destructive.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) states that the overwhelming majority of palm oil cultivation takes place in Malaysia and Indonesia. Oil palm is grown as a large-scale plantation crop, often on newly-cleared rainforest or peat-swamp forests, rather than on land that has already been degraded, or disused agricultural land. And since the 1970's, with the rise in demand for palm oil, the amount of land devoted to oil palm cultivation in both countries has increased many times over.

Unfortunately, both countries are home to multiple species of unique wildlife, much of it threatened or outright endangered. Logging and setting fires, the most frequently employed methods of clearing forest, contribute to habitat loss, as do the building of roads and the plantations themselves. Roads make it easier for poachers to hunt wildlife, and roads and plantations impede travel corridors and obstruct traditional migration patterns. The plantations cause soil and water pollution from pesticides and untreated palm oil mill effluent. And the lost forests and drained peat-swamps cause massive releases of CO2 into the environment.

The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) was formed in 2003 in an attempt to make all of the world's palm oil production sustainable. That organization created a certified sustainable palm oil program and accompanying seal. But with so many international giants buying so much palm oil, is the program working? As of May, 2015, the RSPO declared that 20% of all palm oil produced is certified sustainable. That's admirable progress, but not as encouraging as one could hope. The Union of Concerned Scientists issued their annual scorecard of corporate commitment to sustainable palm oil, and the results are enlightening (and, in some cases, disturbing). You can see that report here: www.ucsusa.org/global-warming/stop-deforestation/palm-oil-scorecard-2015. Most likely, effecting larger-scale change in palm oil cultivation and usage patterns will require a significant and sustained push by consumers, something that has not occurred at this writing.

When Traditional Isn't Enough

zonis-better-off-spreadIf you ever get bored with traditional peanut butter or just want to try something new, there are any number of businesses at your service, waiting to see if they can please your jaded taste buds. Flavors range from not too far out (honey roasted, white chocolate, dark chocolate, cinnamon raisin) to much more exotic. Eliot's Adult Nut Butters (http://eliotsadultnutbutters.com/) in Portland, OR, makes peanut butters in Spicy Thai, Garam Masala, and Honey Chipotle variations. The funniest name I've found in nut butters, Better Off Spread (www.betteroffspread.com), offers a Dark Chocolate Peanut Butter with organic rosemary, organic lemon granules, and sea salt. Blind Spot Nut Butters (www.blindspotnutbutters.com) has a Sea Salt Caramel Peanut Butter and a unique backstory. A peanut butter made from organic peanuts, and with agave, cinnamon, cayenne pepper, and raw organic cacao nibs, is available from Spread the Love (www.spreadthelovepb.com). In addition to a Coconut Sour Cherry Peanut Butter, Reginald's Homemade (http://reginaldshomemade.com/) has a Hazelnut Amaretto Peanut Butter and a Bourbon Pecan Peanut Butter. And the list goes on and on.

The Buzzwords

Natural, All Natural. Always one of the big buzzwords these days, but it's not as meaningless here as it is with most foods. There is no legal definition for “natural” or “all natural”, so manufacturers can use it whenever they wish. Traditionally, though, “natural” peanut butter is the type without emulsifiers. Oil will rise to the top in “natural” peanut butter, and must be stirred in before the peanut butter is consumed.

Non GMO. There are many people who don't want to eat genetically modified organisms. Keegan Treadaway of the National Peanut Board tells me that, at this writing (mid-2015), there are no seed varieties of GMO peanuts available in the US. Work is being done on mapping the genome sequence of the peanut, but seed peanut varieties, at least for the moment, are produced by cross-pollination and cross-breeding, as they have been for centuries.

However, there is a distinct possibility that peanut butters containing emulsifiers should not be making this claim. Originally, only hydrogenated peanut oil was used as an emulsifier in peanut butter. These days, cottonseed, soybean, and rapeseed oils are much more common, as all are cheaper than peanut oil. (Incidentally, rapeseed is a member of the mustard family, sometimes called “oilseed”, as it's very high in oil.) According to the website GMO Compass (www.gmo-compass.org), as of 2007, “The United States...produces almost exclusively (genetically modified) soybeans.” A 2012 article from The Huffington Post declares that 93% of soybeans and 94% of cotton grown in the US are genetically modified; soybean and cottonseed oils are produced from these two crops, respectively. Rapeseed is a crop of enormous importance in Canada, where the overwhelming majority of it is GMO; it's a less important commodity in the US, although some grown in America is also GMO. So how is it that peanut butter manufacturers can claim a non-GMO peanut butter when the probability is so high that the oils used as emulsifiers were extracted from GMO crops? I don't have an answer to that. The exceptions to this rule are peanut butters that have been verified non-GMO by organizations such as the Non GMO Project (www.nongmoproject.org) or other similar organizations.

Flaxseed has become increasingly popular as a peanut butter “add-in”, due to its multiple nutritional benefits. GMO Compass states that no genetically modified flax was being grown for commercial purposes as of 2010.

Gluten Free. Most peanut butter is gluten free, as wheat protein is not frequently used in this product. Exceptions would include a peanut butter with pretzel chunks in it, for example.

Lactose Free. Traditional peanut butter doesn't contain dairy products, so it's lactose free. Flavor variations, especially those with milk or white chocolate, would contain lactose. And I found one peanut butter, made by Hell's Kitchen in Minneapolis, that contains butter. If you have a problem consuming lactose, make sure to check the ingredient list.

Vegan. Most peanut butter is vegan, with several exceptions. Some vegans will not consume cane sugar due to one step during its processing, which involves charcoal that may have been of animal origin. Beet sugar does not undergo this processing, but most manufacturers simply list “sugar” on the product label where it is used and don't make a distinction. Some vegans will not eat honey, which they regard as bee slavery. Peanut butter with white or milk chocolate is not vegan; I found one maple bacon peanut butter, but I was not able to determine whether the bacon used is real or a flavoring. And of course, the peanut butter with actual butter, produced by Hell's Kitchen in Minneapolis, is not vegan, either.

No Trans Fats. Fully hydrogenated oils, which are in quite a number of peanut butters, do not contain trans fats. But some manufacturers merely state that their peanut butter contains “hydrogenated oils”, without specifying whether the oils are partially or fully hydrogenated. Partially hydrogenated oils are the source of trans fats, now eschewed as unhealthy...but at this writing (mid-2015), manufacturers do not have to declare trans fats on labels if a product serving contains less than 0.5 grams of trans fats. Are you confused yet? I know I am. Just bear in mind that the phrase “no trans fats” on a label does not mean that a product is healthy.

X Grams of Protein Per Serving. The United States is going through a phase in which health “experts” are trumpeting the virtue of protein, so food manufacturers cannot overemphasize how much protein their products contain. Most people in the US get enough protein in their normal diets; they don't need any extra. Despite this, extra protein is being put into everything from granola bars to some peanut butter blends.

Peanut Allergies

Chances are that you've seen the headlines over the past five years relating to the rise in food allergies among children under the age of 18. Peanut allergies have received a lot of attention in particular; unlike other allergies, which are commonly outgrown, a peanut allergy seldom departs with age. And peanut allergy are among the most dangerous food allergies. Concern over peanut allergies has become prevalent enough that some schools have banned them altogether, or have peanut-free areas of the lunch room.

I have a few problems with the headlines. One of the problems is that many people do not understand the difference between a food allergy and a food intolerance/sensitivity. There is an excellent article on that topic here: http://www.peanutallergy.com/lifestyle/symptoms-and-treatment/allergy-vs-intolerance. To add to the confusion, though they are not the same thing at all, a sensitivity can have some of the same symptoms as an allergy.

The remaining problems refer to methodology (specifically, how the data were collected in a couple of studies) as well as in funding. Scott H. Sicherer, MD, of the Jaffe Food Allergy Institute at Mount Sinai School of Medicine, was the principle author of a study conducted in 2008. His research team surveyed 5,300 households and discovered that 1.4% of children were thought to have (italics mine) peanut allergies, more than three times the 0.4% rate when a similar study was conducted in 1997. Sicherer's team did not use medical records to determine whether or not the children had peanut allergies; they relied on proxy reporting from an adult in the household. Self-reporting is a notoriously inaccurate means of data collection, and this wasn't even self-reporting; it was proxy reporting, because the children in the households weren't the ones surveyed. So much of the data collected here was necessarily about perception. Combine that with the fact that many adults simply don't know the difference between an allergy and an intolerance, and yes, I'm going to question your conclusions. In addition, this study was funded by FARE, Food Allergy Research & Education, so the conclusions seem not altogether dispassionate or altruistic. I should also note, however, that WebMD declares that the rate of peanut allergy found in the US in Sicherer's 2008 study “is similar to results from studies using different methods in the United Kingdom, Canada, and Australia”.

My skepticism applies, too, to the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS) Data Brief, Number 121, of May, 2013, stating that the prevalence of food allergies increased in children under 18 years of age between 1997 and 2011. Data collection, again, was not via medical records; the NCHS states that “a responsible adult, usually a parent, responds to the survey questions as proxy for the...child”. Once more, the conclusions here were based on proxy reporting.

Since 1997, food allergies/intolerances have become a huge industry. Walk into any grocery store and you'll find gluten free, trans fat free, peanut free, tree nut free, dairy free, and/or egg free foods. People are much more aware of food allergies and intolerances, and far more people will tell you today that they have at least one food allergy or intolerance than would have told you that fifteen or even ten years ago. This will be a factor in any self- or proxy reporting.

A Canadian study begun in 2008 collected data by means of a phone survey, but the data here were divided into three categories: perceived (self-reported), probable (based on convincing history or self-report of a physician diagnosis), or confirmed ( based on history and evidence of confirmatory tests). Unsurprisingly, “the results indicate disparities between perceived and confirmed food allergy”. Confirmed peanut allergies in children were at a rate of 1.03%, while confirmed peanut allergies in adults were at a rate of 0.26%. I know of no prior studies of this type in Canada, so based on this study, it's impossible to say if confirmed peanut allergies are increasing among children there.

Is it possible that allergies to peanuts among children are increasing? Yes, certainly. And it is absolutely true that peanut allergies are very real and can be life-threatening. But in the era of “helicopter” parents, and given the fact that many things related to food become overblown/overemphasized, I believe that more research is needed before peanuts are banned from schools or lunch rooms.

If indeed the studies are correct and peanut allergies are on the rise, it's worth asking why. The short answer is that nobody knows. One theory holds that the answer lies in the way peanuts are prepared. A study carried out by researchers at Oxford University notes that peanuts are consumed as commonly in East Asia as they are in the West, yet the incidence of peanut allergies in East Asia is much less than in Western nations. In East Asia, peanuts are typically eaten raw, boiled, or fried; in the West, they're most often roasted or dry roasted. Both roasting and dry roasting, which take place at high temperatures, cause chemical changes in peanuts, and it's been suggested that these changes could be responsible for more peanut allergies. Others attribute more food allergies to the use of pesticides, the use of antibiotics, and even the degree of hygiene in the modern Western world. But again, there are no defintive answers, and more research is required.

Peanut Butter–Choking Hazard?

Although peanut butter is nutritious, it's thick and sticky. Most “natural” peanut butters (those without emulsifiers) also tend to have a pasty consistency. Most of the articles I've seen regarding feeding peanut butter to young children suggest not introducing it prior to 4 to 6 months of age, and then spreading it thinly on bread or crackers.

Some medical professionals advise that adults should follow similar consumption patterns. They recommend not eating peanut butter directly from a spoon, but spreading it on crackers, bread, celery, or apple slices.

Tasting Peanut Butter

See Part II of this article.


  • The National Peanut Board, http://nationalpeanutboard.org
  • www.texaspeanutboard.com/industry-facts.html
  • www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/11/28/food-banks-peanut-butter_n_1116022.html
  • http://peanutbutterlovers.com/pb-lovers/pb101/how-its-made/
  • www.washingtonpost.com/news/to-your-health/wp/2014/09/21/could-the-dry-roasting-process-trigger-peanut-allergies-yes-says-a-new-oxford-study/
  •  www.peanutallergy.com/lifestyle/symptoms-and-treatment/allergy-vs-intolerance
  • www.webmd.com/allergies/news/20100514/peanut-allergies-in-kids-on-the-rise
  • www.hc-sc.gc.ca/fn-an/securit/allerg/res-prog/allergen_research-eng.php
  • www.builtlean.com/2013/10/16/peanut-butter-healthy-bad/
  • Keegan Treadaway, Marketing and Communications, National Peanut Board, personal communication
  • www.food-info.net/uk/qa/qa-fi63.htm
  • www.wisegeek.org/what-is-hydrogenated-oil.htm
  • www.gmo-compass.org/eng/grocery_shopping/crops/19.genetically_modified_soybean.html
  •  www.gmo-compass.org/eng/grocery_shopping/crops/21.genetically_modified_rapeseed.html
  • www.gmo-compass.org/eng/database/plants/11.docu.html
  • www.huffingtonpost.com/margie-kelly/genetically-modified-food_b_2039455.html
  • http://non-gmoreport.com/articles/sept06/flax_seed.php
  • www.cspinet.org/palm/PalmOilReport.pdf
  • http://e360.yale.edu/feature/sustainable_palm_oil_rainforest_savior_or_fig_leaf/2345/
  • www.rspo.org/
  • www.ucsusa.org/global-warming/stop-deforestation/palm-oil-scorecard-2015
  • www.eatingrealfood.com/articles/monoglycerides-and-diglycerides/
  • ”A Chunky History of Peanut Butter”, Jon Michaud, November 28, 2012, www.newyorker.com
  • Jon Krampner, Creamy & Crunchy: An Informal History of Peanut Butter, the All-American Food (New York: Columbia University Press, 2013)

Note: This information was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the businesses in question before making your plans.

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