As children, my brother and I would heavily debate the merits of creamy vs. crunchy peanut butter; I was partial to extra crunchy, while he preferred his smooth as Skippy. Children these days have much more to debate than just the crunch. Many other nut and seed butters have entered the market, made from nuts such as walnuts and cashews and seeds such as sunflower, pumpkin or even watermelon. Some varieties are flavored with honey, vanilla or sea salt; others include chocolate, making them reminiscent of a popular peanut butter cup or hazelnut spread.
How do these new products, which are often more costly, stack up against traditional peanut butter?
In a nutshell, all nut and seed butters, including those made from peanuts, can be good sources of healthy fats, protein and fiber, along with vitamins A and E for skin, zinc for immunity, magnesium for stress management, iron for energy, and potassium for muscles. A large study done by Harvard Medical School, among other researchers, showed that people who eat a daily serving of nuts were 20 percent less likely to die of any health cause, 29 percent less likely to die of heart disease and 11 percent less likely to die from cancer over a 30-year follow-up period.
Although all nut and seed butters have most of the nutrients and health benefits mentioned above, each variety has its own distinct nutrition profile along with its own distinct flavor. This means you should choose the one you like best or, even better, eat a variety, so your body obtains different nutrient combinations. Remember, a serving size is two tablespoons.
How to buy
When shopping, avoid any product with partially hydrogenated oils (also known as trans fats), added sugar (who needs that?) or too much added salt. Small amounts of hydrogenated oils are added to some products to ensure the oil from the nuts doesn’t separate and rise to the top of the jar. You can stir a separated nut butter, so skip these unhealthy oils. Nut butters made with raw nuts are the healthiest, because these nuts have gone through the least amount of processing. An organic label ensures no chemical pesticides were sprayed on the nuts. Check nutrition fact panels for products with chocolate so you know exactly what you are eating: a healthful snack or decadent dessert.
Peanut butter is highest in protein and generally high in all of the nutrients. It tends to be less expensive and more widely available than many of the alternative products. Peanuts, which are technically a legume, not a nut, are a known and common allergen.
Almond butter could be called peanut butter on steroids because it has all of the same nutrients, most in higher quantities. Its protein count is close to that of peanut butter, and it is higher in heart-healthy fats, calcium (seven times as much as peanut butter), fiber, vitamin E (three times as much as peanut butter), iron (two times as much as peanut butter) and magnesium, and it is also the lowest in natural sugars. All this nutrition comes with a price, though, because it is generally more expensive than peanut butter.
Sunflower seed butter is a safe choice for those allergic to peanuts and tree nuts (including almonds, cashews, walnuts, pecans, macadamias and hazelnuts). It has the most magnesium, making it beneficial for stress management, flexibility, muscle strength and the heart. Sunflower butter usually has a few more calories per serving than other varieties, a slightly lower amount of protein and no calcium. Many brands add sugar, so read the labels carefully or take five minutes to make your own.
Cashew butter is the sweetest of the bunch, even without any added sugar, so it is no surprise that it is the highest in carbohydrates. It provides less protein and fiber per serving than the ones above and can be quite pricey, so dollar for dollar it isn’t the most nutritious. It does provide magnesium, phosphorous and high amounts of copper for the immune system, so it can deliver important nutrients while satisfying a sweet tooth.
Walnut butter provides the most omega-3 fatty acids, which are beneficial for brain health but do not provide any vitamin A.
Pumpkin seed butter provides the most zinc. Pumpkin seeds also blend well with almonds and walnuts.
Sesame seed butter/tahini delivers more calcium than almond butter, and also plenty of copper and selenium to prevent cancer.
Macadamia nut butter is deliciously creamy and the highest in fat.
Hazelnut butter has a rich, fairly distinct flavor, is low in natural sugars but is also low in calcium.
Watermelon seed butter is harder to find but gaining a following. It is lower in fiber and vitamins but high in protein and iron.
All of these nut and seed butters work well on bread or toast, in oatmeal and smoothies, as a snack on an apple or banana slice, or to bind baked goods. Making your own is incredibly easy: Blend 1 cup of raw or lightly roasted nuts or seeds, teaspoon of coconut, walnut or olive oil, and a pinch of sea salt. Add a dash of pumpkin spice for a seasonal treat.
There are many high-quality brands on the market, including products by Whole Foods’ 365 Everyday, Justin’s, Trader Joe’s, Kirkland Signature, Barney Butter, Thrive Market, Maranatha, Artisana, Once Again and Sunbutter.
With all of these unconventional varieties and quality brands, there is no reason not to get in the nut butter game. You can’t go wrong, or as my 7-year-old likes to say, “If you fall, I will cashew.”
Seidenberg is co-founder of Nourish Schools, a D.C.-based nutrition education company, and co-author of “Super Food Cards,” a collection of healthful recipes and advice.
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