We all know it and love it: the gooey, creamy (sometimes crunchy), nutty spread that's truly unmatched by rival nut butters (yes, even you almond and cashew).
Peanut butter—aka, the perfect companion to chocolate, jelly, bananas, apples, or even just a spoon—is a staple in many meals, snacks, and desserts. It is rich in nutrients and can act as a solid source of protein and fat, but what exactly is in this delicious treat, and what does it do for your body? Here's what you need to know about peanut butter and how healthy it is.
What is peanut butter?
"All you need to make peanut butter are peanuts," Keri Gans, RDN, a registered dietician nutritionist in New York City, tells Health. That's because peanut butter in its most basic form comes from ground peanuts.
Past that, "salt is optional," says Gans, and "some brands add sugar, molasses, vegetable oils and even corn syrup, [which] basically minimize the health value." However, if you stick to the basics, you can get all of the nutrition of the peanut, without the unnecessary additives.
According to the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), 28 grams of peanuts—a typical 1-ounce serving—contains the following:
- Calories: 160
- Protein: 7 grams
- Fiber: 1.99 grams
- Sugar: 1 gram
- Fat: 14 grams
- Carbs: 5 grams
What are the health benefits of peanut butter?
"Peanuts are a great source of protein, fat, niacin, magnesium, vitamin E, biotin and copper," Laura Iu, RD, a registered dietician and nutrition therapist based in New York City, tells Health. As such a rich source of vitamins and nutrients, peanut butter is overall a great addition to your diet for multiple reasons.
It can support weight loss
"Sometimes peanut butter gets a bad [reputation] because of its fat content, but fat is an essential component to feeling satisfaction," says Iu. "This means that having pretzels or fruit with peanut butter can help you feel fuller longer than if you were to just eat the pretzels or fruit by itself." This satiation-effect makes peanut butter a great food choice if you have weight loss goals.
It can help repair muscles
"The protein [found] in peanuts, around 8 grams per serving, may help build and repair muscle," says Gans. Research has shown for years that increased protein intake contributes to muscle strength, and allows for muscle mass preservation over the course of a lifetime.
Peanut butter is also packed with magnesium and potassium, essential minerals for muscle function and development, per the journal of Food and Nutrition Sciences. Phosphorus helps synthesize protein for growth, maintenance, and repair of cells and tissues. Peanuts provide about 50% of our required daily intake (RDI) of phosphorus.
It may reduce your risk of heart disease and diabetes
"Peanuts are packed with monounsaturated fats," says Gans, "which are [often] associated with a decrease in cholesterol and heart disease." That's because when these healthy fats replace saturated fatty acids in your diet, it lowers your LDL (bad cholesterol) levels, but leaves HDL (good cholesterol) levels alone, per the National Library of Medicine. Additionally, eating healthier fats, like the ones found in peanut butter, can help reduce your risk of developing type 2 diabetes, per the American Diabetes Association.
It can help improve gut health
"[Peanuts] contain around 2 grams of fiber per serving which has been shown to be beneficial for gut health," says Gans. That's because dietary fiber boosts your microbiome (all of the bacteria that lives in your gut), which regulates digestion, increases immunity, and lessens inflammation, per review in the journal Cell Host & Microbe.
Further, with a health microbiome, a person's body can protect against any harmful pathogenic organisms that you might consume through contaminated water or food, according to the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
It may have anticancer properties
"[Peanut butter] contains bioactive compounds like resveratrol, phytosterois, and p-coumaric acid, which can help fight cancer," says Iu. Another antioxidant nutrient found in both peanuts and peanut butter is vitamin E, which protects cells from free-radical damage, often a precursor to cancer development, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
Are there any risks associated with peanut butter?
As far as risks go, the most common and serious ones involve peanut allergies. If you have a peanut allergy, your immune system mistakes the peanut proteins as harmful invaders, according to the Mayo Clinic. In order to attack these "invaders" your body releases chemicals into your bloodstream that can cause symptoms such as skin reactions (hives, redness, or swelling), itching, throat constriction, shortness of breath, digestive problems (cramps, diarrhea, or vomiting), and most concerning of all, anaphylaxis, a life-threatening reaction that requires an immediate injection of epinephrine (adrenaline), and will likely result in a trip to the emergency room.
Allergies aside, Iu warns against less expensive shelf brands that advertise as "no-stir" peanut butter, because they often use palm oil as a common ingredient to prevent oil separation. While palm oil won't hurt you, its production does create a global risk to the environment. "90% of the world's palm oil comes from burning rainforests, [displaces] indigenous peoples and endangered species, and contributes to greenhouse gases," says Iu. She adds that if you don't mind stirring, choose those kinds—they're better for the environment.
Which types of peanut butter do nutritionists recommend?
Again, the healthiest kinds of peanut butter will often be billed as the "natural" kind—ones that contain peanuts, maybe salt, and nothing else. "I suggest to my clients that they look for brand that have no more than peanuts and salt, plain and simple," says Gans. Past that, though, your taste buds will likely be the deciding factor. Some of the best brands, according to nutritionists and editors include: Brad's Naturals, Smucker's Natural, Cream-Nut, Wild Friends and Once Again.
But if you're feeling daring and creative, there's an even more cost-effective and healthy option, Iu says: Make your own. "All you need is a blender or food processor, peanuts, and a little salt," she says. Just be patient for it to come together (and try not to break your blender).
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