Did you grow up with PB and J sandwiches as a child? Are you wondering if your current peanut butter habit is doing you good, or if you should switch to the trendier, but pricier, almond butter? Are you dealing with gut issues and wondering why you get that heavy feeling after consuming your PB, or are you an athlete and feel like PB is just the thing to make you feel satisfied and full? There are many questions surrounding peanut butter. To find answers to some of them, read on.

What they are

Peanuts are technically a legume (the bean and pea family), but their nutritional profile is more similar to a tree nut. Also called groundnuts, they grow — as the name suggests — underground, whereas most other nuts grow in trees. In part because of this, they can be susceptible to aflatoxin, a family of toxins produced by certain fungi called aspergillus that are a known human carcinogen and can produce liver damage and cancer with chronic exposure. The fungus likes warm and humid environments. It can contaminate crops in the field, during harvest, or during storage. (Interestingly, it can be found on other agricultural crops as well, such as tree nuts, corn, and cottonseed.) The FDA does test foods that are susceptible, and the roasting, blanching, and grinding process of turning peanuts into nut butter reduces the aflatoxin content by 89 percent, according to one study.

Nutrition profile

Peanuts are a good source of calories, protein, and fat, while being lower in carbs. A 2-tablespoon serving contains about 200 calories, 7 grams carbohydrates, 7 grams protein, and 16 grams fat. For a comparison, this is very similar to almond butter. They are a dense source of energy, as are most nuts. (That said, legumes in general are not a nutrient-dense food when compared to meats, fish, shellfish, eggs, and many vegetables.) In terms of fat, peanuts contain slightly more saturated fat, whereas almonds contain slightly more heart-healthy monounsaturated fat. Peanuts are higher in folate and choline, while almonds are a better source of fiber, calcium, magnesium, and vitamin E. Lest you drop one for the other based on these facts, know that these differences may or may not be relevant, depending on how much nut butter you consume and what else you eat throughout the day.

Heart health

There is conflicting information on peanut consumption and heart health. On the one hand, some studies have shown that peanuts and peanut oil increase risk of cardiovascular disease. However, peanuts are often touted as having many of the health benefits of tree nuts, such as reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, cancer, neurodegenerative disease, kidney disease, and diabetes. For example, an article published in JAMA Internal Medicine found that nut consumption was associated with decreased cardiovascular disease mortality as well as decreased overall mortality. This could be due to many factors, including vitamins and minerals, antioxidants, as well as compounds such as p-coumaric acid and beta-sitosterol, which may help fight cancer.

Allergies

Peanuts are one of the most common food allergens, as are tree nuts. A study completed in 2016 found that roughly 11% of Americans had a food allergy. The most common were shellfish and milk, followed by peanut (1.8%) and treenut (1.2%) and, last, finfish. This is quite a large number of people. It is important to get tested if you suspect you do have an allergy. Even if you do not have an allergy, peanuts and treenuts are a common food sensitivity.

Phytic Acid

All nuts, including peanuts, contain phytic acid. So do legumes and grains. Phytic acid binds to minerals (such as calcium, magnesium, iron, and zinc) and interferes with protein digestion. While some phytic acid is tolerated thanks to our gut bacteria, there is a limit. If your diet is heavily grain-, legume-, nut- and seed-based, you may be putting yourself at increased risk for mineral deficiencies. Be mindful of this by decreasing the amounts of these foods that you consume and ensuring that you get plenty of mineral-rich foods in your diet. (More on phytic acid will be covered in a future article.)

Lectins

Peanuts do contain lectins, which are a class of proteins that bind to carbohydrates. (See my article Lectins – Enemy #1 or Health Food? for a full background.) There are harmless lectins that may confer health benefits, and there are toxic ones that promote intestinal permeability (“leaky gut”), inflammation, and increased risk of autoimmune disease. Peanut lectin is one of the toxic lectins. Repeated consumption may be harmful for populations such as vegans and those with gut problems or intestinal disease, autoimmune disease, chronic health conditions or overall poor health. On the other hand, if you are in good health, occasional consumption of peanut butter is probably not harmful in the context of an overall nutrient-dense diet.

Which peanut butter is best?

If you love peanut butter, make sure you choose the best kind. The only ingredients should be peanuts and sometimes salt; look for ones without added sugar or vegetable oils. Organic peanut butter in a glass jar will also ensure you do not get a dose of herbicide and other chemicals with your spread. Avoid raw peanuts and peanut butter; lectins are highest in raw foods. If you are buying raw nuts, discard those with mold, that are discolored, or shriveled. Remember that there are other nut butters out there. Try rotating in others if your budget allows. You may also wish to make your own at home. Last, if you decide to go without nuts at all, know that you can still have a healthy and complete diet without them.

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The information provided in this article is intended for general use only and is not to be used in place of medical advice from a licensed health professional.