Most of us consider peanut butter a delicious indulgence. Whether we spread crunchy varieties thickly on white crusty bread, or tuck into peanut butter-filled chocolate cups, many of us don’t tend to opt for the healthiest ways to eat it.
Peanut butter and other nut butters, which contain protein and healthy fats, can actually be highly nutritious and a smart addition to most diets, but they should be consumed mindfully and with specific foods.
Eating nut butters can be a great idea for people who love sweet snacks: not only can they help with blood sugar spikes and crashes but they’ll help you feel fuller for longer.
Nutritionist Clare Goodwin, who specialises in women's hormonal health, says: ‘If you get sugar cravings in the afternoon, or get hungry two hours after eating, this is a sign that your blood sugar is not in control.
‘Simple carbohydrates like sugar, bread and even some fruit just fuel the blood sugar spikes and crashes, but adding a “healthy” fatty food such as peanut butter in your diet helps to stabilise your blood sugar.
‘Peanuts are also great sources of folate, which is vital for reproductive health and many women are deficient in.’
You get even more folate in hazelnut butter – though less protein.
As well as unsaturated fat and protein, most nut butters provide some fibre, a range of B vitamins and Vitamin E as well as zinc, magnesium – which speeds up your metabolism and improves immunity – and copper. But that doesn’t mean we should be eating them by the jarful.
We can easily overeat nut butters because of their preferable texture to nuts, minimal crunching requirements and versatility in the kitchen. The key to healthy nut butter consumption is moderation, reading the back of the label and smart food pairings. They should, ideally, contain no added sugar or oils.
Jenny Tschiesche, consultant nutritionist for Indigo Herbs, says: ‘When purchasing nut butters you want to be aware of unnecessary added ingredients. Nuts are naturally fatty and when they are ground into nut butter they should provide their own oils as lubricants. They don’t need added oil and neither do they need added sugar.’
It is a good idea to avoid nut butters containing sugar and oils, especially palm oil which can be bad for the environment and over-processed. But if you see a jar with a little coconut oil mixed in – which is a healthy saturated fat – that’s okay (in moderation!).
Jenny continues: ‘Both peanut butter and cashew nut butter – neither of which are technically nuts – tend to be naturally sweeter than other nut butters but lower in nutrients.
‘Peanuts are also one of those crops that get sprayed most with pesticides, generally due to the large scale of production. For that reason it’s best to buy organic peanut butter.
‘Almond butter is one of the highest in protein and fibre as well as providing a varied source of nutrients including calcium, iron, Vitamin E and magnesium. It is delicious in smoothies, in milkshakes, stirred into porridge or added to Asian sauces and soups.’
Swedish nutritionist Frida Harju, who is the in-house nutritionist at the health app Lifesum, prefers almond butter – which has fewer calories than peanut – but recommends peanut butter to those who exercise a lot.
She says: ‘Peanuts contain one of the highest amounts of protein per serving among nuts and seeds, making it the ideal post-workout refuel snack (although, they’re technically a legume). Peanuts also contain magnesium which fortifies your muscles and bones, as well as potassium, which has been found to lower blood pressure.’
Frida says: ‘Almond butter also contains Vitamin E and magnesium, as well as copper and calcium which helps keep your brain sharp and your bones strong, as well as nourish the nervous system. Almond butter is a good alternative for anyone who is allergic to peanuts.’
Almonds have also been linked with reducing heart disease, diabetes and stroke. Frida recommends topping oatmeal with a tablespoon of almond butter, serving it with apple, or spreading it on wholegrain rice cakes.
Regarding cashew butter, Frida says: ‘Cashew butter contains oleic acid, otherwise known as Omega-9, which helps to reduce blood pressure and aid weight loss. Although cashews are lower in fibre than other nuts, they’re packed with vitamins E, K and B6, as well as minerals, antioxidants and protein.’
She suggests eating nut butters in your lunchtime sandwich: ‘Make sure to go for whole grain breads and use fresh fruit like bananas or apples instead of jams which are high in sugar.’
Therapeutic nutritionist Emma Edwards, of newyoubootcamp.com, adds: ‘All nut butters reduce cholesterol by reducing LDL, bad cholesterol. Many people don’t think about this until later in life, thinking it only affects the 40+ age group: but it is never too young to look after your cholesterol levels.
‘Furthermore, nut butters are full of monounsaturated fats which are incredible for heart health, and they contain anti-ageing antioxidants too.’
She’s a fan of all butters including macadamia, walnut and cashew.
‘Walnut butter is the highest of all nut butters in omega-3 fats, which stimulate leptin release. Leptin is the satiety hormone which tells our brains we are full, so more of this will reduce cravings and over eating.’
Clare adds: ‘When you really need to curb a sugar craving, slice up some apple, sprinkle cinnamon on top and spread two teaspoons of nut butter.
‘For main meals, peanut butter is great in a satay sauce on protein and vegetables.’