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Natural Nibbles: The Peanut Butter Wars

October 18, 2009

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Two summers ago when I was in Budapest, I had a craving for peanut butter. Budapest, however, had very little in the ways of peanut butter; it’s simply not a popular food there. My friends and I were the only people in the whole neighborhood who ever bought those mini-jars of incredibly sweet paste-like peanut stuff. We bought them with gusto. Peanut butter was, at times, the closest we ever came to home. It’s a childhood food. I think in the 50s and 60s people used to joke that Americans were corn and beef-fed. I mean, we still are, but I think there’s also enormous truth in the assumption that all who aren’t allergic are also peanut-butter fed. I loved sitting with my friends by the huge windows of our apartment, hanging out with a spoon in one hand and my peanut butter jar in the other.

But now I wish I could take it all back. I wish I could take back the entire year of peanut butter sandwiches I ate after that summer. In fact, I wish I could take back all the typical grocery store peanut butter I’ve ever eaten. I think it amounts to like twenty-five jars or something. That doesn’t sound like a lot, but when I think about all the hydrogenated vegetable oils (fake food) and all the unnecessary sugar that was added to every jar of grocery store peanut butter I spread on Wonder Bread, I want to vomit. Of course, neither I nor my parents knew any better when I was growing up–the organic and natural foods movement was a thing of hippies past, Trader Joes was too expensive, and Asian people never ate peanut butter anyway.

Last semester, I really started paying attention to the ingredients in my foods. It’s hard to be disciplined, to give up foods that you love and have eaten your entire life. I’m still working on it and while I want to be that person who eats only natural foods and never gives in to processed snacks, I fail. I fail a lot. I eat cereal too much for my own good, for example. And so with the foods that I know are my go-tos, I’ve tried to seek out organically grown foods or foods that have natural ingredients in them. What do I mean by natural? I mean ingredients that aren’t the product of human food engineering/ingenuity. Like hydrogenated fats. Margarine is probably the most famous of the partially hydrogenated vegetable oil family, proven over recent years to be even worse than its evil fat twin, Butter. Partially hydrogenated essentially means that oils that are liquids at room temperature are chemically altered to become solid at room temperature–your body breaks it down differently than it would fats that come in their natural form.

Of course, with peanut butter, there are some aesthetic things that makers have tried to deal with by adding other ingredients. With regular peanut butters, they usually add hydrogenated oils to make it smoother and solid at room temperature, and sugar to give it that slight sweetness. Organic or natural peanut butters are mostly made of just the nuts, either roasted or plain, unsalted or salted, and are usually unsweetened. Because peanut butter made of just peanuts tends to separate (the oil rises to the top), customers or people have griped about having to stir their peanut butter, and so companies conscious of the ills of trans-fat that come from hydrogenated oils have taken to adding palm oil, which is solid at room temperature. I have to say though, that peanut butter with palm oil tastes awful–the palm oil really envelops and overwhelms the flavor of the peanuts. And for those of you who love peanut butter, you know that overwhelming the flavor of peanuts is a really hard and unfortunate thing to do. So I will stick to yummy peanut butter that I might have to stir every once in a while–I eat it so much anyway that it’s just worth it.

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