Published on July 17, 2017

Don't get stuck on peanut butter

By Bonnie Brost, licensed and registered dietitian at Essentia Health.

Peanut butter has been a mainstay in American kitchens for generations. But with more people seeking the healthy fats found in nuts, a growing variety of nut and seed butters are appearing on grocery shelves.

These spreadable butters are made by grinding nuts or seeds into a paste. They contain a significant amount of fat, but the kind of fats that benefit heart health. Both monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids reduce your LDL or "lousy" cholesterol and triglycerides levels. This lowers the risk of metabolic syndrome, heart disease and type 2 diabetes. Research also links regular nut consumption to a slightly lower risk of weight gain and obesity because you feel full faster.

Expanding your taste buds is easy. You can find many prepared spreads at the grocery store, including cashew butter, almond butter or sunflower butter. Or you can easily make one yourself, like walnut butter recipe listed below.

All nut and seed butters provide healthy fats and a little protein. Almond butter has slightly more fiber and more vitamin E and magnesium. Cashew butter has a sweet delicate flavor and is an excellent source of copper and magnesium. Walnut butter is a great source of omega 3 fatty acids that help decrease inflammation. Sunflower seed butter provides a lot of copper, vitamin E and protein in a non-nut source for those allergic to nuts.

As you choose a new nut butter, be sure to check the food label for its sugar content. The natural sugar content in most nuts is around two grams per serving, so anything more is added sugar. For example, there are 20 grams -- or five teaspoons -- of sugar in just two tablespoons of Nutella, the popular chocolate hazelnut spread.

Check the ingredient list for added oils, which are often unhealthy fats added to keep the nut butter from separating. Look for hydrogenated oils or oils that are high in saturated fats or trans fats. If oil floats on top of the spread when you open the container, stir it in and refrigerate it or turn it upside down to help avoid the separation.

I recommend choosing nut butters with less than three grams of saturated fat, six or fewer grams of sugar and less than 100 milligrams of sodium per serving. A good choice in peanut butter is Old Home, which you will find refrigerated in the dairy section. It has no added ingredients, except a little salt, and it comes from a Minnesota company. Crazy Richard', also known as Krema, is a brand that has no added salt, sugar or oils.

A new offering is powdered peanut butters. A lot of good fats are removed and then the paste is dehydrated. You add water to make a spread or add the powder to your smoothie or oatmeal. The powder still contains the protein and potassium of regular peanut butter without added sugar or sodium. This may be a good option if reducing calories is vital. 

Nut butters can easily be packed as a sandwich or as a dip for whole-grain crackers, fruit or vegetables for picnics, hikes or trips. You can find nut butters in individual package that conveniently fit into backpacks and beach bags. Nut butters also can flavor cooked cereals, smoothies and salad dressings.

Experiment this summer and take your family beyond the standard PB&J sandwich.

Here is a homemade nut butter, packed with healthy omega-3 fats.

Walnut Butter
1 cup walnut halves
1/8 teaspoon salt
3 teaspoons walnut oil or sunflower oil

Add nuts and salt to a food processor. Chop nuts finely. With motor running, drizzle in oil.  Whirl until the nuts are ground into a paste, stopping to scrape down the sides a few times. 
Add cinnamon or honey as desired.

Servings: 8
Serving size:  1 tablespoon
Calories: 110
Total fat: 11 grams
Saturated fat: 1 gram
Cholesterol:  0 milligrams
Sodium: 40 milligrams
Carbohydrates: 2 grams
Fiber: 1 grams
Protein: 2 grams

Here' a tasty salad that I adapted from Eatingwell.com. Dressing can be made ahead.
Sesame Chicken Cucumber Noodle Salad

8 ounces whole-grain pasta
1/2 cup creamy peanut butter
6 tablespoons rice vinegar
2 tablespoons toasted sesame oil
2 tablespoons red wine
2 tablespoons warm water
1/4 cup green onions, chopped
2 tablespoons fresh cilantro, chopped
1 1/2 teaspoons lower-sodium soy sauce
2 teaspoons chili sauce or Sriracha
1/8 teaspoon ground red pepper (optional)
1 head of romaine lettuce
1 1/2 pounds cooked boneless chicken breast, sliced into 1/4-inch slices or diced
2 medium fresh red bell peppers, diced
1 cucumber, peeled and sliced
1/2 cup carrots, shredded
Toasted sesame seeds

Cook pasta according to package directions and cool. For dressing, combine peanut butter, vinegar, sesame oil, water and wine. Whisk until smooth. Add soy sauce, chili sauce, onion and cilantro. Set aside.

Cut lettuce into large pieces. In a large bowl, combine with chicken, bell peppers, cucumbers and carrots. Add cooled noodles. Just before serving, toss with dressing. Garnish with sesame seeds.

Servings: 12
Serving size: 1 1/2 cups
Calories: 250
Total fat: 10 grams
Saturated fat: 2 grams
Cholesterol: 30 milligrams
Sodium: 240 milligrams
Carbohydrates: 21 grams
Fiber: 4 grams
Protein: 18 grams