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Dangerfood: Peanut Butter

It looks harmless enough— especially slapped on some bread with some grape jelly. But here’s why peanut butter has made the Greatist dangerfood list.
Dangerfood: Peanut Butter

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Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches seem pretty harmless, but what’s really lurking beneath the surface of that nutty paste that sticks to the roof of the mouth? The danger in peanut butter lies in its high calorie content and fats that may cause heart disease [1]— and the fact that it’s so darn hard to eat just one serving.

A Sticky Situation! – Why It’s Dangerous

Photo by Caitlin Covington

Peanut butter is considered an energy-dense food, meaning a small amount provides a high number of calories. One recommended serving (about two tablespoons) packs around 190 calories, 135 of which come from both saturated and unsaturated fats. But beware of the distinction: unsaturated fats are essential to a healthy diet and can help prevent cardiovascular disease, while saturated fats may increase the risk of heart disease [1] [2].

By themselves, peanuts are pretty innocent— it’s the process of turning them into butter that crosses into dangerfood territory. To make peanut butter, the nuts are roasted, cooled, shelled, and ground. When other ingredients like salt, hydrogenated vegetable oil, dextrose, corn syrup and honey are added, the trouble starts. They may make the peanut butter smoother and lengthen its shelf life— but at what cost?

Along with extra sugar, these added ingredients could mean the addition of trans fat. Trans fats are considered among the worst fats because they raise “bad” (LDL) cholesterol and lower “good” (HDL) cholesterol levels, possibly increasing the risk of heart disease [3]. Even if the label says, “zero trans fats,” it’s still possible to contain up to half a gram per serving. Look for “partially hydrogenated oil” listed as an ingredient— this could be a sign that the peanut butter contains this bad boy.

But peanut butter isn’t all bad— and those who eat it may even be healthier overall. One study found that tree nut and peanut consumption was associated with better overall diet quality and improved nutrient intakes [4]. Peanuts also contain vitamin E, protein, folic acid, and antioxidants, as well as monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats (the “heart healthy” kinds) [5] [6]. An added bonus— it’s even been found to reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes in women [7].

Step Away From the Jar – Your Action Plan

Try sticking to one serving of peanut butter at a time— 2 tablespoons, or about the size of a ping pong ball— an amount some studies suggests has increased in recent decades [8]! We know it’s tempting to lick peanut butter straight from the spoon, but beware— when the tongue is doing the talk-, err, licking, it’s hard to know when to stop.

If peanut butter isn’t a favorite, try these alternatives made from lower-fat nut options. Some good options are almond butter, which is slightly sweeter than peanut butter and contains more calcium and fiber, or soy nut butter, which has fewer calories than peanut or almond butter, supplies soy protein, and contains less fat than other butters.

We’re not saying cut out the peanut butter completely – imagine a childhood without peanut butter and jelly (the average American child eats 1,500 P&J sandwiches before even graduating from high school)! The main thing to remember: stick to one serving size of peanut butter to reduce calories and cholesterol-raising saturated and trans fats.

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Works Cited +

  1. Dietary fats and cardiovascular health. Carrillo, Fernandez L., Dalmau, Serra J., Martinez, Alvarez JR, et al. Centro de Salud La Victoria de Acentejo, Santa Cruz de Tenerife, Sociedad Espanola de Medicina Familiar y Comunitaria, Spain. Anales de Pediatria. 2011 Mar;74(3):192.e1-16. Epub 2011 Feb 23.
  2. Dietary fat consumption and health. Lichtenstein, A.H., Kennedy, E., Barrier, P, et al. Tufts University, Boston, MA 02111-1525, USA. Nutr Rev. 1998 May;56(5 Pt 2):S3-19;discussion S19-28.
  3. The negative effects of hydrogenated trans fats and what to do about them. Kummerow, FA. Department of Bioscience, University of Illinois, Urbana, 61801, United States. Atherosclerosis, 2009 Aug;205(2):458-65. Epub 2009 Mar 19.
  4. Tree nuts and peanuts as components of a healthy diet. King, J.C., Blumburg, J., Ingwersen, L., et al. Children’s Hospital, Oakland Research Institute, Oakland, CA 94690, USA. J Nutr. 2008 Sep;138(9):1736S-1740S.
  5. Health benefits of nuts: potential role of antioxidants. Blomhoff, R., Carlsen, M.H., Anderson, L.F. Department of Nutrition, Institute of Basic Medical Sciences, University of Oslo, Oslo, Norway. Br J Nutr. 2006 Nov;96 Suppl 2:S52-60.
  6. Protective effect of monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids on the development of cardiovascular disease. Aguilera, C.M., Ramirez-Tortosa, M.C, Mesa, M.D., et al. Nutr Hosp. 2001 May-Jun;16(3):78-91.
  7. Nut and peanut butter consumption and risk of type 2 diabetes in women. Jiang, R, Manson, JE, Stampfer, MJ, et al. JAMA. 2002 Nov 27;288(20):2554-60.
  8. Food portions are positively related to energy intake and body weight in early childhood. McConahy, K.L, Smiciklas-Wright, H., Birch, L.L. Departments of Nutrition and Human Development and Family Studies, The Pennsylvania State University, University Park, PA, USA. J Pediatr. 2002 Mar:140(3):340-7.