Paging Dr. Frischer: Peanut Butter

I would wager that virtually everyone reading this column has eaten a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. These days, peanut butter gets a bad rap because it brings with it a considerable number of calories. However, along with its fat content comes a load of nutrients, and I think very highly of the value of peanuts and peanut butter.

Let’s explore the pros and cons of the classic PB&J.

Although a Canadian patented peanut butter in 1884, Michigan’s Dr. John Harvey Kellogg patented the "Process of Producing Alimentary Products" in 1898. As part of his focus on nutrition, enemas, and exercise, Kellogg served peanut butter (along with Corn Flakes, of course) to the patients at his Battle Creek Sanitarium.

During the depression, the peanut butter and jelly sandwich became an especially popular sandwich due to the low price of peanut butter – it was a cheap, quick, high-calorie food. Later, during World War II, the U.S. Army gave troops grape jelly and peanut butter along with sliced bread in their rations. After the war, the PB&J became even more popular in schools and institutions, particularly with children. Sales grew dramatically.

Much has changed in the last 70 years, including food availability and prices. There are many new choices. Childhood obesity has become an epidemic. Is it time to rethink our favorite lunchtime go-to food?

A sandwich of bread, jelly, and peanut butter can contain about 530 calories (180 calories from fat, 296 calories from carbs, and 54 calories from protein), as well as 460 milligrams of sodium, 74 grams of carbs, 35 grams of sugar, and 20 grams of fat. Two tablespoons of peanut butter alone contain 188 calories and 16 grams of fat.

I was shocked when I compared it to a McDonald’s cheeseburger. The PB&J is higher in every one of these categories except sodium. Note, however, that the fat in a cheeseburger is the dreaded trans fat (which raises our LDL “bad” cholesterol, and lowers our HDL “good” cholesterol). Also note that in this example, the PB&J contains peanut butter with ingredients other than peanuts and salt; white bread; and a high-sugar jelly.

Using a pure peanut butter (such as Laura Scudder’s All Natural) or almond butter; a whole grain bread; and replacing the jelly with slices of banana or other fruit, changes this comparison dramatically.

What are the benefits to eating peanut butter?

*It’s a great source of protein: 100 grams of peanut butter contain 25 grams of protein

*It leads to a better blood cholesterol profile: a higher ratio of healthful HDLs compared to harmful LDLs. (HDL cholesterol helps to remove LDL cholesterol from the arteries.)

*It’s rich in vitamins: a 100 gram serving provides significant amounts of vitamins E, B3 (Niacin), B6, folate, magnesium, copper and manganese, B5, iron, potassium, zinc, and selenium

*It’s high in plant sterol and antioxidants

*It’s practical, easy, and inexpensive: a PB&J doesn’t need refrigeration, so it makes an easy and portable lunch.

*It tastes good!

However, be aware: peanut (and peanut butter) allergies can lead to anaphylaxis, which is life threatening. It must be introduced to babies slowly. It can pose a choking risk for young children. It can become contaminated with salmonella and cause food poisoning. It is a higher calorie food and can cause weight gain. (This, of course, becomes a positive factor for those who have difficulty consuming enough calories.)

I encourage you to experiment by combining peanut butter with sliced apples, bananas, celery, whole-grain crackers, and wholegrain bread, and by incorporating almond butter as well. Peanut butter is satisfying, nutritionally dense, and offers many health benefits. I highly recommend it as part of a healthful diet.