Choosing a peanut butter used to be just a choice between smooth and crunchy. But now there are reduced-fat and low-sodium peanut butters in the major brands. Should peanut butter lovers rejoice, or wince?

First, the tough issue: is it nutritionally correct to eat peanut butter? Yes, in moderation. Peanut butter is an inexpensive protein source with no cholesterol. Two tablespoons, the official serving size, contain 10 grams of protein, plus B vitamins (including folacin), potassium, magnesium and fiber. However, it does have 190 calories and 16 grams of fat, and thus derives nearly 80% of its calories from fat. Still, it is mostly unsaturated. While peanut butter is not exactly for dieters, it represents a good choice for sandwiches for vegetarians.

Natural varieties, available at health food stores, are unsweetened and often unsalted. They also have no emulsifiers or preservatives and therefore must be refrigerated. Refrigeration also slows the separation of the natural oil from the pulp.

Commercial brands contain small amounts of hydrogenated oil and emulsifiers, salt and sweeteners.

Low-sodium peanut butter has about 65mg of sodium, about half that of regular peanut butter.

Low-sugar has 2 grams of sugar instead of the usual 3. (No big gain here.) Reduced-fat peanut butters [these may only be available in the US] typically contain only 60% peanuts, so they have about 25% less fat than regular brands (about 12 grams in 2 tablespoons). But they contain more sugar (corn syrup solids), plus some soy protein and/or other extenders, so the calories are the same as regular brands. These may not be labelled as “peanut butter” since consumer legislation in the US forces peanut butter to be 90% peanuts. Tasting panels have found these fat-reduced brands seem to lack taste and, after all, are not all that much lower in fat than the real thing.

If you are interested in getting more nutrition and taste from nut butters, you might try almond or cashew butter.

Adapted from the UC Berkeley Wellness Letter, Jan ’96.

From the May 1997 issue of Lifelines