What’s the healthiest nut butter?

nutbuttersNuts should be on your food radar screen.  Nutritional attributes like protein, healthy fats, minerals and vitamins make them a key part of plant-based diets, which are widely recommended for health benefits.  Plus nuts are delicious and convenient.

Nut butters are also delicious and convenient.  Ideally, the nutritional profile of a nut butter is no different from the nut.  The butters are made by fine grinding nuts into a paste-like consistency.  Natural nut butters tend to separate over time, as the oils rise to the top of the container.  Perhaps to make nut butters more user-friendly, food manufacturers processed nut butters to keep them smooth and homogenous.  For example, peanut butter was hydrogenated so the oils would solidify, keeping the peanut butter an even consistency.  But health concerns about trans fats made hydrogenation less popular.  Some processed peanut butters are now made with added palm oil (harvested from tropical-rain-forest-destroying palm oil plantations).

Peanut butter has dominated grocery shelves and sandwiches in the US for decades, but other nut butters are quickly taking over. Almond butter, cashew butter and tahini are now commonplace.  You can find even more exotic nut butters in some stores, or online.  I found Brazil nut, walnut, hazelnut, pumpkin seed, pistachio and even watermelon seed and hemp seed butters.

How do they stack up nutritionally? Here are comparisons for 1 TB of nut butter*:

            calories protein   fat     carb
peanut        95      3.5 g    8.2 g   3.5 g
cashew        94      2.8 g    7.9 g   4.4 g
almond        98      3.3 g    8.9 g   3 g
sesame        90      2.5 g    8 g     3 g
sunflower     99      2.7 g    8.8 g   3.7 g
Brazil nut    99      2.1 g   10 g     1.8 g
walnut       110      2.4 g   10.4 g   2.2 g
pecan        110      1.5 g   11 g     2.2 g
pistachio     96      3.2 g    7.5 g   4.5 g
hazelnut     110      2.5 g   10 g     3 g

As you can see, they’re all very similar in terms of calories, protein and fats.  Walnuts, pecans, hazelnuts and Brazil nuts tend to be higher fat.  Peanuts, almonds and pistachios are higher protein.  But the differences are not large.  In general, nut butters are decent sources of magnesium, iron, niacin and vitamin E. They’re naturally low sodium and low sugar.

When purchasing a nut butter, whether at the grocery store or online, be sure to check the ingredients list.  Many of the nut butters I found were not made purely from the nut listed on the front label.  Most of the walnut butters were actually blends of walnuts and cashews.  Same for pecan butters.  There are probably good reasons for this.  Walnuts and pecans are relatively high fat, and butters made just from the one nut might be too oily.

So which one is “healthiest”?

In their natural form, nut butters are similarly healthy, as you can see from the chart.  The nutritional concerns are mostly caused by added ingredients.  Sugar is widely added to peanut butter, although it’s completely unnecessary.  Salt is added to most nut butters, in varying amounts.  If you’re concerned about sodium intake, check the Nutrition Facts panel for sodium content, or buy one without added salt.  The other problem would be added fats or hydrogenation — which produces trans fats — for smooth consistency.  It’s not hard to mix separated oil into nut butter.  Just use a fork and stir gently from the bottom of the jar.  Nut butter that is relatively fresh will have little separation.  If you buy nut butter but don’t use it frequently, store it in the refrigerator.  The cold slows oil separation, and helps prevent oxidation of those healthy fats, which causes rancidity.

The best choice?  It’s the nut butter(s) you enjoy, can find at the store (or online) and can afford.  If you’re fine with peanut butter and don’t like exploring new flavors, no problem.  Nuts all have unique flavors, so if you enjoy eating almonds or cashews, try the nut butter version and expand your food repertoire.

What to do with nut butters

  • Make sandwiches
  • Put on your morning toast or bagel
  • Make wraps, garnish with chopped fresh veggies
  • Use for dips for raw vegetables
  • Make salad dressings
  • Use in interesting flavorful sauces, such as Mexican molé or Asian coconut or curries

Speaking of coconut, here’s a “nut” butter that doesn’t belong in the nut category.  Coconut butter should be thought of as more butter than nut.  It’s a high fat food.  A tablespoon has about 90 calories, of which 81 (9 grams) are fat, almost all saturated. Not something you’d rely on as a source of plant proteins or other nutrients found in nuts.

Copyright: All content © 2020 Nutrition Strategy Advisors LLC. Photographs © Donna P Feldman, unless otherwise attributed. Reproduction or use without permission is prohibited.