When it comes to classic American foods, peanut butter will top anyone’s list. Americans love it so much in fact, that we consume about $800 million worth of it annually. That’s a whole lot of peanut butter. It’s creamy, smooth and frankly, delicious. It’s clear that Americans have an obsession with peanut butter, but is it a healthy one?
The Bitter Truth Behind Peanut Butter: Toxins, GMOs & Additives
If you value the taste of peanut butter more than your health, this is where you should stop reading. So what can possibly be wrong with such a simple food as peanut butter? Isn’t it just ground peanuts? Surprisingly, peanut butter is a heavily processed food and a part of the failing American diets.
Peanut butter and pesticides
Unlike almonds, walnuts, and others, peanuts make their way into the world from the underground. Peanuts are actually legumes that have soft and heavily absorbent shells. Peanut plants are often rotated with cotton to increase profits and better yields for farmers . Cotton typically receives doses of the herbicide glyphosate (aka Monsanto’s Roundup), which damages beneficial microorganisms in the soil . This damage can increase chances of disease in the peanut crop and in turn, has to be sprayed with more pesticides. It’s not uncommon to see conventional peanut crops sprayed eight to ten times with some kind of pesticide says the author of The Unhealthy Truth, Robyn O’Brien. In fact, USDA found 8 different types of pesticides in peanut butter, and 1 of them was piperonyl butoxide, which was found 26.9% of the time . While the levels of many of these pesticides are considered to be “safe”, the prolonged consumption of peanut butter combined with other foods that also contain pesticides and other chemicals is deeply concerning. At no other point in history have we been exposed to so many chemicals during our daily lives.
Peanut butter and aflatoxins
Another concern comes from “aflatoxins” which are you guessed it, toxins, that are produced by fungi that can be found on peanuts and corn crops . Cornell University scientists found a correlation between peanut consumption and liver cancer.  Biochemist, T. Colin Campbell, in his book titled “The China Study” states “All 29 jars of peanut butter we had purchased in the local groceries were contaminated with levels of aflatoxin as much as 300 times the amount judged to be safe in US food”. He goes on to say that the best peanuts go into jars of nuts, while the moldiest are sent to the end of the conveyor where they are made into peanut butter. Ironically, the highest levels of this toxin were found in freshly ground peanut butter (typically found in health food stores), while some of the lowest were in conventional peanut butter brands . It’s a bad situation for the consumers, as they have to choose between more toxins from the fungi or genetically modified additives. This brings us to our next point.
Peanut butter and additives
Aside from the fact that peanut crops may be contaminated with chemicals and toxins during growth, what goes inside your jar to make the peanut butter matters. The most typical ingredients include salt, hydrogenated oils, sugar and other additives.
Salt found in peanut butter, just like other processed foods, is itself heavily processed. Table salt used in the production of many foods has been stripped of its minerals during processing. With many Americans already overdosing on salt every day, peanut butter is just another food that adds to the problem. Salt is purely added for flavor enhancement and is not sufficiently concentrated to have a preservative effect.
Partially hydrogenated and fully hydrogenated oils can be found in many conventional peanut butters. Hydrogenation is used to make liquid oils more solid because nobody wants peanut butter soup. Partially hydrogenated oils are just another name for trans fat, which isn’t naturally found in nature and is linked to higher risk of cardiovascular disease . According to MD Charlie Seltzer, manufacturers are allowed to say that products have 0 trans fat if the product contains 0.5g or less. However, since this particular type of fat is so bad for you, even low amounts can have a negative impact on your health. Fully hydrogenated oil doesn’t have any trans fat but if a product doesn’t specify which type of oil it is, it’s wiser to stay away from it. Other manufacturers use palm oil, which is technically healthier, however, it is causing a myriad of environmental issues like the burning of entire rainforests. While some companies source this oil responsibly, others are making our planet pay a hefty price. So it’s best to avoid any product containing palm oil altogether, or at the very least, research where the company gets its palm oil from.
Sugar and Molasses
Just like salt, the sugar and typical sweeteners, such as molasses, are heavily processed. Sugar itself is extremely detrimental to your health and should be avoided where possible. Processed sugars even more so. Peanuts contain sugar naturally, so you may always see some sugar content. However, avoid peanut butter with sugar or other sweeteners listed in the ingredients.
Peanut butter and GMOs
For those who want to avoid GMOs, peanut butter may be another likely source of GMOs in your diet. When Vermont passed the mandatory GMO labeling law, companies such as Smuckers revealed GMOs in many products, including peanut butter. Trace amounts of GMOs, most likely from GMO cotton, may be present in the peanuts of the Smuckers brand. While the label reads “made without genetically modified ingredients”, it then goes on to say “trace amounts of genetically modified material may be present” . While it could be a way to prevent lawsuits, it does raise the question whether contradicting labels like this one actually help the consumer or just the company. It is worth noting that according to Just Label It, the Smucker company donated over $1 million to fight GMO labeling . Soybean oil is another GMO ingredient that is very likely to be found in many conventional peanut butter brands like Jif and Skippy.
Peanut butter & allergies
Do we have to wonder why, with all the exposure to different contaminants, peanut butter is one of the most common allergenic foods? Allergies typically occur when our bodies overreact to proteins in certain foods, identifying them as potentially dangerous. This reaction itself sometimes can be life-threatening. But are our bodies overreacting or trying to tell us something? According to a survey by Department of Pediatrics in 2003, food allergies doubled between 1997 and 2002 . It is estimated that 1 out of every 13 children in the U.S. have food allergies . These numbers may continue to rise as does our exposure to chemicals in our food, household products, and the environment itself.
Are you trying to take away our cheap, delicious and protein-full peanut butter from us? No, in fact, you can continue using it. However, in very limited amounts and also making sure to choose the right peanut butter. If you must consume peanut butter, make sure it’s organic and free of salt, sweeteners, bad oils, and any other additives. Essentially, just peanut butter. It’s worth mentioning that because of the lesser demand for organic peanut butter, NON-organic peanut butter manufacturers may also produce your organic peanut butter.
For a healthier option, consider switching to organic almond or cashew butter. They contain more healthy fats, less bad ones, and typically more nutrients. They also aren’t legumes, so they have harder shells which can help protect them from contaminants a little better. They are also not susceptible to aflatoxins, as those grow on peanuts. While they may be a tiny bit lower in protein and more expensive, as a treat, it may be a worthy investment and a good way to limit your consumption. We’ll do a comparison of peanut butter and almond butter in the future, so you can get a better picture.
As someone who consumed a full jar of peanut butter regularly, I can attest that some of this information is hard to hear. However, as consumers, we have to stay informed and work together to get companies to produce healthier alternatives and minimize products that are detrimental to our health. Pass this on to a fellow peanut butter lover.