In Defense of Natural/Organic Peanut Butter
captainspatula’s writeup above discusses the downfalls of organic (natural) peanut butter, mainly that it has to be mixed before using, it’s thick and resists spreading, and it’s sticky. When I was little, my mother would always buy natural peanut butter and I also disliked it for the same reasons. I've used the “normal” peanut butters such as Skippy or Jif most of my life but recently I have converted over to using only the natural type. I'd like to discuss the two main reasons why I prefer natural peanut butter.
Let’s start off by looking at the ingredients of normal peanut butters versus natural peanut butters:
Thanks to federal regulations in the United States, anything labeled “peanut butter” must contain at least 90 percent peanuts. Companies that make normal peanut butter generally round off the other 10 percent with about 7 percent sugar, 2 percent partially hydrogenated oil, and about 1 percent salt. Salt-free natural peanut butter contains no additives and therefore is 100 percent peanuts.
Looking at the ingredients, we can see there are two major differences between the peanut butters: partially hydrogenated oil and sugars. Normal peanut butters contain a small amount of the hydrogenated oil to keep the peanut oil and solids from separating and to give the spread a soft and creamy consistency. However, partially hydrogenated oils have recently come under scrutiny because they contain trans fatty acids, an unnatural fatty acid that is reported to be even more unhealthy than saturated fatty acids. Trans fatty acids are thought to contribute to high cholesterol levels and heart disease. Even though normal peanut butters contain only a small amount of partially hydrogenated oil I would prefer to minimize my exposure to trans fatty acids.
The absence of partially hydrogenated oil means natural peanut butter is healthier than normal peanut butter, but it also alters its consistency. In most brands the peanut oil separates from the peanut solids, making an unattractive oil layer on the top. This means you have to take the time and thoroughly stir a new jar of peanut butter to mix the layers. The jar should also be kept in the fridge to keep the oil and solids from separating again. Some brands of natural peanut butter are sold pre-stirred in the chilled section of some grocery stores, eliminating the messy stirring step. Natural peanut butters also tend to be stickier and harder to spread because they lack the additional oil. Warming the jar by leaving it out on the counter or by heating it gently in the microwave (cap off) can make the peanut butter more spreadable.
The other, more important reason I use natural peanut butter is taste. Natural peanut butter contains only peanuts, giving it an earthy, rich taste just like crushed peanuts. This richness means that a small amount will satisfy most people. On the other hand, normal peanut butter contains a reasonable amount of sugar, which masks the peanut taste and often leaves an unpleasant aftertaste. The additional sugar also means that normal peanut butter has more carbohydrates, an important consideration for those on diets like Atkins.
In conclusion, even though natural peanut butter can be somewhat difficult to use it is healthier and tastes much better than normal peanut butter. It can be used just like the normal kind in sandwiches and all sorts of recipes. I encourage anyone who is curious to sample some; you may never go back.
yclept says re organic peanut butter : Someone somewhere here (and I don't recall where) once suggested that, for some reason, "natural" peanut butter may trigger a stronger allergic reaction than the normal commercial stuff. It has something to do with a higher concentration of the allergen, and not just because there's fillers other than peanuts. Do you know anything about this?
Since I can't find any literature indicating otherwise, I would assume that you are correct. Natural peanut butter generally contains 98% to 100% peanuts compared to the 90% minimum in normal brands, meaning more peanut protein allergens are present per serving. Those that are allergic to peanuts obviously should not eat any kind of peanut butter!
Excalibre says : I've read, at least, that actual organic peanut butter tends to contain far, far more aflatoxin (a carcinogen produced by a fungus) than the skippy-type stuff. i generally assume that the more natural something is, the better, but aflatoxin is an extremely potent carcinogen.
A Consumer Union study in 1996 did show that natural peanut butters contained up to ten times more aflatoxin than normal brands, apparently because of reasons discussed in the peanut butter paradox node. However, since then more attention has been focused on aflatoxin and most makers of natural and normal peanut butters have done their best to limit the amount of aflatoxin in their products. Even though aflatoxin is a powerful carcinogen peanut butters generally contain a miniscule amount. The United States requires aflatoxin levels in both natural and normal peanut butters to be below 20 parts per billion, an extremely low number. Therefore, I’m not too concerned with aflatoxin in natural or normal peanut butter made in the United States. Peanut butters that are produced in developing countries, especially Africa, have much higher levels of aflatoxin due to poor peanut storage and less regulation and probably should not be eaten. Those that are really concerned can try switching over to almond butter, which does not contain any aflatoxin.
Karl von Johnson says : Another natural peanut butter advantage: you can drain off the oil for a lower fat peanut butter. True, you can buy low fat regular peanut butter but you don't get the benefit of re-using the oil to fry up phad thai noodles.
Using the oil from natural peanut butter in pad thai does sound awfully appealing, but keep in mind that once you remove the oil it becomes MUCH more difficult to stir and spread the remaining peanut solids. I recommend trying this at your own risk if you want to have any useable peanut butter afterwards. A reasonable oil substitute for pad thai could be made by gently cooking crushed peanuts in some peanut oil, but I have not tried this myself.