Peanut butter has been both a food mainstay and pop icon in American culture for more than a century. It’s an affordable, tasty and nutritious food that over 90% of American households have in their pantry. While America’s food preferences have often proven popular with other countries (think hamburgers and fries), peanut butter has more frequently been viewed as an exception that doesn’t appeal to most outside of the North American content (Canada loves it too!). That is until recently when peanut butter suddenly overtook jam sales in the United Kingdom.
In this interview, National Peanut Board President and CEO, Bob Parker, sat down with Louise McKerchar, Vice President and European Marketing Director for the American Peanut Council, to find out what led to this sudden surge in peanut butter popularity. They explore how the pandemic contributed to its rise, the product explosion of peanut butter product extensions on the market, and how America’s love of this simple spread finally broke through with our friends across the pond.
How has the cultural perception of peanut butter changed in the U.K. over the years? What are the drivers of this change in perception?
By way of background, we Brits haven’t traditionally been raised on peanut butter like many children in America have.
Our love of peanut though began during the second world war when Americans used to send over peanut butter in large tins, mainly for the GIs (ground infantry) based here. I’m told that people used to line up at the local stores and get their peanut butter in greaseproof bags – apparently it was quite a treat to be allowed to scrape off the last of the peanut butter from the bags as it was transferred into jars.
After the war peanut butter became a cupboard staple in a lot of homes, although household penetration at about 20% was relatively low compared to the US. Back when I was growing up, we had the option of smooth or crunchy peanut butter and we really only used it as a spread on bread.
Jump forward to 2020 and the market is completely different. I think the biggest change we’ve seen is how peanut butter is used now and the fact that it’s not just perceived to be a spread anymore but is being more widely used by consumers in cooking. While more traditional mothers might now be baking cookies or cakes, millennials are experimenting with international cuisines and we’re seeing more use of peanut butter in savoury dishes. It’s also gaining more traction as a tasty and versatile ingredient by food manufacturers. One example of this is the explosion of peanut butter ice creams that have come onto the market in the past year or so.
New start-ups and market disruptors have brought new flavours using peanut butter as the base or carrier which has opened up peanut butter to a new affluent audience and didn’t cannibalise traditional sales.
Consumers for the most part over generations have been brand loyal. The bringing together of established products with new flavours (salted dates, maple syrup, coconut) and increasingly brand extensions has helped to build the markets. Here in the UK we grew up on Marmite (a yeast-based spread) and around 30 years ago when the Marmite producer also produced a leading brand of peanut butter I advised the marketing team to introduce a peanut butter with Marmite. It only took 30 years for my wish to come true, but now we have it!
Recent brand extensions have seen Kellogg’s introduce a Crunchy Nut peanut butter and Mars has recently entered the category with two products, launching an M&M’s Peanut Butter and a Snickers Peanut Butter.
The array of products that we find on the market now is amazing – whether its extra crunchy, a richer roasted peanut, made with high-oleic peanuts or mixed with other flavours, we’ve got a lot of options to satisfy all palates. I’m guessing many households have more than one type of peanut butter in their cupboards – I know I do!
What impact (if any) do you think COVID-19 and the response has had on people’s reliance on peanut butter?
As the pandemic set in we saw a huge rise in peanut butter purchases. We know that suppliers found the increased demand somewhat overwhelming and were struggling to keep up with demand as retail shelves were being quickly emptied by shoppers. Some of the increased demand may originally have been stockpiling, but there has certainly been an overall increase in demand. One of the changes we have seen is the introduction of much larger formats, with 1KG (35 oz) tubs now being sold and proving to be very popular.
With many households staying at home, peanut butter has proved to be an affordable, nutritious option to feed the family at breakfast, lunch or tea but we’ve also been a nation of bakers and cooks during the pandemic and people have been experimenting more with peanut butter. Perhaps those children who aren’t able to take peanut butter into school have been making the most of enjoying it at home.
What do you think has prompted the surge in consumption of peanut butter products?
The surge in consumption is complex and being driven by a number of factors.
We have seen an increased use in home cooking during lockdown and this may have been partly fuelled by the increased sharing of peanut and peanut butter recipes on social media over the past few months. Some of our favourite restaurants have shared their secrets, posting recipes and even filming live cooking demonstrations to help encourage cooking at home. Consumers could shop savvy, keep healthy and rediscover their kitchens. During lockdown consumers turned to online recipe platforms for inspiration. A number of the most popular sites including BBC Good Food host no less that 26 peanut butter recipes. Favourites include PB Cheesecake, PB Cake, PB Brownies, PB Choco Cake, Vegan Cupcakes and, Billionaires Slice. The upside is the amount of peanut butter required by the recipe.
What’s changed dramatically over the past year or so is the increasing focus on plant-based diet and the growing popularity of vegetarian and vegan dishes. Even meat lovers like myself also enjoy plant-based foods, and peanut butter fits right into this.
It’s not only plant-based, though. There’s an increasing interest in trying foods and recipes from around the world, and many cultures use peanuts and peanut butter extensively in cooking. So, whether you’re looking for African, Indonesian, Indian or Chinese flavours, peanut butter fits right in with all of them.
Consumer needs for ‘Sports-On the Go’ products has also played a part. Fuelling the body requires quality nutrient dense foods. Peanut butter certainly falls in this category. Peanut butter supplies lasting energy at 190 calories per 2 tablespoon serving. Challenging our body through hard workouts or endurance runs benefit from peanut butter and its powerhouse of nutrients.
How does the U.S. influence and/or play into peanut butter consumption and perception in the UK?
This probably goes back to the 1950’s, 60’s and our later love of American television series such as Friends and Cheers. American diners with their chrome, red leather stools and soda fountains represented fun, freedom and rock 'n' roll. Burgers and fries still epitomise that and peanut butter was definitely seen as ‘born in the USA’.
Over the years the American Peanut Council has provided support to a number of companies marketing peanut butter in the UK and European markets. This peanut butter has either been imported from the U.S. or made here in the UK using only American grown peanuts. Campaigns have focussed on its nutrient content, that it’s a great tasting food that kids love, it’s an easy to use and affordable food and always its American heritage.
I think, generally, peanut butter is still viewed as being American – and certainly that’s the impression that many brands and store labels try to give. Recent changes to labelling regulations mean that companies are no longer allowed to mislead consumers by giving the impression that the food comes from somewhere it doesn’t and this is an area that APC will be focussing on to ensure that only peanut butter from America, or made only with American grown peanuts, can use American imagery or icons. The American peanut industry should be aware though that some peanut butter here in the UK is marketing its Argentine provenance.
Peanut butter recently overtook jam as the number one spread in the U.K., what greater impact does that rise in popularity of peanut butter have, besides on the shelves?
We'd always hoped that one day the peanut butter market would take off over here but I don’t think we ever dreamt that it would overtake the British love of jam – or as you would say, jelly! I don’t think this rise in popularity is going to be a blip, I think it’s here to stay. With our love of international cuisines, particularly millennials who are keen to experiment and try new foods, and the growth of vegan and vegetarian diets, I think the market for peanut butter and innovative products will continue to grow.
We don’t yet have products such as ‘Uncrustables’ over here, but I think they would have a bright future here.
There is a success story though for other U.S. products. Iconic American brands such as Oreo and Reese’s, themselves market disruptors only a few years ago, are now mainstream with broad appeal and listings across all major retail platforms.
Watch the interview to learn more and hear directly from Louise McKerchar and Bob Parker here.