There is a perception that peanut butter is bad for you. Bad. Bad. Bad.
In truth, peanut butter, in and of itself, is not the culprit. It’s more about the type of peanut butter, serving size, and accompanying ingredients.
But before we go any further, it’s imperative to remind folks that some students cannot eat or even be around peanuts or peanut butter because of allergies. By 2008, more than three million Americans had been diagnosed with some type of nut allergy. Virtually unheard of two generations ago, peanut allergies have become so prevalent that some schools—like airlines and other public buildings—prohibit the consumption of peanuts and peanut butter. Rules and guidelines do vary, jurisdiction-to-jurisdiction, school-to-school, and even classroom-to-classroom, so it’s best to check with your school before sending your student off with that PB&J sandwich.
“School districts must accommodate kids with peanut allergies,” observes Wesley Delbridge, registered dietician and nutritionist and director of food and nutrition for the Chandler (Arizona) Unified School District. “Those with mild allergies can just avoid peanut products. Other kids with severe allergies must sit at separate tables or have their classrooms installed with hand sinks so all kids must wash their hands before entering the room.
“At Chandler, we have chosen to go peanut-free this year to avoid any peanut allergy issues. We will still offer PB&Js upon request for field trips and caterings, but they will not be served in our lunch lines. We are moving in the direction of creating our own jams and sunbutter in our central kitchen and eventually making our own version of a nut butter & jelly sandwich.”
Beyond allergy concerns, Delbridge is an expert when it comes to the pros and cons of peanut butter.
On the plus side: “Peanut butter is a great protein source,” he says. “It is kid-friendly and has an excellent shelf life without having to worry about foodborne illnesses.”
A peanut butter sandwich is still among the easiest snacks to prepare and one bound to be eaten from start to finish.
The negatives: “Most peanut butter brands can be high in added sugar, heavily processed and,” Delbridge says, “when combined with large portions and high-sugar jelly, can lead to excess calories and sugar consumption.”
What’s the solution?
“Natural peanut butter is the best way to go,” Delbridge says. “Although, it is not as sweet as your common peanut butters, it has a very ‘clean’ label, usually just made with peanuts and salt.”
By comparison, JIF brand peanut butter is made primarily from roasted peanuts with a bit of sugar, molasses (two percent or less), partially hygrogenated soybean oil, and fully hydrogenated rapeseed and soybean oil.
Kids might initially miss the sweetness of a store-bought brand, but Delbridge has an idea for that, too. He suggests weaning kids off of common processed peanut butters by mixing half natural peanut butter with half of your store-bought peanut butter.
There are also many peanut butter substitutes that may or may not be suitable for those allergic to peanuts. One popular example is sunbutter, made from ground sunflower seeds. Almond butter, another example, is often mixed with flax seeds to provide additional fiber.
According to Shana Lebowitz of Greatist.com, two tablespoons of peanut butter contains about 190 calories, 16 grams of fat, eight grams of protein, and three grams of sugar. It’s a good source of omega-6 fatty acids, important for bones and metabolism. By contrast, the same amount of cashew butter contains about 160 calories, 14 grams of fat but slightly less protein.
“No matter what option you go with, nut butters are very calorically dense, so too much—even of a good thing—can be bad with excess calories,” Delbridge says. “Stick with the two tablespoon serving size (per sandwich). If your kids are still hungry, offer whole fruit or water to give their bodies a chance to feel full.”
According to EatRight.org: “Just about any type of nut can be made into a nut butter. It’s as simple as grinding nuts in a food processor until they form a paste. Some nut butters will be creamy, others somewhat grainy. Higher-fat nuts, such as macadamia, will make a smoother but thinner butter. Almond and cashew butters work well for sandwiches or a spread on apple slices. Homemade nut butters have a short self-life, so make them in small batches. One cup of nuts will make about a half cup of nut butter (and keep) covered in the refrigerator for up to one month.”
Of course, solving the peanut butter dilemma is only part of the battle.
“Jelly is the same story,” Delbridge says. “Most jellies are just fruit juice with added sugar, providing no real nutrition. However fruit can be a great pairing with nut butters so use whole fruit as an option or try buying jams rather than jellies. They’re likely to be more natural, made with whole fruit and less added sugar.”
Another alternative is to bypass the bread and jam altogether. Turn your nut butter into a healthier snack by dipping carrots, apples or celery sticks into that two-tablespoon serving. A recipe we found at SarahFit.com offers the best of both worlds—a peanut butter hummus dip, utilizing cashew milk. One serving, said to offer 12 grams of protein and only 150 calories, can be served with celery and apples.
Another word of caution: WebMD.com suggests that soy nuts (dried soybeans) and sunflower seeds are good alternatives for a crunchy snack but notes that some manufacturers of “nut-free” butters produce them on the machines that may be contaminated by peanuts or tree nuts. Likewise, hummus, sometimes substituted for nut butters, is not an alternative for those with chickpea allergies, so be sure to read labels carefully. … Then, go nuts!
What’s your experience with peanut butter and peanut substitutes? Please share and be sure to look for more Snack of the Week suggestions and information on healthy eating at Learning Liftoff’s food pages.
Featured Image – Dan McKay / CC by 2.0