Once upon a time, the only “nut butter” readily available on supermarket shelves was peanut butter—and it isn’t even made from nuts (technically, peanuts are legumes, not tree nuts). Peanut butter has plenty of company these days, from the now relatively common almond butter to the newer cashew, walnut, macadamia, and pistachio butters, as well as other peanut butter alternatives including seed butters and ones made from soy nuts or chickpeas (also legumes).
How do all these spreads stack up? You had questions . . . here are some answers. Note: For simplicity, the term “nut butter” in this article refers to all these different types of spreads.
Are some nut butters more nutritious than others?
All nut butters, like their whole nut counterparts, are healthful, providing protein, some fiber, and an array of vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals (including phytosterols and arginine, an amino acid that makes blood vessels more flexible). And though nut butters, like nuts, are high in fat, most of the fat is polyunsaturated and monounsaturated, the kinds that improve cholesterol levels and reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease when substituted for saturated fat in the diet.
The specific nutrients in nut butters vary somewhat, however, depending on the type of nut (see chart). Walnut butter, for instance, is richest in alpha-linolenic acid (an omega-3 fatty acid), while almond butter provides a small amount of calcium (about 55 milligrams per tablespoon). Studies have shown that all kinds of nuts have heart-healthy effects, and there’s no reason to think that plain nut butters wouldn’t have the same benefits. A 2009 study in the Journal of Nutrition, in fact, linked both nuts (1 ounce, most days of the week) and peanut butter (1 tablespoon, most days of the week) to lower cardiovascular risk in women with type 2 diabetes.
How do the calories in nut butters compare to those in nuts?
Nutrition labels on nut butters list anywhere from 160 to 230 calories per 2-tablespoon serving (about an ounce), similar to the calorie counts stated on the labels for an ounce of their whole-nut counterparts. But interestingly, the calories in nut butters appear to be better absorbed than those in whole nuts. A small 2016 study in the FASEB Journal, for instance, found that whole raw almonds provided 25 percent fewer calories than nutrition facts labels indicated, whereas the label information for almond butter was accurate. That’s because a fair amount of the fat, carbohydrates, and protein in chewed whole almonds passes through the intestines undigested, so not all their calories are absorbed. In contrast, the smaller the nut particles (as in pulverized nut butters), the greater their digestibility and thus the more calories (and nutrients) that are absorbed. Earlier research comparing whole peanuts to peanut butter supports these findings, making it likely that all whole nuts are lower in calories than the equivalent weight of “butter” made from them.
So are you better off eating whole nuts than nut butters, from a calorie perspective?
It might be a toss-up. None of the studies comparing calorie counts of nuts to nut butters were designed to measure how these foods compare in terms of satiety, so it’s possible that even though you derive fewer calories from whole nuts, you might end up eating larger portions of them than the “butters” from which they're made. As shown in a small 2013 study in theBritish Journal of Nutrition, nut butters may indeed be more satiating than whole nuts. It found that obese women with type 2 diabetes were less hungry and ate less later on when their breakfasts included peanut butter, compared to when their morning meal did not include peanut butter. But when participants were given whole peanuts at breakfast, they experienced less of a satiety effect than when they were given peanut butter. The researchers theorized that the enhanced appetite-suppressing effect of peanut butter was probably due to the greater bioavailability of the oil in ground peanuts.
Allergic to Peanut Butter? Try These Spreads Instead
Because of widespread nut allergies, food manufacturers have created nut-free alternatives to peanut butter. Some products even have a similar texture and equivalent (or superior) nutritional profile.
What are all those other ingredients in nut butters?
Many nut butters contain just ground nuts, but some have added salt (about 70 to 100 milligrams sodium per 2-tablespoon serving) and a little sugar (usually about 2 grams, on top of a small amount of naturally occurring sugar), along with small amounts of emulsifiers, which give them a uniform consistency and keep the oil from separating (see next question). The most commonly added emulsifiers are mono- and diglycerides, hydrogenated oils, and palm oil. Mono- and diglycerides are “generally recognized as safe” (GRAS) by the FDA, and the public watchdog group, Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), considers them safe as well. Despite their high saturated fat content, fully hydrogenated oils seem to be relatively harmless, especially compared to partially hydrogenated oils (see below), though more research is needed to fully understand their health effects. Palm oil, also high in saturated fats, has not been studied sufficiently to give it an unqualified thumbs-up either.
Previously, many peanut butters used small amounts of partially hydrogenated oils, a source of unhealthful trans fats, which the FDA declared to be an unsafe food ingredient a few years ago. Manufacturers began phasing these fats out of their products after mandatory trans-fat labeling went into effect in 2006, but they had until June of this year to completely remove them. Still, it may take time for products manufactured before then to be cleared off shelves (and out of your own pantry), so you should continue to check for “partially hydrogenated fats” in the ingredients list, an indicator that these harmful fats are present.
What’s the liquid layer that forms on top of “natural” nut butters? Should I spill it out or mix it in?
That layer is oil, and you shouldn’t spill it out or you’ll end up with a hard, dry chunk of nut matter that’s nearly impossible to spread. That layer forms because nut oil is lighter than nut solids, and if the two are not mixed back together and stabilized with an emulsifier after nuts are pulverized, the oil will rise to the top of the jar. If you like natural nut butters but don’t want to go through the messy and time-consuming process of stirring it every time you open the jar, you can refrigerate it after a thoroughly stirring.
Besides keeping nothing-but-nuts products from separating, are there other reasons to refrigerate them?
Yes. Foods high in plant oils, such as nut butters, can become rancid if kept at room temperature for too long. In addition to developing off tastes and smells, rancidity can also compromise nutritional quality. Prolonging the shelf life of nut butters isn’t essential if you consume them quickly but is a good idea if you eat them only occasionally—especially if you’re splurging on ones that cost more than $10 for an 8-ounce jar.
Is reduced-fat peanut butter healthier than regular peanut butter? Does it have fewer calories?
No and no. Many people choose reduced-fat peanut butter, thinking it not only has less fat but also has far fewer calories than regular versions. Though there is a difference in fat (12 versus 16 grams per two tablespoons), the calories are actually the same (about 180 to 190). You can’t cry foul on food companies, since they are playing by the rules, which state that a reduced—fat product needs only to have a minimum of 25 percent less fat—not 25 percent fewer calories—than the original version. Why such a narrow calorie gap? When fat is removed to create a reduced-fat product, it’s replaced with something else—typically corn syrup solids, sugar, or maltodextrin, which are less healthful than the “good” fats taken out. Ultimately, you’re better off eating the real thing; it’s better for you and it tastes better, too.
What’s in Your 'Nut Butter'?
This chart shows how nut butters compare and some things that stand out (for good or bad) in each one.
How does Nutella compare to other nut butters?
People do love this hazelnut cocoa spread, but from a nutritional standpoint, Nutella is more like a sweet treat than a healthful snack food. The main ingredients are sugar and palm oil—and then hazelnuts, followed by skim milk, cocoa, and soy lecithin (an emulsifier). As such, it has more calories (200 per 2-tablespoon serving), a much higher sugar content (21 grams, providing about 40 percent of the calories), and less protein (2 grams) than plain hazelnut butter (160 calories, 0 grams of sugar, 5 grams protein). Worse yet, the recipe was changed in 2017 and it has even more sugar than previously. By the way, the original recipe for Nutella was developed in Italy during World War II when cocoa supplies were low and hazelnuts were plentiful.
What’s the deal with the calorie-free whipped peanut spread from Walden Farms?
Sold alongside peanut butters, this product boasts that it has no calories, fat, carbs, or sugars. How can that be? Easy—it has no peanuts.Peanut flavor and peanut extract are the 5th and 6th items in a list of 13 ingredients that begins with water, vegetable fiber, salt and corn starch and ends with FD&C Yellow #5, #6. Other ingredients are xanthan gum, sucralose, caramel color, and preservatives. How does it look and taste? Online reviews call it “disgusting,” “awful,” and “pure evil in a jar.” Another reviewer wrote that “It resembles in no matter, shape, or form peanut butter. It tastes like candle wax and ink.” This is not real food and actually runs afoul of FDA regulations by calling itself a “peanut spread” without prominently announcing that it’s an imitation. Suffice it to say, this product breaks just about every rule in Michael Pollan’s insightful book, Food Rules, including the first one, which urges readers to avoid “edible food-like substances.”
What about powdered peanut butter? Is that a good option?
It can be. Peanut powders are made from roasted peanuts that have been pressed to remove about 85 percent of the oil and then ground into powder. Typically, a little sugar and some salt are added, and some manufacturers make chocolate and other flavored versions. Most of the plain versions contain about 45 to 50 calories, 1.5 grams fat, 5-6 grams protein, and 2 grams of fiber per 2-tablespoon serving. You can mix them with liquid to make a spread, but you may be better off enjoying real peanut butter, which tastes better, and using the powders in baking or as an add-in to things like smoothies or yogurt. Powdered peanut butter may be more convenient to pack if you’re traveling (it’s lighter) and want a good source of protein at your destination.
Bottom line: Choosing nut butters can seem overwhelming given the ever-growing selection. But it doesn’t have to be: Simply, it comes down to this: For the healthiest nut butters, look for products that contain nothing but nuts—or at least have nuts as the first ingredient. Small amounts of salt and sugar can make nut butters more palatable and are not necessarily a deal breaker unless you are on a strict low-sodium or low-sugar diet. Eat all nut butters in moderation, as their calories can add up quickly.
Published June 28, 2018