It’s Friday, so its time for another food fight! Every Friday we look at an ingredient, a decision or a process within the real foods sphere. This week we are going to look at if you should buy peanut butter organic, conventional or natural and why.
We love peanut butter and use it in a variety of dishes. Check out our recipes for Peanut Butter and Molasses Pancake Sauce, Peanut Butter Balls, and Peanut Butter Chocolate Chip Cookies. Maybe you’d like Peanut Butter Fudge, Peanut Butter Blondies, and Three-Minute Peanut Butter Ice Cream. All are real food and real delicious, and some even contain hidden fruits and veggies!
Friday Food Fights
Food Fights might be as simple as why you should choose sea salt over iodized salt. It might be more complex, such as what soaking is, how to soak and why you’d want to do it. Grass-fed vs grain-fed. Pastured vs cage-free eggs.
What if I can’t afford the best, what’s the next best alternative? All of those decisions that are out in the real food world that are enough to make your head swirl. We’ll take it one bite at a time. Information is always easier to digest when it’s in small pieces.
We’ll start with the easier and move to the complex. As always, we will do so in a good, better, best format, with an eye on the budget. Some weeks, it will be a blog post, other weeks a video.
In last week’s food fight, a couple of readers asked about peanut butter. Is it something that should be purchased organic or are the natural peanut butters on the market ok? So in this week’s food fight, we’re going to answer that question. Next week, we’ll cover organic versus non-organic sucanat/rapadura.
Have you covered Peanut Butter before? I usually get the Smucker’s natural peanut butter because of the ingredients (peanuts & salt) but it is not Organic. I have wondered if it is necessary to purchae Organic peanut butter though? Any thoughts on this? ~Debra
First, let’s define ‘natural’ peanut butter. Natural peanut butters normally only have two ingredients- peanuts and salt. The peanuts are non-organic. They aren’t referring to the peanut butters on the market that use hydrogenated oils in order to keep the nut butter from separating.
Others natural peanut butters contain sugar. Also, natural peanut butter normally separates. This leaves the peanuts on the bottom and the naturally-occurring peanut oil floating on the top.
Organic peanut butter is made using organic peanuts and salt. It may or may not have added sugar or oils, but it usually does not.
The Peanut Butter Organic vs Natural Evidence
So, let’s begin with the obvious- which pesticides are used on peanut crops? Peanuts have shells that are soft and porous. This means any pesticides sprayed on the ground (as peanuts grow underground) or onto the crop after harvest can penetrate the shell and reach the meat. The shell can easily soak in anything in the ground, as well. Since fat most easily absorbs and retains pesticides, and peanuts are fatty, this is of particular concern.
According to the UD Department of Agriculture Pesticide Data Program, in 2006, the most recent year tested, there were 8 pesticide residues found on conventional peanut butters. They ranged from .1% to 26.9% of the samples tested.
Four were possible carcinogens and one is a known carcinogen. Carcinogen means that it is known to cause cancer.
Four of those pesticides were suspected hormone disruptors. One was a neurotoxin and two were reproductive toxins. And three had some level of toxicity to bees.
In all eight cases, there was insufficient data to know if these same pesticides were also found in peanut butter organic samples. What’s On My Food? has the data solidified into a nice graph with symbols and without any technical information if you’d like to take a look.
In addition to the concern about pesticides, peanuts are prone to mold, so fungicides are sprayed on them. One particularly troublesome mold is aflatoxin. Aflatoxin is classified as a carcinogen by the US government. The scientific community has expressed concern over low-level, long-term exposures to aflatoxin. According to Cornell University, studies have shown a correlation with liver cancer risk.
In looking through some scientific studies, I noticed the same pattern of correlating aflatoxin exposure to different health conditions, notably cancer (1, 2, 3 among others). Studies on animals have connected aflatoxin intake with liver problems, not limited to just liver cancer (4, 5).
Because my kids consume peanut butter several times a week, I would consider that to be a long-term, low-level exposure potential, especially since peanuts are not the only food you can consume that might expose you to aflatoxin.
Other routes of aflatoxin exposure include corn, cooking oils and conventional dairy. How? The cows are fed the aflatoxin-containing corn.
Does purchasing a peanut butter organic fix the aflatoxin problem? No, because peanuts are prone to mold, no matter whether they are organic or not.
The government tests for aflatoxin, and allows up to 20 ppb (parts per billion) into peanut butter. Interestingly enough, because natural peanut butters don’t have all of the filler ingredients, they might have a higher ppb of aflatoxin than their highly processed counterparts.
Peanuts aren’t the only ingredient in peanut butter. Conventional peanut butters can contain hydrogenated oils, sugar, salt and other interesting ingredients such as soy protein, corn syrup and stabilizers. You want to avoid these ingredients.
The natural peanut butters on the market contain just peanuts and salt. A far better ingredient list, but the concern over aflatoxins remains. And the aflatoxin levels might even be higher because the jar has more peanuts in it than other peanut butter products.
Valencia peanuts are grown in New Mexico, where aflatoxin isn’t an issue because of the very dry climate. So purchasing a peanut butter organic made from that crop would be your best bet.
Arrowhead Mills used to advertise that their peanut butters were aflatoxin-free and from Valencia peanuts, but they have since changed to cheaper peanuts and now no information on aflatoxin or their peanuts being Valencia’s appears on their website or label.
I checked out some other high-end brands and they only state that their levels are below what the government allows (20 ppb). They do not state that they use Valencia peanuts.
Justin’s Nut Butters test all of their nut butter to make sure they fall under 10ppb and report anything that falls between 5-10ppb, according to a company rep I spoke with on the phone.
I did find a brand called Vivapura that claims their peanut butter is aflatoxin free, being grown in a mountain climate in South America, but it is exceptionally expensive at $14 for 9 ounces.
The Solution for Moldy Peanut Butter
Trader Joe’s organic peanut butter says it’s Valencia peanuts on the label. The only two ingredients are organic Valencia peanuts and sea salt. This is a winner. Amazon also has an organic Valencia peanut butter which works out to be a very good price per ounce.
The Bottom Line
When I do purchase peanut butter from here on out, I will only purchase organic Valencia peanut butter due to the pesticides and mold issues. I found it quite disturbing that over one-quarter of the conventional peanut butter samples had a known hormone-disrupting pesticide on it that is also suspected of being a carcinogen.
However, due to the aflatoxin issues, I’ve chosen to begin using a variety of nut butters instead of just peanut butter. This diversifies the diet and lessens the exposure to aflatoxin. I have decided to change to sunnut butter for my kid’s snack twice a week instead of peanut butter. Sunnut butter is sunflower seed butter.
If you do purchase peanut butter organic or natural, refrigeration will slow down the growth of aflatoxin, so make sure if you’re using PB, you buy one from Valencia peanuts and pop it in the fridge.
Other studies show that the impact of aflatoxin can be lessened by consuming a chlorophyll-containing food with your peanut butter organic or natural. So always put that peanut butter with some celery sticks or something green, just in case.
Good, Better, Best
Best: Organic Valencia peanut butter with no added ingredients, sunflower seed butter, almond butter or another nut butter
Good: Organic peanut butter consumed in small quantities with a green vegetable
Acceptable: Natural peanut butter consumed in small quantities with a green vegetable
Not recommended: Conventional peanut butter with additives such as hydrogenated oils and sweeteners.
Should the sunflower seed butter or almond butter be organic? We’re going to look at that soon in another Friday Food Fight.
What’s the financial impact of changing from peanut butter to sunnut butter? Locally, I have found that sunnut butter costs less than the organic peanut butters, but slightly more than the non-organic but natural peanut butters.
It will cost me about $3-4 more a month if I never catch the sunnut butter on sale, and I’m good with that. Here, sunnut butter goes on sale on a fairly predictable schedule, so we will purchase enough at each sale to get us through until the next sale to put the price on par with the natural peanut butters.
Locally, sunnut butter costs about the same as the organic Valencia peanut butter from Trader Joes.
What’s the price difference between natural peanut butter, sunnut butter and organic peanut butter where you live? Which will you purchase? We’d love to hear from you in the comments below.
(1) Wang, L.-Y., Hatch, M., Chen, C.-J., Levin, B., You, S.-L., Lu, S.-N., Wu, M.-H., Wu, W.-P., Wang, L.-W., Wang, Q., Huang, G.-T., Yang, P.-M., Lee, H.-S. and Santella, R. M. (1996), Aflatoxin exposure and risk of hepatocellular carcinoma in Taiwan. Int. J. Cancer, 67: 620–625.
(2) Alpert, M. E., Hutt, M. S. R., Wogan, G. N. and Davidson, C. S. (1971), Association between aflatoxin content of food and hepatoma frequency in Uganda. Cancer, 28: 253–260.
(3) D L Eaton, and E P Gallagher, Mechanisms of Aflatoxin Carcinogenesis. Annual Review of Pharmacology and Toxicology, 34: 135-172.
(4) Bingham AK, Phillips TD, Bauer JE (March 2003). “Potential for dietary protection against the effects of aflatoxins in animals”. J. Am. Vet. Med. Assoc. 222 (5): 591–6.
(5) Bastianello SS, Nesbit JW, Williams MC, Lange AL (December 1987). “Pathological findings in a natural outbreak of aflatoxicosis in dogs”. Onderstepoort J. Vet. Res. 54 (4): 635–40.