Is Peanut Butter Good or Bad for Your Health? Nutrition Facts
Peanut butter proponents tell you, 'It’s good for you! Peanuts are legumes!'
Those who are opposed to peanut butter retort, 'But it is so fattening, and it is packed with sugar!'
Hovering in front of the peanut butter jars in the grocery aisle, you may find yourself torn both ways.
'I could sure use more protein in my diet …' you think, 'and peanut butter is so tasty. But … calories! Sugar! I’ll get fat!'
But there has to be a scientific answer, right?
Of course. All we need to do is look at the evidence.
So let’s learn all about peanut butter - how it is made, what it contains, and its health benefits and drawbacks.
At the end of this article, we will be able to conclude once and for all whether peanut butter is good for us or not!
What is Peanut Butter?
This may sound like a ridiculously basic question - peanut butter is essentially just ground up peanuts, right?
But it is worth taking a moment to discuss what peanut butter is because what you are buying at the store may or may not be the real deal.
At its most basic, peanut butter is nothing more than peanuts (maybe roasted, maybe not) which have been ground up into a smooth, creamy consistency (sometimes with chunks). Sometimes a little salt is added.
That is it! That is what peanut butter is supposed to be.
Now the problem is that a lot of peanut butter labels at the store look more like this:
As you can see, roasted peanuts and salt are just two of the ingredients listed here.
Also included in Smucker’s peanut butter are:
- Fully hydrogenated vegetable oils (soybean and rapeseed)
- Mono and diglycerides
- 4g of sugar per serving
This is not a huge amount of sugar, but it isn’t negligible either.
It may not be a big deal if you just eat a little bit of peanut butter spread on a peanut butter and jelly sandwich now and again, but a lot of peanut butter fans go through a lot of peanut butter fast – so that sugar can add up.
Keep in mind that even peanut butter that is made without added sugar still contains some natural sugar.
But obviously a product without any added is going to be healthier than one that has unnecessary extra sugar.
Then there are those 'mono and diglycerides.' What the heck are those?
Well, since 2006, the FDA has required food manufacturers to list trans fats on their labels, but this does not apply to emulsifiers. Mono and diglycerides are emulsifiers.
And guess what? They may contain trans fats, and you would never even know it.
Another problem with these emulsifiers is that they are heavily processed using many chemicals.
Some of these chemicals may be present in your peanut butter in trace amounts.
The health effects of these chemicals have not been adequately studied.
What about the “fully hydrogenated vegetable oils?”
That one may sound bad, but it actually is not. Partially hydrogenated oils may contain trans fats, but fully hydrogenated oils do not. They turn into saturated fats.
And what about salt, which is found even in the most innocuous peanut butters?
The dangers of sodium also have been exaggerated. In fact, studies indicate that cutting back on sodium has no significant effect on curbing cardiovascular disease or mortality resulting from it (3).
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Carbohydrate and Fat Content in Peanut Butter
So what are you looking at regarding carb and fat consumption with peanut butter?
100g of peanut butter contains the following:
- 20 grams of carbohydrates accounting for 13% of the calories. Six grams of these carbs are fiber.
- 50 grams of fat accounting for 72% of the calories.
The remaining 15% of the calories are protein - 25 grams in total.
In all, you would be consuming 588 calories.
So yes - peanut butter does contain an ample amount of fat.
Technically you are not looking at that many carbs compared to a lot of other foods, but it may still come out to a lot if you are on a low-carb diet and are limiting your intake to 50-150 grams per day.
Around half of the fat in peanut butter is monounsaturated while around 20% is saturated. About 30% is polyunsaturated fat.
Generally speaking, monounsaturated fats are some of the healthier fats you can eat, so this is a fairly well-balanced fat profile.
That being said, polyunsaturated fats are some of the worst, and the polyunsaturated fat content is still a little high for comfort.
I will get back to that in detail in just a bit.
First, though, I want to talk about the other nutrients found in peanut butter.
Health Benefits of Peanut Butter
Peanut Butter is Nutrient Rich
Peanut butter has a lot of nutritional goodness packed into it! Check out the following nutritional benefits of 100 grams of peanut butter (28):
- Protein: 25 grams
- Vitamin E: 45% DV
- Vitamin B6: 27% DV
- Folate: 18% DV
- Niacin: 67% DV
- Pantothenic acid: 11% DV
- Riboflavin: 6% DV
- Phosphorus: 36% DV
- Magnesium: 39% DV
- Zinc: 19% DV
- Potassium: 19% DV
- Manganese: 73% DV
- Copper: 24% DV
- Iron: 10% DV
- Selenium: 8% DV
- Calcium: 4% DV
So that is a whopping dose of nutrition! The only downside is of course that you have to eat a lot of calories to get it.
That means that it is not as efficient a choice as a low-calorie veggie like broccoli or spinach. Veggies like these are not calorie dense, but still give you ample nutrition.
Peanut Butter Can Protect You from Heart Disease
Along with the vitamins and minerals listed above, peanut butter contains antioxidants such as resveratrol.
You may be familiar with resveratrol from red wine. Because of red wine’s resveratrol content, it is often recommended as protection against heart disease (6).
Peanut Butter Can Help You Metabolize Energy
Peanut butter contains small quantities of an important nutrient called coenzyme Q10 (often called CoQ10 for short). In fact, peanuts contain the highest amounts of CoQ10 compared to other legumes (30).
It has other benefits as well. Researchers believe that CoQ10 may help to protect against cardiovascular and neurodegenerative disease (8).
Peanut Butter May Have Anti-Cancer Properties
Peanut butter also contains a nutrient called beta-sitosterol.
A very promising study was conducted in Taiwan (11). 12,026 men and 11,917 women between the ages of 30 and 65 were recruited in 1990-1992 to take place in a decade-long study on colorectal cancer.
At the end of the 10-year study, the researchers concluded, “Frequent intake of peanut and its products may reduce colorectal cancer risk in women, demonstrating the anti-proliferating effect of peanut intake.”
Peanut Butter May Protect You From Type II Diabetes
Another large research program called the Nurses’ Health Study looked at 83,818 women from 11 different states between the ages of 34-59.
The results found that eating peanut butter is associated with reduced incidence of type 2 diabetes. Researchers drew the conclusion, 'Our findings suggest potential benefits of higher nut and peanut butter consumption in lowering risk of type 2 diabetes in women' (12).
Aware of the problems with peanut butter's high-calorie count, the researchers further suggested that peanut butter consumption be used as a replacement for refined grain or red or processed meat product consumption.
Peanut Butter Risks
One Potential Problem: Aflatoxins
While peanut butter is nutritious, there are a few drawbacks beyond the high-calorie content.
One potential concern is the presence of aflatoxins.
Aflatoxins are a class of carcinogenic chemicals.
They are produced by molds such as Aspergillus flavus and Aspergillus parasiticus.
These molds are found in soil and decaying vegetation and grains.
They are also found in food staples when they are improperly stored.
As peanuts are legumes, they grow underground, so they are exposed to the soil.
Aspergillus is commonly found in soil, so this is one source of potential contamination by aflatoxins.
If peanuts are improperly stored, this is another way that aflatoxins can contaminate them.
Thankfully human beings seem to have some level of natural resistance to the acute effects of these toxins, but researchers still are not sure how dangerous prolonged exposure can be over time.
Initial research tells us that aflatoxins may be linked to Hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC), one of the most common cancers in the world (13).
They may also have a connection to liver cancer (14).
None of this should cause you to panic, however - the aflatoxin content of your peanut butter is almost certainly quite low.
Why? Even though peanut butter is a fairly unprocessed food, it still is processed.
If you are a health-conscious individual, you may cringe at the word 'processed.' But not all processing adds toxins to food. Some forms of processing remove them.
Peanuts are shelled before they are used in peanut butter. They are then roasted, blanched and de-skinned, which is followed up by a grinding process.
A research study (17) analyzed the level of aflatoxins present in peanuts at the start of this process and after each stage of processing.
It was discovered that the different stages each contributed to reducing the aflatoxin content.
- When the peanuts were roasted, the aflatoxin content dropped by 51%
- After the peanuts were blanched and de-skinned, the aflatoxin content dropped another 27%.
- Following grinding, the aflatoxins dropped an additional 11%
This means that the entire process from start to finish dropped the aflatoxin content 89%.
Peanut butter made from raw peanuts contains more aflatoxins than those made from roasted peanuts
When you are shopping for peanut butter, check the label not just to learn about the ingredients, but also to find out how the peanut butter was made.
Peanut butter made out of raw peanuts probably will contain significantly more aflatoxins than peanut butter made out of roasted peanuts.
So you should always shop for peanut butter which includes roasted, not raw, peanuts.
You can also do some additional research on the farm if you want to learn how the peanuts are grown and stored.
Another Potential Drawback: Omega-6 Fatty Acids and Lectins
Previously I discussed the fat profile of peanut butter a bit, mentioning that about 50% of the fat is monounsaturated and around 20% is saturated. The remaining 30% is polyunsaturated fat.
But what I did not discuss is that this 30% consists largely of an omega-6 fatty acid called linoleic acid.
Lectins are very common, but it is believed that in high amounts, they may be linked to heart disease.
Nonetheless, it seems that peanut butter is unlikely to pose any serious health concerns - and may actually improve cardiovascular health.
Researchers studying the effects of peanut butter on heart health have found that a diet rich in peanut butter may reduce overall cholesterol by 11% while dropping LDL cholesterol by 14% (18).
Additionally, eating peanut butter may drop your triglyceride levels (19).
Are there any studies which indicate that peanut butter may be dangerous for heart health?
There have been animal studies (20) which suggest that peanut oil might stimulate a condition called atherosclerosis, the thickening of the arteries. Atherosclerosis increases your chance of getting a heart attack.
But the peanut content of the oil may not even be what was responsible for the thickening of the arteries. These studies looked at diets that were extremely high in cholesterol.
How much of an issue this is depends in part on the rest of your diet.
If you already eat a lot of omega-6 fatty acids and not a lot of omega-3 fatty acids (which can decrease inflammation), adding more omega-6 fatty acids to your diet is probably not wise.
But if you have a diet which is generally balanced in this respect or which is high in omega-3 fatty acids and low in omega-6 fatty acids, eating more peanut butter probably will not lead to major increases in body-wide inflammation.
One More Word of Caution: Peanut Allergies Can Be Deadly
For the vast majority of people, eating peanuts and peanut-based products such as peanut butter is completely safe.
But for a small minority, a type I hypersensitivity of the immune system may result in an allergy to peanuts.
An allergy to peanuts is the second most common food allergy in children (27).
Peanut allergy is less likely in adulthood, but still fairly common. While about 1 in 50 children are allergic to peanuts, around 1 in 200 adults are allergic.
The same reference above indicates that of all food allergens, peanuts are most likely to cause anaphylaxis and even death. While these reactions are most likely to result from ingesting peanuts, for some people skin contact or inhalation of peanut particles is enough.
For this reason, if you have a suspected peanut allergy, you should not eat peanut butter or any other peanut-based products at all.
Conclusion: Peanut Butter is a Relatively Healthy Food - in Moderation
Peanut butter has its pros and cons, but all in all it is a relatively healthy food. Just make sure you do not go overboard with it.
To review, here are peanut butter’s health benefits:
- Peanut butter is high in protein as well as other vitamins and minerals such as vitamin E, vitamin B6, magnesium, manganese, and zinc.
- The CoQ10 in peanut butter may help you to metabolize energy while also providing heart and brain benefits.
- The P-coumaric acid in peanut butter may reduce your risk of cancer.
- Peanut butter contains resveratrol, the same compound found in red wine which protects heart health.
- The Beta-sitosterol in peanut butter may also help prevent cancer.
And here are peanut butter’s downsides:
- The lectins and omega-6 fatty acids in peanut butter are bad for heart health - but they do not appear to outweigh the benefits above.
- Peanut butter may contain aflatoxins. Foods grown underground or stored improperly are frequently exposed to these carcinogens. Thankfully most aflatoxins are removed from peanut butter through processing.
As you can see, the benefits of peanut butter for health largely outweigh the drawbacks. But to enjoy the health benefits of peanut butter while mitigating the drawbacks, you need to make sure you are following a few best practices. Read the action tips below to make sure you are eating peanut butter as part of a balanced diet.
So is peanut butter good for you?
Yes, if you eat it in moderation and balance out the rest of your diet accordingly. The exception is if you have a peanut allergy, and in that case, its bad for you.
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