Shopping for peanut butter can be a bit overwhelming. The shelves are packed with options, and you have no idea which to choose. What brand? Creamy or crunchy? Natural? Where do you even begin?
According to the electronic code of federal regulations, or e-CFR — an online directory that can help consumers understand what, per law, should be in the foods they eat — peanut butter is a food prepared by grinding shelled and roasted peanuts to which safe and suitable seasoning and stabilizing ingredients may be added. Such seasoning and stabilizing agents should not exceed 10 percent of the finished product's weight. Basically peanut butter has to be made of at least 90 percent peanuts with no artificial sweeteners, flavorings or preservatives. If these requirements are not met, the product must be labeled as a “peanut butter spread."
What Should You Look For?
Peanuts as the main ingredient. Ingredients are listed in descending order by weight. When viewing the list, peanuts should always be the first ingredient.
The fewer number of ingredients, the better. Look for peanut butter that has only one ingredient — peanuts. A little salt can be okay, too. Some grocery stores have grinders that turn peanuts into peanut butter for you. This allows you to purchase however much you like instead of having to buy an 18-ounce jar and you can guarantee only one ingredient.
Labeled as “natural." The FDA has a longstanding policy regarding use of the word “natural" to mean that no artificial or synthetic ingredients have been included or added to our food products. So "natural" on a peanut butter label is a good indicator that it doesn't contain things like hydrogenated oils, added sugar and other ingredients such as stabilizers. Many "natural" peanut butters contain only peanuts and salt — and will separate, by the way, if that is a deal breaker for you. Again, it's always a good idea to check the ingredients.
What Should You Avoid?
Sugar/sweeteners. Look out for added sugars or sweeteners in the form of evaporated cane juice, corn syrup solids, high fructose corn syrup, molasses, honey, etc.
Hydrogenated oils. Hydrogenated oils are used to improve texture but add unhealthy trans fat, even in small amounts.
Palm oil. Palm oil is commonly used in peanut butter to help solidify the product, but is high in saturated fat. Avoid this ingredient if possible.
Labeled as “reduced-fat." Usually when fat is removed from a food, sugar and starchy fillers are added to compensate for flavor. You may be getting less fat but more sugar and fillers — beware.
Peanut butter and jelly mixed together. When you purchase PB&J in one container, you get a lot of artificial ingredients and sugar that can be avoided if bought separately.
Remember: Peanut butter should be smashed peanuts, period. Brand names shouldn't matter as long as you follow the suggestions listed above.