Peanut butter is still the most common nut-based breakfast spread, but times are changing.
You may have noticed a number of other types of nut butters appearing on grocery store shelves and in specialty stores.
The most common of these are cashew butter and almond butter, but other examples are beginning to become more popular too.
Just recently, I showed that peanut butter can actually be a healthy addition to the diet, even for people who are trying to lose weight. But, what about the rest of the nut butters?
Are they better, worse or about the same? And, are nut butters healthy?
The Basics of Nut Butter
For the most part, nut butters are made in the same way.
The kernels are ground finely, which creates the texture of the peanut butter and also releases the natural oils.
With crunchy nut butter, pieces of the nuts are added back in to create the texture.
There are a few other variations that you may find.
One thing is roasting.
Some manufacturers will roast the nuts used to make the butter, others will not.
The other main thing is additives.
In theory, the only thing you need to make nut butter is the nuts.
But, there can be a range of other things added.
For example, many companies add in palm oil. This oil is used to prevent the natural oils in peanut butter from separating out. Other oil will sometimes be used to play the same role.
In this context, the oil is an emulsifying agent.
It’s easy to see why companies do this.
For example, the image below is from a jar of peanut butter that uses oil to prevent separation.
In contrast, this image is from a jar where oil is not used and you can see the natural separation.
Now, that separation isn’t a bad thing.
In fact, it’s an indication that the peanut butter is more natural. Still, many people find that separation unappealing, which is probably why so many companies add in the emulsifying agent. But honestly, that emulsifier isn’t particularly good for your body.
Even if you find it a little odd, I’d suggest giving the natural versions a try. You can easily stir the oil back in when it comes time to eat it.
Other common additives include sugar and salt (the sugar may be labeled as sucrose, dextrose or something similar). Sugar is entirely unnecessary in peanut butter.
All it really does is add to the calorie count and it barely affects the taste at all.
Nutritionally, the different types of nut butters are pretty similar.
You can see some of this information in the graph below.
In this case, the data is per 100 g, which is much more nut butter than you’d use at one time (I hope). To give you an idea, 1 tablespoon of nut butter is around 16 g.
It’s also important to note that the nutritional information is going to majorly vary between brands – so this information is only a rough guide.
As you can see, most of the values are fairly similar across the three types of nut butter.
The same isn’t true for nutrients:
These vary much more wildly from one type of butter to the next.
That isn’t too surprising.
After all, the different types of nuts do vary in their nutritional profiles.
However, all of the nut butters we are considering do have a decent composition of nutrients.
So far the nut butters are all about equal - but we've only looked at part of the story.
Nuts are often promoted as ways to improve health.
After all, they are good sources of protein, some fiber and a range of nutrients.
If nuts are healthy, then some brands of nut butter will be healthy too – because they often contain little more than nuts.
So, if we want to know what type of nut butter is best, we have to look at the nuts themselves.
Of the three, almonds have been the most heavily researched, and for good reason.
Additionally, some studies have suggested that almond consumption can reduce the risk of death (5), although those studies were observational in nature.
Much less research has been done about peanuts specifically, although they do share many characteristics with other nuts.
There really have been so few studies exclusively on peanuts.
So, as of yet, we don’t know whether peanuts have any health benefits that are unique to them.
A similar issue is true for cashews too.
One study did indicate that cashews can help in maintaining blood pressure, an effect that is thought to be connected to the ratio of fat in cashews (15).
As with peanuts, cashews will still offer the health benefits associated with nuts in general.
The balance of evidence suggests that overall almonds are the best nuts for health, which also suggests that almond butter would be the healthiest nut butter.
But, it is important to note that there may well be specific health benefits to cashews and peanuts too – it’s just that the research hasn’t been done.
So, I asked are nut butters healthy?
The simple answer is that they are at least as healthy as peanut butter and possibly healthier.
Nut Butter Versus The Nuts Themselves
In most cases, the whole version of a food is healthier than the processed version.
A classic example is fruit juice.
Fruit juice can be quite unhealthy as it is high in sugar, lacks the fiber from the fruit itself and it is far too easy to drink too much of the juice.
This isn’t true for nut butter because it contains all of the parts of the nuts.
In fact, you can make the butter yourself and ensure that you're not getting any additives. For example, the site Sally's Baking Addiction offers a recipe for almond butter, while Ambitious Kitchen provides a slightly unusual version of cashew butter.
But, there is still a catch.
Nut butter does tend to be a bit addictive and it is very easy to eat.
Realistically, it takes a bit of time to eat a handful of nuts, but eating the equivalent amount of nut butter would be pretty easy. So, nut butter is as healthy as the nuts themselves, but only if you watch your consumption very carefully.
Are Nut Butters Healthy?
Peanut butter tends to be the go-to nut butter and it will probably stay that way.
After all, peanut butter is much less expensive than the other types of nut butter. It’s also the one that most people are familiar with.
It’s certainly true that all nuts do offer health benefits, so peanut butter is still a healthy option in the diet. Nevertheless, the balance of current evidence suggests that of the three, almond butter would be the best for our health.
Another option would simply be to alternate which type of nut butter you have. After all, they all have different nutrient profiles.
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Have you tried almond or cashew butter? What about other alternatives? What’s your favorite?