Is the peanut butter paradise healthy?

Peanut butter is a popular spread made from ground, dry-roasted peanuts. It’s a staple in many people’s pantries and can be found in 85% of American homes. For peanut butter lovers, it’s hard to imagine living without this creamy, nutty, and versatile food. But is our peanut butter obsession healthy? Let’s take a closer look at the nutrition profile, benefits, and potential downsides of peanut butter.

What is Peanut Butter?

Peanut butter is made by milling roasted peanut kernels into a paste. The peanuts are first roasted to enhance their flavor, then they are ground and smoothed out with added oils, sweeteners, and salt. Peanut butter has a dense, creamy texture and nutty, roasted peanut flavor. There are generally two main types of peanut butter:

  • Smooth peanut butter – This has a uniform creamy texture with no chunks of peanuts.
  • Crunchy peanut butter – Contains peanut bits that provide a chunky texture.

Peanut butter can be found in regular, reduced-fat, extra crunchy, salted and unsalted varieties. Major brands of peanut butter include Jif, Skippy, Peter Pan, and Smucker’s. Natural or organic peanut butters are also available, which typically contain fewer ingredients.

Nutritional Profile of Peanut Butter

Two tablespoons (32g) of regular peanut butter contains approximately: (1,2)

  • Calories: 190
  • Fat: 16g
  • Saturated fat: 2g
  • Carbohydrates: 7g
  • Fiber: 2g
  • Protein: 8g
  • Magnesium: 50mg (12% DV)
  • Phosphorous: 107mg (11% DV)
  • Manganese: 0.5mg (24% DV)
  • Copper: 0.2mg (12% DV)
  • Vitamin E: 2mg (13% DV)
  • Niacin: 4mg (19% DV)
  • Folate: 67μg (17% DV)

As you can see, peanut butter is high in fat and calories. Nearly 80% of its calories come from fat (3). But peanut butter contains mostly monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, which are generally considered the healthy fats compared to saturated and trans fats (4).

Peanut butter is also a good source of plant-based protein, providing 8g per serving. It has small amounts of micronutrients like magnesium, phosphorous, manganese and B vitamins. However, peanut butter is not a significant source of vitamins A, C, or most other vitamins and minerals.

It also contains a decent amount of fiber, with 2g per serving. The fiber comes from the peanut skins that get mixed into peanut butter. Fiber is important for digestive health, cholesterol levels, and maintaining steady blood sugar levels.

So while high in calories and fat, peanut butter is relatively nutritious and a healthy plant-based source of protein and healthy fats. Just keep portion sizes under control, as the calories can add up quickly.

Potential Health Benefits of Peanut Butter

In moderation, adding peanut butter to your diet may provide these potential health benefits:

1. Good Source of Plant-Based Protein

Peanut butter contains 8g of protein per 2 tablespoon serving, making it an excellent plant-based source of protein (1).

Protein is essential for building and repairing tissues, muscle growth, bone health, and proper immune function (5). For those following vegetarian or vegan diets, peanut butter can help meet protein needs in a plant-based way.

The protein in peanut butter has a high digestibility score and provides all of the essential amino acids your body requires from food (6). Consuming peanut butter with whole grains or nuts/seeds can provide a complete protein meal.

2. Healthy Fats

Around 80% of the calories in peanut butter come from fat. But these are predominantly the “good fats” – monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids (2).

Monounsaturated fats like oleic acid have been linked to reduced inflammation and may decrease heart disease risk factors like LDL (bad) cholesterol (7).

Polyunsaturated fats may also benefit heart health and inflammation when they replace saturated fats in the diet. Peanut oil is especially high in polyunsaturated fat called linoleic acid, an omega-6 fatty acid (8).

3. Source of Antioxidants

Peanuts contain high amounts of antioxidant compounds called polyphenols. This includes resveratrol, phytosterols, flavonoids, and phenolic acids (9).

Antioxidants help reduce oxidative stress and inflammation in the body. They may also play a role in preventing chronic diseases like heart disease and type 2 diabetes (10).

Around 30% of the polyphenols naturally present in peanuts are retained in the peanut butter during processing. This allows peanut butter to provide antioxidant benefits (9).

4. May Aid Blood Sugar Control

Peanut butter contains fiber, protein, and healthy fats – all nutrients that may help moderate blood sugar levels.

The fiber in peanut butter slows down the digestion of carbohydrates, resulting in a slower rise in blood sugar after eating (11).

Protein triggers the release of hormones that help control blood sugar levels, such as insulin, glucagon, and incretins. Plus, fats and protein slow gastric emptying and the absorption of sugar from foods (12, 13).

Multiple studies have found that eating peanuts and peanut butter may have benefits for blood sugar control, especially in people with diabetes (14, 15).

5. May Support Heart Health

Eating peanut butter in moderation may benefit heart health thanks to its content of unsaturated fats, antioxidants, arginine, fiber, and other plant compounds.

Several large cohort studies found that higher peanut or nut intake was associated with a lower risk of death from heart disease (16, 17).

Multiple randomized controlled trials also report that eating peanuts or tree nuts can improve blood lipids, reduce inflammation, decrease insulin resistance, and lower A1C in people with diabetes (18, 19). All are factors that help reduce heart disease risk.

The nutrients in peanut butter may help increase HDL (good) cholesterol while lowering LDL levels – though findings are mixed (20).

Still, adding peanut butter to an overall healthy diet may support better heart health. Just limit your portions and avoid truly unhealthy additions like processed sugars or oils.

Potential Downsides of Peanut Butter

1. High in Calories

With about 190 calories in just 2 tablespoons, peanut butter is one of the more calorie-dense foods. The small serving size makes it easy to overeat and drive up your calorie intake unintentionally.

If trying to lose weight, pay close attention to serving sizes and measure peanut butter instead of scooping with a spoon. Also be mindful of what you eat peanut butter with, as pairing it with crackers, bread, or chocolate can cause calories to stack up fast.

2. Contains Omega-6 Fats

While peanut butter provides benefits from its monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, the polyunsaturated fat content may be a downside for some.

Peanut oil is high in omega-6 fatty acids, containing 22.8 grams of omega-6 polyunsaturated fat per 100 grams (8). Omega-6 fats are essential fats our bodies require. However, modern diets tend to be too high in omega-6 fatty acids compared to omega-3s (21).

The optimal ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fats is thought to be around 4:1 or lower. The typical Western diet provides a ratio around 15-20:1 (22). A high omega-6 intake may promote inflammation in the body compared to omega-3 fats (23).

The omega-6 fat content of peanut butter isn’t necessarily harmful in moderation. But it is something to be mindful of in modern diets already high in vegetable oils and processed foods.

3. Aflatoxin Content

Peanuts may sometimes become contaminated with a mold called Aspergillus flavus, which produces a toxic compound called aflatoxin (24).

Aflatoxins are considered carcinogenic and linked to liver cancer and damage (25). Contamination levels tend to be higher in peanuts grown in hot, humid climates.

While this is concerning, peanut butter is generally safe. Manufacturers monitor peanut butter for aflatoxin contamination to ensure levels meet food safety regulations. Proper peanut storage and handling procedures also reduce mold growth and aflatoxin production (25).

Still, this remains an area for people to be aware of with peanut and peanut butter consumption.

4. Allergy Risk

Peanut allergy is one of the most severe and potentially life-threatening food allergies. It is estimated that around 1% of the US population, or over 3 million Americans, has a peanut allergy (26).

Allergic reactions to peanuts can range from mild symptoms like hives to severe anaphylaxis. People with peanut allergy must avoid peanut butter and other peanut-containing foods entirely.

Peanut butter poses a high risk to those with peanut allergy due to its pure peanut content. Accidental exposure is a concern, as peanut residues left on surfaces, dishes, utensils and hands can trigger allergic reactions (27).

5. Contains Added Sugars and Salt

When buying peanut butter, pay close attention to the ingredient list. Many commercial peanut butters contain added sugars, oils, and salt.

Sugar is often added in the form of sweeteners like sugar, corn syrup, or molasses. Hydrogenated vegetable oils may also be added to improve texture and prevent separation of natural oils.

The healthiest peanut butter options are natural or organic types without these added ingredients. But even “natural” peanut butter contains some naturally-occurring sugars from the peanut oil.

The average 2-tablespoon serving of peanut butter also provides 109mg of sodium, around 5% of the recommended daily limit (1). Choosing low-sodium or salt-free varieties can help reduce intake of the sodium we get from processed foods.

How to Add Peanut Butter to a Healthy Diet

Peanut butter is fine to enjoy regularly as part of a healthy, balanced diet. But portion control is key, as the calories add up quickly. Here are some tips for enjoying peanut butter in a healthy way:

– Stick to standard serving sizes of 1–2 tablespoons per serving. Measure portions instead of scooping directly from the jar.

– Pair peanut butter with foods that provide fiber, protein, and nutrients, such as apple slices, whole-grain toast, or celery sticks.

– Look for natural peanut butter without added sugars and hydrogenated oils. The ingredients list should only have peanuts and maybe salt.

– Choose reduced-sodium or salt-free versions if consuming peanut butter regularly to reduce sodium intake.

– Balance out your omega-6 fat intake. Consume more omega-3-rich foods like fatty fish, walnuts, and chia seeds.

– Drink water when snacking on peanut butter to prevent overeating. The nutty flavor and dense texture make it easy to consumer too many calories.

– Select other nut butters like almond or cashew butter for more variety in nutrients and to help control portions.

As long as you’re mindful of servings, peanut butter can be part of a healthy diet that includes a variety of nutritious whole foods. It provides a tasty way to get plant-based protein, healthy fats, and antioxidants. The key is controlling portions and avoiding excessive intake.

Frequently Asked Questions

Here are answers to some common questions about the health effects of peanut butter:

Is peanut butter healthy or unhealthy?

Peanut butter is healthy in moderation. It provides benefits like protein, healthy fats, antioxidants, and fiber. However, it’s high in calories per serving, so portions need to be monitored. Choosing natural peanut butter without added sugars is best.

Can peanut butter help you lose weight?

Peanut butter is high in protein and fiber, both nutrients that help with weight control. However, it’s calorie-dense, so portions still need attention. Measuring servings and pairing it with lighter foods is best for weight loss.

Is eating peanut butter before bed healthy?

While protein can help with muscle repair and growth overnight, the high calories and fat content in peanut butter are not ideal. Pairing peanut butter with foods containing tryptophan like milk may increase serotonin and melatonin, aiding sleep. But peanut butter is still high in calories, so large amounts before bed are not recommended.

Does peanut butter cause inflammation?

The monounsaturated fats in peanut butter are linked to lower markers of inflammation. But its content of omega-6 polyunsaturated fats may promote inflammation if consumed in excess. Overall, peanut butter does not have strong anti-inflammatory properties but is likely neutral if calories are controlled.

Is powdered peanut butter healthy?

Powdered peanut butter has significantly less fat since the oils are pressed out of it. It’s lower in calories but also way less flavorful. It still provides the benefits of peanut butter’s protein, fiber, and antioxidants. But removing the oils strips away most of the flavor and the heart-healthy fats.

The Bottom Line

Peanut butter is a tasty and convenient source of plant-based protein and beneficial nutrients like healthy fats, fiber, and antioxidants. It offers several health perks when enjoyed regularly as part of a balanced diet and active lifestyle.

However, its high calorie content can promote weight gain if proper portion sizes are not followed. The omega-6 fat content may also be concerning for some individuals.

Sticking to just 1–2 tablespoons per serving is best, paired with whole grains, fruits, or veggies. Natural types of peanut butter without added sugars or oils are healthiest.

Overall, peanut butter can be part of a nutritious diet when enjoyed in moderation alongside a variety of other whole foods. Just be mindful of your total calorie, salt, and omega-6 fat intake from processed foods and added fats/oils when regularly eating higher-fat foods like peanut butter.

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