Is Peanut Butter Healthy or a Poor Choice?

Peanut butter and peanuts

Peanut butter.

It’s an incredibly popular spread, especially for toast and sandwiches.

But, it’s often viewed as being pretty unhealthy.

After all, it is relatively high in fact, can have a decent amount of sodium and is often addictive.

So, is peanut butter good for you?

The simple answer is that it just might be.

Let me explain why…

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Nutritional Information

At first glance, peanut butter doesn’t look all that great nutritionally.

It does contain a number of important nutrients, including vitamin E, folate, vitamin B6, niacin (vitamin B3), magnesium and manganese.

But, if you’re only eating a few tablespoons of peanut butter at a time, those levels don’t seem particularly significant.

All of your nutrient consumption does add up though, so peanut butter does still help to make sure you get enough nutrients.

Peanut butter does also contain other nutrients, including antioxidants.

One particular example is the compound p-coumaric acid (1).

This is an antioxidant and has been linked to lower stomach cancer risk (2).

Two other compounds in peanut butter, beta-sitosterol and resveratrol, have also been linked to anti-cancer properties, and the latter has also been linked to lower heart disease risk (3,4).

People often get concerned about the fat content of peanut butter.

In particular, 2 tablespoons of peanut butter actually contain 16 g of fat (including 3 g of saturated fat), along with 6 g of carbohydrates (5).

Dessert spoon of peanut butter

That seems like quite a lot, and in some ways it is.

But, fat isn’t really the villain that it is made out to be.

In fact, peanut butter is even considered to be heart healthy, despite that fat content (6).

The fat content of peanut butter (and by extension, the calories) does mean that peanut butter is also good as an energy source.

That’s great as peanut butter is often used as a breakfast or as a snack.

Unsalted peanut butter also has a good ratio of potassium to sodium, which makes it a great option for decreasing your risk of heart issues (7).

Even salted peanut butter has a good ratio of potassium to sodium (although obviously the ratio is better in unsalted butter).

Potassium is very important because it plays a key role in your heart and your muscles (8).

A final interesting part of peanut butter is protein. In a 2 tablespoon serving of peanut butter (which is around 32 g) contains 8 g of protein. That’s a decent amount of protein.

Protein is very relevant for health and can be particularly important for weight loss as it helps to keep you satisfied.

Finally, peanut butter does also contain fiber.

The amount of fiber isn’t huge, just 2 g for a 2 tablespoon serving.

But, it does add up, especially as many of us don’t get enough fiber anyway.

Potential Health Benefits

Bowls of peanut butter and peanuts

To look at the question, is peanut butter good for you, we have to consider the science.

For example, some research does suggest that peanuts are associated with a lower colorectal cancer risk in women (9) and that people eating peanut butter regularly have a lower risk of diabetes (10).

But, the research has been pretty limited, so we can’t draw any definite conclusions.

Realistically, there hasn’t been all that much research done concerning peanut butter, although some evidence does point to peanuts being a functional food (11).

Most of the evidence about the health benefits of peanut butter comes from what it contains.

The potassium, the protein and the other nutrients are all very relevant to your health – and they mean that peanut butter acts as a filling source of energy.

Peanut Butter Brands

In general, peanut butter goes through very little processing.

The spread is little more than roasted peanuts that are ground to make peanut butter.

But, there are many different peanut butter brands on the market and, as you might imagine, there is a large amount of variation between them.

In many cases, you’ll find that your peanut butter has all sorts of additives, including salts and sugar.

I’m not going to go into the brands too much here, but the healthiest option is always going to be the peanut butter with as few additives as possible.

For example, this is the ingredients label from Jif peanut butter.

Peanut butter ingredients label

In this case, the ingredients include sugar, salt, vegetable oil and a few other additives. Avoiding the additives is a simple matter of reading the labels.

You are simply looking for as few ingredients as possible. More than anything, the sugar content is what you should be looking at.

There really is no need to put sugar in peanut butter and honestly, it doesn’t do much to the flavor. Peanut butter does contain some natural sugars, but not all that much.

The easiest way is to simply look at whether sugar is included as an item on the ingredients list (like it is in the image above).

On a side note – the sugar in peanut butter is relevant if you plan to cook with it. If you are using peanut butter in that way, picking one with added sugar might be relevant.

But regardless, avoiding added sugar is certainly the healthiest option.

Picking Good Brands

Finding a good peanut butter brand can be challenging.

One issue is that some of those additives influence the texture of the peanut butter while others influence the flavor.

So, you’ll find that natural peanut butter often tastes quite different than peanut butter with all the additives. In many cases, people find natural peanut butter unappealing, partly because it doesn’t have that saltiness. 

Because of this, finding a good peanut butter brand may be a matter of trial and error.

Individual people also have different preferences, so you might like what someone else hates. ​

Ideally, you would want to find a brand that has as little processing as possible, but still tastes good.

I imagine that for some people, this would involve finding a brand that has added salt, but no added sugar.

You can also make your own peanut butter. The site Pinch of Yum offers one recipe for doing so, while Texanerin Baking has another. Making your own peanut butter like this can help you control exactly what you're consuming and avoid undesirable ingredients. 

Issues with Peanut Butter

Peanut Butter and Salt

Salt is one of the most common additives to peanut butter, which isn’t surprising.

Even brands that focus on producing natural and healthy peanut butter often add some salt.

To be honest, peanut butter without salt does seem a bit lacking.

If you are concerned about sodium or need to eat as little as possible, there are certainly salt-free varieties of peanut butter and these are often advertised quite clearly.

However, for most people, a little bit of sodium isn’t going to hurt.

In many ways, the risks of sodium have been overemphasized and people tend to be paranoid about it when they don’t need to be.

Peanut Butter and Jelly Sandwich

Research has even indicated that reducing dietary sodium intake has little to no effect on heart disease risk (12).

Personally, I don’t think the amount of sodium in peanut butter is enough to be worried about – unless you eating excessive amounts of peanut butter.

And honestly, if you were eating a ton of peanut butter, the sodium isn’t what I’d be worried about.

Peanut Butter and Allergies

In general, peanut butter is a pretty safe food.

You can tell that simply by the large amount of peanut butter that is consumed daily.

But, peanut butter can be deadly.

That issue specifically refers to people who have an allergy to peanuts. That allergy affects around 1 in 200 adults and around 1 in 50 children (13).

In that population, peanuts can cause anaphylaxis. This can lead to death although most of the time it does not.

All of this discussion on, is peanut butter good for you, is focused on the rest of the population, those of us that can eat peanuts safely.

Realistically, if you have a peanut allergy, then you will already know about it and you will know not to eat peanut butter.

So, peanut butter is a safe (and tasty) food for the majority of the population.

The Challenge of Peanut Butter

Peanut butter is a tricky food.

Portrait photo of peanut butter and peanuts

As I’ve shown, it is actually a pretty healthy food – as long as you don’t eat too much of it.

But, that’s the problem.

Peanut butter can be surprisingly addictive, especially if you’re eating a brand with added salt and/or sugar.

I’ve seen many people spread peanut butter thickly on toast or sandwiches and then go back for second and third servings.

Some people even eat it straight out of the jar.

Now, if you end up eating peanut butter like that, you probably aren’t doing your health any favors.

After all, peanut butter is pretty concentrated in terms of calories, so you really do have to be careful.

If you have a lot of trouble restricting how much peanut butter you eat – then it might be better just to avoid peanut butter altogether. Realistically, you can get the nutrients and health benefits of peanut butter from other sources.

But, if you can keep your portion sizes reasonable, peanut butter can be a good snack, particularly if you are trying to lose weight.

Peanut Butter and Diets

People trying to lose weight often avoid peanut butter because of its calories and fat content.

But, the protein content of peanut butter actually makes it great for weight loss.

It helps to keep you satisfied.

Personally, I always prefer high protein snacks. With low protein snacks, you just end up looking for something else soon afterward.

That’s pretty impractical really.

However, it is worth noting that you can’t eat peanut butter if you are on a paleo diet.

This is because peanuts are legumes, which are forbidden under paleo.

Other Issues

There are some other areas of interest with peanut butter.

Scraped out peanut butter jar

For one thing, it isn’t a complete protein source.

In particular, peanut butter doesn’t contain some amino acids, like lysine.

This means that your body can’t take full advantage of the protein.

But, proteins take a while to break down in the body. So, as long as you eat some protein that does contain amino acids like lysine, you shouldn’t have any issues.

Such protein sources include cheese and meat.

That means that most of us will be getting that lysine without even thinking about it.

A second potential issue is something known as aflatoxin. These come from a fungus called aspergillus. Aflatoxins have been linked to cancer development and some other negative health outcomes (14,15).

This is a concerning issue, but humans do tend to be resistant to low levels of the toxin.

Additionally, most of this toxin is removed during the processing of peanut butter (16).

Based on that and the small serving size of peanut butter, it’s likely that most people would not consume much of the toxin at all and are unlikely to see any negative health outcomes.

Peanut butter also contains a relatively high amount of omega-6 fatty acids.

In humans, the ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acids is important for health. In most cases, people have too much omega-6 and not enough omega-3 (17).

So, peanut butter doesn’t exactly help that situation.

Love heart in peanut butter

But again, you’re not consuming all that much peanut butter at any given time.

It’s also easy to balance this out by simply consuming more omega-3 (such as by eating fish).

Realistically, all of these little areas don’t mean much at all.

Even if you consumed large amounts of peanut butter every day, the impact on your health would probably be little.

Is Peanut Butter Good for You?

One of the biggest things about peanut butter is the protein.

This makes peanut butter satisfying as a snack and it ends up being more filling than many low-calorie snacks.

That’s why snacks like celery and peanut butter or peanut butter and apple slices are often recommended for weight loss.

Now, peanut butter certainly isn’t the healthiest snack around.

I mean, you can find many foods with lower calories and higher nutrients.

But, that isn’t really the point.

The point is that, in moderation, peanut butter can be a good food for health and can even support weight loss.

So, if you love peanut butter, there is absolutely no reason to give it up.

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I’m curious, everyone differs in their opinions of peanut butter, but do you prefer it with or without salt?

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