10 Questions About Nut Butters
by Erica Ilton, RDN, CDN, BerkeleyWellness.com
June 28, 2018

Once upon a time, the only "nut butter" readily available on supermarket shelves was peanut butter-and it isn't even made from nuts (technically, peanuts are legumes, not tree nuts). Peanut butter has plenty of company these days, from the now relatively common almond butter to the newer cashew, walnut, macadamia, and pistachio butters, as well as other peanut butter alternatives including seed butters and ones made from soy nuts or chickpeas (also legumes).

How do all these spreads stack up? You had questions . . . here are some answers. Note: For simplicity, the term "nut butter" in this article refers to all these different types of spreads.

Are some nut butters more nutritious than others?
All nut butters, like their whole nut counterparts, are healthful, providing protein, some fiber, and an array of vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals (including phytosterols and arginine, an amino acid that makes blood vessels more flexible). And though nut butters, like nuts, are high in fat, most of the fat is polyunsaturated and monounsaturated, the kinds that improve cholesterol levels and reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease when substituted for saturated fat in the diet.

The specific nutrients in nut butters vary somewhat, however, depending on the type of nut (see chart below). Walnut butter, for instance, is richest in alpha-linolenic acid (an omega-3 fatty acid), while almond butter provides a small amount of calcium (about 55 milligrams per tablespoon). Studies have shown that all kinds of nuts have heart-healthy effects, and there's no reason to think that plain nut butters wouldn't have the same benefits. A 2009 study in the Journal of Nutrition, in fact, linked both nuts (1 ounce, most days of the week) and peanut butter (1 tablespoon, most days of the week) to lower cardiovascular risk in women with type 2 diabetes.

How do the calories in nut butters compare to those in nuts?
Nutrition labels on nut butters list anywhere from 160 to 230 calories per 2-tablespoon serving (about an ounce), similar to the calorie counts stated on the labels for an ounce of their whole-nut counterparts. But interestingly, the calories in nut butters appear to be better absorbed than those in whole nuts. A small 2016 study in the FASEB Journal, for instance, found that whole raw almonds provided 25 percent fewer calories than nutrition facts labels indicated, whereas the label information for almond butter was accurate. That's because a fair amount of the fat, carbohydrates, and protein in chewed whole almonds passes through the intestines undigested, so not all their calories are absorbed. In contrast, the smaller the nut particles (as in pulverized nut butters), the greater their digestibility and thus the more calories (and nutrients) that are absorbed. Earlier research comparing whole peanuts to peanut butter supports these findings, making it likely that all whole nuts are lower in calories than the equivalent weight of "butter" made from them.

So are you better off eating whole nuts than nut butters, from a calorie perspective?
It might be a toss-up. None of the studies comparing calorie counts of nuts to nut butters were designed to measure how these foods compare in terms of satiety, so it's possible that even though you derive fewer calories from whole nuts, you might end up eating larger portions of them than the "butters" from which they're made. As shown in a small 2013 study in theBritish Journal of Nutrition, nut butters may indeed be more satiating than whole nuts. It found that obese women with type 2 diabetes were less hungry and ate less later on when their breakfasts included peanut butter, compared to when their morning meal did not include peanut butter. But when participants were given whole peanuts at breakfast, they experienced less of a satiety effect than when they were given peanut butter. The researchers theorized that the enhanced appetite-suppressing effect of peanut butter was probably due to the greater bioavailability of the oil in ground peanuts.

Allergic to Peanut Butter? Try These Spreads Instead
Nut allergies are no joke, as anyone who has ever experienced or witnessed an allergic reaction, particularly an anaphylactic reaction, to tree nuts or peanuts can attest. (Peanuts are not true nuts but rather legumes, though cross-reactions are common.)

This has led some schools and airlines to ban all nuts and nut products, which in turn has prompted food manufacturers to create nut-free alternatives to peanut butter-that most ubiquitous of all childhood sandwich spreads-and other nut butters. Luckily, they didn't have to reinvent the wheel to do this; some products even have a similar texture and equivalent (or superior) nutritional profile.

One popular product is made from sunflower seeds, but others include pumpkin seed butter (which may appeal or repel kids due to its pea green color), chickpea spread (a newbie), soy nut butter (a source of complete protein), and sesame seed butter (tahini). Before choosing either of these last two options, be aware that soy, like peanuts and tree nuts, is one of the top eight allergens, and sesame seed allergy is fairly common.

There is also trendy coconut butter. Though the FDA confusingly identifies coconut as a tree nut, it is actually the seed of a drupaceous fruit-and according to the American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology (ACAAI), "While allergic reactions to coconut have been documented, most people who are allergic to tree nuts can safely eat coconut." Still, if you have a tree nut allergy, the ACAAI recommends talking to your allergist before consuming coconut.

  • Chickpea butter spread. A few companies make a spread from chickpeas (garbanzo beans), typically with added oil (olive, palm, safflower, or coconut oil) and a little salt and sugar. It's lower in calories and fat than that other legume spread, peanut butter, but it also contains less protein (see chart). The Amazing Chickpea comes in creamy, crunchy, and chocolate flavors. The chocolate version has 9 grams of added sugar (about two teaspoons) per 2-tablespoon serving, compared to 21 grams of sugar in Nutella, most of which is added. Chixi comes unsweetened, lightly sweetened, and in vanilla bean flavor.
  • Coconut butter. This is made from coconut meat that has been ground into a paste. Unlike coconut oil, which is extracted from the meat, coconut butter has fiber (4 grams per 2-tablespoon serving) and only a little protein (about 2 grams) - though this spread is a poor choice if you're looking to approximate the protein content of peanut butter. The predominant ingredient in coconut butter is fat, but unlike the fat in other nut butters, it is almost entirely saturated. Despite the recent elevation of coconut oil to near mythic health status, the jury is still out as to whether the type of saturated fat it contains is as healthful as proponents assert. Studies have been mixed-and the AHA advises against the use of coconut oil. Like Nutella, this spread is best enjoyed only on occasion.
  • Pumpkin seed butter. This green-hued spread has a similar calorie, saturated fat, and fiber content to that of peanut butter, but it's a little higher in total fat and lower in protein. It shines when it comes to magnesium (30 percent of the Daily Value per 2-tablespoon serving) and it's an excellent source of iron and a good source of zinc. Pumpkin seed butter is not as widely available as some of these other spreads (and it's more expensive), so you may want to make your own-there are many recipes and videos on the Internet showing how.
  • Sesame seed paste. Also known as tahini (from the Arabic word meaning "to grind"), this creamy paste is made from either sesame seeds that are hulled and then either lightly roasted or kept raw before grinding. Tahini is commonly used in Middle Eastern cooking to flavor hummus and other traditional dishes, but it can also be used in sandwiches or on toast (topping it with a little honey or jam if you like).
  • Soynut butter. This spread tastes somewhat like peanut butter, and one of the more popular brands, WOW, has a similar fat, protein, and fiber content. It also contains a little soy oil and palm oil (as a stabilizer) and 100 milligrams of sodium per 2-tablespoon serving. Soy has gotten a lot of press over the years - some good, some bad - but no one has ever quibbled with the fact that it's a great source of protein and heart-healthy fats. And unlike peanut butter, soynut butter is considered a "complete" plant protein source, meaning it contains all nine essential amino acids that the body needs to form proteins.
  • Sunflower seed butter. This spread is also similar to peanut butter in terms of flavor and texture, and it's relatively easy to find in large grocery stores. A popular brand comes in several varieties, including natural, creamy, crunchy, organic, and no sugar added. Sunflower seed butter contains less total and saturated fat than peanut butter and it's an excellent source of magnesium.

What are all those other ingredients in nut butters?
Many nut butters contain just ground nuts, but some have added salt (about 70 to 100 milligrams sodium per 2-tablespoon serving) and a little sugar (usually about 2 grams, on top of a small amount of naturally occurring sugar), along with small amounts of emulsifiers, which give them a uniform consistency and keep the oil from separating (see next question). The most commonly added emulsifiers are mono- and diglycerides, hydrogenated oils, and palm oil. Mono- and diglycerides are "generally recognized as safe" (GRAS) by the FDA, and the public watchdog group, Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), considers them safe as well. Despite their high saturated fat content, fully hydrogenated oils seem to be relatively harmless, especially compared to partially hydrogenated oils (see below), though more research is needed to fully understand their health effects. Palm oil, also high in saturated fats, has not been studied sufficiently to give it an unqualified thumbs-up either.

Previously, many peanut butters used small amounts of partially hydrogenated oils, a source of unhealthful trans fats, which the FDA declared to be an unsafe food ingredient a few years ago. Manufacturers began phasing these fats out of their products after mandatory trans-fat labeling went into effect in 2006, but they had until June of this year to completely remove them. Still, it may take time for products manufactured before then to be cleared off shelves (and out of your own pantry), so you should continue to check for "partially hydrogenated fats" in the ingredients list, an indicator that these harmful fats are present.

What's the liquid layer that forms on top of "natural" nut butters? Should I spill it out or mix it in?
That layer is oil, and you shouldn't spill it out or you'll end up with a hard, dry chunk of nut matter that's nearly impossible to spread. That layer forms because nut oil is lighter than nut solids, and if the two are not mixed back together and stabilized with an emulsifier after nuts are pulverized, the oil will rise to the top of the jar. If you like natural nut butters but don't want to go through the messy and time-consuming process of stirring it every time you open the jar, you can refrigerate it after a thoroughly stirring.

Besides keeping nothing-but-nuts products from separating, are there other reasons to refrigerate them?
Yes. Foods high in plant oils, such as nut butters, can become rancid if kept at room temperature for too long. In addition to developing off tastes and smells, rancidity can also compromise nutritional quality. Prolonging the shelf life of nut butters isn't essential if you consume them quickly but is a good idea if you eat them only occasionally - especially if you're splurging on ones that cost more than $10 for an 8-ounce jar.

Is reduced-fat peanut butter healthier than regular peanut butter? Does it have fewer calories?
No and no. Many people choose reduced-fat peanut butter, thinking it not only has less fat but also has far fewer calories than regular versions. Though there is a difference in fat (12 versus 16 grams per two tablespoons), the calories are actually the same (about 180 to 190). You can't cry foul on food companies, since they are playing by the rules, which state that a reduced-fat product needs only to have a minimum of 25 percent less fat - not 25 percent fewer calories - than the original version. Why such a narrow calorie gap? When fat is removed to create a reduced-fat product, it's replaced with something else - typically corn syrup solids, sugar, or maltodextrin, which are less healthful than the "good" fats taken out. Ultimately, you're better off eating the real thing; it's better for you and it tastes better, too.

What's in Your 'Nut Butter'?
Whether made from ground tree nuts (as in almond, cashew, pistachio, and macadamia butter), legumes (as in peanut and chickpea butter), or seeds (as in sunflower, pumpkin, and sesame seed butter), most of these "nut butter" spreads are rich in protein, healthful fats, and a range of nutrients.
Still, there are some notable differences among them (and some notable duds).

Did you know, for instance, that two tablespoons (the standard serving) of almond butter provides about 110 milligrams of calcium? That's more than 10 percent of the Daily Value for this essential bone mineral. And walnut butter is a good source of the plant-based omega-3 fatty acid alpha linolenic acid (ALA). On the other hand, the main ingredient in Nutella hazelnut spread is sugar.

This chart shows how these "nut butter" spreads compare and some things that stand out (for good or bad) in each one. Brand names are included in cases where nutrition information is not available from the USDA.

How does Nutella compare to other nut butters?
People do love this hazelnut cocoa spread, but from a nutritional standpoint, Nutella is more like a sweet treat than a healthful snack food. The main ingredients are sugar and palm oil-and then hazelnuts, followed by skim milk, cocoa, and soy lecithin (an emulsifier). As such, it has more calories (200 per 2-tablespoon serving), a much higher sugar content (21 grams, providing about 40 percent of the calories), and less protein (2 grams) than plain hazelnut butter (160 calories, 0 grams of sugar, 5 grams protein). Worse yet, the recipe was changed in 2017 and it has even more sugar than previously. By the way, the original recipe for Nutella was developed in Italy during World War II when cocoa supplies were low and hazelnuts were plentiful.

What's the deal with the calorie-free whipped peanut spread from Walden Farms?
Sold alongside peanut butters, this product boasts that it has no calories, fat, carbs, or sugars. How can that be? Easy - it has no peanuts. Peanut flavor and peanut extract are the 5th and 6th items in a list of 13 ingredients that begins with water, vegetable fiber, salt and corn starch and ends with FD&C Yellow #5, #6. Other ingredients are xanthan gum, sucralose, caramel color, and preservatives. How does it look and taste? Online reviews call it "disgusting," "awful," and "pure evil in a jar." Another reviewer wrote that "It resembles in no matter, shape, or form peanut butter. It tastes like candle wax and ink." This is not real food and actually runs afoul of FDA regulations by calling itself a "peanut spread" without prominently announcing that it's an imitation. Suffice it to say, this product breaks just about every rule in Michael Pollan's insightful book, Food Rules, including the first one, which urges readers to eat avoid "edible food-like substances."

What about powdered peanut butter? Is that a good option?
It can be. Peanut powders are made from roasted peanuts that have been pressed to remove about 85 percent of the oil and then ground into powder. Typically, a little sugar and some salt are added, and some manufacturers make chocolate and other flavored versions. Most of the plain versions contain about 45 to 50 calories, 1.5 grams fat, 5-6 grams protein, and 2 grams of fiber per 2-tablespoon serving. You can mix them with liquid to make a spread, but you may be better off enjoying real peanut butter, which tastes better, and using the powders in baking or as an add-in to things like smoothies or yogurt. Powdered peanut butter may be more convenient to pack if you're traveling (it's lighter) and want a good source of protein at your destination.

Bottom line: Choosing nut butters can seem overwhelming given the ever-growing selection. But it doesn't have to be: Simply, it comes down to this: For the healthiest nut butters, look for products that contain nothing but nuts - or at least have nuts as the first ingredient. Small amounts of salt and sugar can make nut butters more palatable and are not necessarily a deal breaker unless you are on a strict low-sodium or low-sugar diet. Eat all nut butters in moderation, as their calories can add up quickly.