By Sherry Coleman Collins, MS, RDN, LD
The research in support of peanuts and peanut butter as a regular part of your healthy eating habits is overwhelmingly positive. Peanuts bring protein, good fats and important nutrients like niacin, vitamin E, folate and fiber to the plate, just to name a few. Yet, when you read about peanut butter, there are often statements that urge you to avoid those that contain added or hydrogenated fat and that can be confusing. This is especially true if you’re among the majority of consumers who prefer peanut butter that doesn’t separate at room temperature, which is prevented by the addition of these fats. What’s a peanut butter lover to do? In this article, we’ll take a deep dive into the fat in peanut butter to help you understand just why you don’t have to fret so much about what’s in your peanut butter, no matter which kind you choose to eat.
Deconstructing Peanut Butter
Most peanut butter sold in the U.S. is made up of only three or four ingredients. These usually include peanuts, sugar, salt and fat. Some peanut butter contains only peanuts, while others add a little salt for flavor. If you prefer your peanut butter a little sweeter, you can choose a brand that includes sugar, sometimes in the form of cane sugar or molasses. Lastly, some peanut butter brands add palm oil or hydrogenated oil (various plant-based oils) to make the peanut butter smoother or to keep it from separating in the jar at room temperature. If it’s labeled peanut butter, you can count on the contents of the jar including peanuts as 90% or more of the mixture inside. If it’s called “peanut spread” or “peanut butter spread” it may contain less. There are some specialty peanut butter products that may include dried fruit, chocolate, sprinkles, whey protein or other ingredients, but those are very specific gourmet products and not what most people are spreading on their PB&J.
The Skinny on Fat in Peanut Butter
Let’s break down the fats that you might find in a jar of peanut butter:
- Naturally occurring fat in peanut butter is largely the good kind, which includes mono- and polyunsaturated fats. There is a small amount of naturally occurring saturated fat in peanut butter (3 grams). If your natural peanut butter separates, this is the oil that is usually found floating above the peanut butter. You can stir it back in and store your peanut butter upside down or in the fridge to reduce this.
- Palm oil is a tropical oil that is solid at room temperature, therefore it is effective at helping reduce separation at room temperature. It is higher in saturated fat, which is why it is solid at room temperature, adding about 1.5 grams of saturated fat per serving. This oil was used to replace partially hydrogenated fats when research showed that trans fats, which are found in partially hydrogenated fats, were unhealthy.
- Hydrogenated fats are fats that are liquid at room temperature and have been altered to be more solid at room temperature. Importantly, fully hydrogenating fats does not create harmful trans fats yet yields a fat that helps improve shelf-stability and prevents oil separation (Hinrichsen, 2016). These fats add a small amount of saturated fat to peanut butter when they are part of the formulation. Like the addition of palm oil, adding hydrogenated fats increases the saturated fat in peanut butter by about 1.5 grams per serving.
What About Trans Fats in Peanut Butter?
The U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) required that trans fats no longer be considered generally recognized as safe (GRAS), a designation that once allowed the use of partially hydrogenated oils and fats. In fact, the FDA requires that these fats be removed from manufacturers formulations starting in 2018, with foods created up to that time permitted to be sold through January 1, 2020 (U.S. Food & Drug Administration, 2018). Peanut butter manufacturers no longer use fats and oils that contain trans fats – nor are trans fats added to other foods in accordance with the FDA’s guidance to industry.
The bottom line is that peanut butter is a delicious and nutritious food that comes in a variety of formulations to meet every preference. Consumers should choose the peanut butter that they like best. By comparing labels, they can find the brands that best meet their preferences, remembering that a little added salt, sugar and fat, doesn’t change the overall nutrition of peanut butter very much – and none contain dangerous trans fats.
Hinrichsen, N. (2016). Commercially available alternatives to palm oil. Lipid Technology, 65-67.
U.S. Food & Drug Administration. (2018, May 18). Trans Fat. Retrieved from U.S. Food & Drug Administration: https://www.fda.gov/food/food-additives-petitions/trans-fat