To walk through the peanut butter aisle is to be confronted with hundred jars of choice. Peanuts are a big business and peanut butter is its billion dollar baby. The number of peanut butters on offer has been growing steadily for years, which is ostensibly great for peanut butter fans, but the differences between these products can be maddeningly difficult to pin down. This can make choosing feel like being stuck in, well… you get the idea.
According to the Texas Peanut Producers, the average American eats roughly three pounds of peanut butter a year. That’s a lot a peanut butter. So it’s important to make the right choice. Peanut butter is very high protein but can be high in fats and sugars too. Some brands are natural; others are shockingly fake. And then there’s the schism of smoothy and chunky. That complicates matters considerably. Men tend to prefer chunky, but supermarkets tend to sell a lot more smooth.
So let’s focus on smooth for a second. It may not be what you want, but it’s likely what you’re going to get. So, which jar is the best? If only it were that easy. The fact is that different people want different things from peanut butters, specifically in terms of consistency. As such, we’re not ranking peanut butter here. Instead, we’re examining their relative virtues.
To do that, we tried eight of the most popular brands and a few boutique ones. The process was extremely gross and mildly sickening, but now we can provide some much-need guidance for grocery shoppers.
The Putty-Like Peanut Butters
If you open a jar of peanut butter to the mass inside has the consistency of putty, you’re probably looking at jar of unnatural peanut butter. The peanuts are real, sure, but that creaminess is often the function of additives like palm oil or partially hydrogenated vegetable oil and, often, added sugars. All that palm and rapeseed oil is probably killing the environment, but damn if spreadability isn’t a beautiful thing. We tested four “unnatural” peanut butters: Peter Pan Creamy; Jif; Skippy, and Peanut Butter & Co Smooth Operator. Here’s what we found.
All four peanut butters are approximately identical in flavor profile and in texture. They are relatively sweet with rotund flavor of roasted peanuts blunted by the creamy fatty texture. This is, I think, a function of the oils used to prevent separation. From a nutritional standpoint, they all have about 3g of sugar per 2 tbsp serving while Peter Pan weighs in with 210 calories, followed by 190 for Jif and Skippy and 180 for PB&Co. Look, no one is eating peanut butter to get skinny so the calories are sort of besides the point. It’s really the sugars that are the concern.
In terms of balancing consistency — here measured by ease of spreadability — and additives, PB&Co edges out the competition. Though palm oil is used to separate preparation, there are no hydrogenated oils. And though there is sugar, it is cane sugar. [Though both are processed in the same way by your child’s body so it may be a distinction without a difference.] A more salient metric is that PB&Co has nearly 40g less sodium per serving (100 v. 140g) than the others and salt does matter.
The Separate, But Natural Peanut Butters
As any habitué of health food stores knows, peanut butter can be made simply by grinding peanuts into a paste. When this is done au moment, the peanut butter solids and the peanut butter oil are emulsified. If this is done prior to packaging, at the moment of opening the jar, one is greeted with a lake of oil. The solids are submerged in delicious sediment.
As a father who makes PB&Js for his children on the reg, and often under the duress of getting them off to school, this means there is a a period of frustrating mixing that frequently results in oil being splashed on my khakis which then leads to the purchase of new khakis altogether. So it is a costly endeavor indeed.
But the benefits are many too. Natural peanut butter — and here I mean that to indicate an ingredient list that includes in its totality, peanuts and some small amount of salt — is usually high in protein with less sugar. Plus, besides what it has in it, the most important feature is what isn’t. It contains no hydrogenated oils or palm oils or added sugars. We tried four brands of all natural peanut butter from the hippie children of mega-brands like Smuckers Natural to artisanal health-food store brands like Crazy Richard’s and MaraNatha to bourgeois peanut butter with clever marketing like Justin’s, whose label contains a “Dear Jelly” letter.
Each of these, when opened, presented as a layer of oil though some — ahem, Justin’s — necessitated almost endless mixing to combine liquids and solids. Strangely, one of the biggest points of difference was the amount of space left from the rim. Not enough space, new khakis. Too much space, you feel ripped off. Justin’s is hella full; Crazy Richard’s has a perfect 8 mm buffer.
From a flavor perspective, MaraNatha is the clear winner. The flavor of the peanut butter is rich and complex with a sweetness derived not from sugar but from the roasted nuts and a touch of sea salt. In addition, the nuts are ground twice to create a unique velvety texture which lays quite well on its bed of bread. It’s less viscous than the others. However, from a longevity standpoint, meaning how will the sandwich hold up between its preparation in the morning and its consumption at lunch, so liquidy a peanut butter has a tendency to saturate the bread. There’s nothing better than a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. There is nothing worse than a soggy peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
Winner: The overall champion of the category, which I kinda hate to say because I’d love to nod to the smaller brands — is Smuckers Natural, which has a full-throated peanut-y flavor and a sturdy though supple texture. The big guys win again.
The Weirdo Semi-Natural But Really Good Peanut Butter
Surprisingly though, the best peanut butter I ate was neither all natural or totally unnatural. Nuts ‘n More makes a peanut butter with whey protein isolate in it and flax seeds that is marketed toward adults (and muscle-y ones at that) and fucking delicious. There aren’t weird ingredients like in the Jif-Skippy-Peter Pan triumverate. But there are weird ingredients. like xylitol, a natural artificial sweetener, and sunflower lecithin, which sounds scary but seems healthy.
Mostly it’s the flavor and consistency that I love. Without the hydrogenated oil, the texture is still creamy and emulsified. In the mouth, the peanut butter gently dissolves, like at the end of Beaches, and it’s really beautiful. And the flavor is sweet — thanks to the xylitol — but also with all sorts of depth, thanks to the flax seeds and whey protein isolate. Also, from the point of view of nutrition, every serving contains 12g of protein so it’s a good option if you want to raise hulk babies. I don’t know really where to classify Nuts ‘ More. The nuts are natural but the ‘n more obviously precludes it from purity. However, what additives there are are natural too. At the end of the day, it sits at the sweet spot nexus between natural and unnatural, between spreadable and unspreadable, in the diamond heart of delicious.