It’s that time of year when the air should be filled with the scent of sharpened pencils and fresh notebooks: school is upon us! In recent years, that scent has been fading with the explosion of everything electronically handheld. The use of pencils and paper for our kids is not the only tradition being removed from schools. The food we feed our kids is rapidly changing, too. There are endless options in grocery stores, and with debate raging over what’s best and healthiest, how do we know what to choose?
Take something as simple as a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. This sandwich could be very healthy, or it could turn into a nutrition imposter. Each component—the bread, the jelly and the peanut butter—will change the scope of health in this iconic sandwich. Most of us can easily distinguish between healthy and not healthy breads, and most of us accept that homemade jelly is the better option than many on the shelves. But when it comes to the choice of nut butters, this can be a tougher decision than it appears.
A Little Peanut Butter History – Enter Sugar + Palm Oil
Peanut butters were once a premium item until they became commercialized in the 1920s, and the price declined, making this condiment a household staple. Peanut butter was viewed as a nutritious food because of the protein and fiber content in every serving. Yet this changed when companies began to add sweeteners like powdered sugar for sweetness and palm oil for to prevent separation. As a scientist, I’m perplexed how the FDA can define the standard of identity of peanut butter to include both the naturally crushed nuts and those blends of sugar and oil that barely even contain peanuts.
What’s The Deal With Palm Oil? Why does my peanut butter separate?
Personally, I don’t have a problem with a little separation. Sure it can be annoying to stir back in the oil, but I’d rather put a little muscle into it instead of putting palm oil into my body. Refined palm oil offers no nutritional benefit, which is the form found in many nut butters (including almond and cashew), crackers, chips, cookies, chocolate, and ice creams to name a few. In addition, the palm oil industry causes deforestation that robs many endangered species of their habitat. Even companies claiming the use of ‘sustainable palm oil’ only feeds into the vicious circle of the demand for unsustainable palm oil.
Two Rules – Look Out For Palm Oil and Added Sugar
First, I choose a nut butter that doesn’t contain any palm oil. Second, I look for any added sugar, then I determine the kind of sugar and the amount included. If we are supposed to have 50g of sugar per day or less, and a serving size of nut butter is two tablespoons, then I look for 5g of sugar per serving as this would be 10% of my daily allowance of sugar. At 10%, this is minimal, but since it is coming in the form of an added sugar, then I recommend avoiding powdered sugars: these are refined, and their only purpose is to provide a smoother product that dissolves more quickly in your mouth.
The food industry has become very smart at delivering products which allow us to consume more of it faster before we know we’re full—they’re even better at making them inexpensive. A $13 price point may seem expensive for a jar of nut butter, but the premium price can be worth it for the benefit of our health. However, even almond butters can have palm oil and powdered sugar, so make sure you are truly getting the premium benefit from the product you spread on that sandwich.
Editor’s note: Our feature image is of Hello Chixi, an amazing Chickpea butter that we have tried and loved. It was formulated by the author, Joyce Longfield. We can’t recommend it enough!
Read more from food scientist Joyce Longfield – she let us know how to spot green juice imposters, they are not all healthy.
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