Consider the lowly peanut. Almost any way you look at them -- unless you're allergic -- peanuts are a near-perfect food. They come straight from Mother Nature already wrapped in a handy, no-mess, biodegradable package. They're easy to carry, easy to store. They're also incredibly versatile. Peanuts can be enjoyed raw, for instance, if you like their green, slightly pea-like flavor. They're also good oven-roasted with just a touch of sea salt. They can even be marinated in lemon juice, deep fried and served as a tangy appetizer.
Peanuts can also be added to other foods of every kind. They add a tasty crunch to salads, they can be mixed in with granola, and they're a traditional staple of trail mix. You can sprinkle them over dry cereal or add them to your morning oatmeal. Peanuts are also found in many international dishes. They can be served hot on noodles or mixed with sesame seeds and cabbage for a delicious Asian-style coleslaw. And, as peanut butter, you can enjoy these little nutrient-packed dynamos spread on rice cakes, rolled in a tortilla or baked into muffins.
Take a closer look at peanuts
Beyond their versatility and rich, yummy flavor, peanuts -- quite literally -- bring a lot to the table. A quarter-cup of raw peanuts has, according to The World's Healthiest Foods website (1), 9.42 grams of protein, 3.1 grams of fiber, 8.92 grams of monounsaturated fat, and 5.68 grams of polyunsaturated fat. And all of this with no cholesterol or trans fats.
Let's look at these attributes one by one.
- Protein - We need protein to build and repair nearly every tissue in our bodies, including our muscles, skin, nails and hair. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2) suggests that healthy adults get between 46 and 56 grams of protein a day.
- Fiber - Fiber fills us up at meal time, helps stabilize blood sugar levels and staves off hunger. Soluble fiber in the diet -- 0.87 grams in that quarter-cup of peanuts -- has been shown to help lower cholesterol levels.
- Mono and polyunsaturated fat - Study after study has shown the health benefits of these natural, plant-based fats. A diet high in mono and polyunsaturated fats, and low in saturated and trans fats, may help decrease your risk of heart disease, dementia, obesity, type 2 diabetes and some forms of cancer.
Despite all of this good news, peanuts have a dark side. In fact, The World's Healthiest Foods website (3) has put peanuts on its "10 Most Controversial WHFoods List." Why? WHFoods cites the peanut's association with adverse reactions (such as allergies), the challenges that peanut production places on sustainable agriculture and the fact that peanuts are difficult to come by "in high-quality form."
That last caveat may allude to the fact that the very things that make peanut butter such a powerhouse health food are being undermined by an additive put into peanut butter by many of the companies that produce and distribute it.
Does your peanut butter contain poison?
When you reach for that jar of peanut butter on the grocery store shelf, examine the label carefully. Before you buy, find a brand that contains nothing more than peanuts and, perhaps, salt. Many nationally known peanut butter brands -- and most store brands, as well -- have other, less savory ingredients. These can include sugar, corn syrup, lard, palm oil, cotton seed oil, soy lecithin, whey and hydrogenated vegetable oils.
How to identify hidden trans fats in popular brands
The term trans fats describes a chemically altered form of plant-based oil that retains its solid form at room temperature. Trans fats, according to the American Heart Association (4), raise your bad cholesterol, lower your good cholesterol, increase your risk of stroke and increase your chances of developing heart disease. It's bad. To avoid peanut butters that have trans fats, look for the terms "hydrogenated vegetable oil" or "partially hydrogenated vegetable oil" on the label. Also check the nutrition facts. A peanut butter that is free of trans fats should clearly state "0 grams trans fats" on that label.
Don't be fooled by the word "natural"
Some peanut butters and peanut butter spreads are labeled "natural," but you still need to read their list of ingredients carefully. These will sometimes have added palm or cottonseed oil. While these are naturally occurring plant oils, they're also, according to the American Heart Association's "Know Your Fats" page (5), high in saturated fats. For optimum health, the AHA suggests that the majority of the fats in your diet come in the mono and polyunsaturated forms.