If you’ve got a keen eye for botany, you know that almonds are classified not as nuts, but as fruit seeds. But this is true for many of the other foods we call nuts. In fact, the USDA classifies all nuts as fruits because they are “dry, single-seeded fruits that have high oil content.”
Aside from the nutrient-packed almond butter, there’s a healthy nut butter option for everyone depending on your dietary goals.
If Vitamin E is what you seek, Crumble Smith recommends peanut butter, almond butter or sunflower seed butter.
Sunflower seed butter is technically a seed butter but is often used as a nut butter replacement for those who have allergies. If you have a nut allergy, this is going to be the best way for you to get that nut butter experience while getting in a similar level of protein, fiber and healthy fats.
If you want to up your Omega-3 intake, try walnut butter. Walnuts are a great source of Omega-3s, Crumble Smith says, which help increase high-density lipoprotein (or “good cholesterol”) levels. High levels of HDL are associated with a lower risk of heart disease and strokes. Omega-3s are essential polyunsaturated fats, meaning our bodies don’t make them on our own but they’re necessary for a healthy diet. About 68% of adults and over 95% of children consume less than the recommended amount, the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey found.
If you need more calcium – something vegans may struggle with – almond butter or sesame seed butter are your best options. Okay yes, it’s technically a seed butter, but it can be used similarly to nut butter in sauces and dressings (think tahini) or even as a spreadable, sweet snack alternative. Take a look at these numbers from the U.S. Department of Agriculture: One tablespoon of peanut butter contains about 7.84 milligrams of calcium while a tablespoon of sesame butter contains 19.7 milligrams and almond butter has 44.6 milligrams.
So what makes “natural” nut butter? Crumble Smith says to look for single ingredients – nuts release their own oils when ground, so you really only need peanuts to make peanut butter, almonds to make almond butter and so on. If the ingredients label does list oil, try to look for the oil of the actual nut or seed you’re consuming: peanut oil in peanut butter, for example.
Some stores offer a grind-in-store option for fresh nut butter, but the easiest way to control the ingredients in your nut butter is to make it at home.
“Pumpkin seed butter or walnut butter, those can be really expensive,” Crumble Smith says. “It’s really easy to make at home, all you need is a food processor or high-powered blender and if it’s difficult to get (nuts) to blend initially, then you can add a little bit of coconut oil or even a little bit of avocado oil.”
Crumble Smith says she’ll also sometimes throw a spoonful of leftover store-bought peanut butter into the blender to get the process going.
Is peanut butter good for you?
Peanuts are technically legumes like peas, edamame and lentils, but we often refer to them in the nut and nut butter category because of their distinct taste and name.
Peanut butter is one of the more inexpensive nut butter options, making it an affordable source of protein, fiber and healthy fats. Look for options with minimal added sugar and ingredients – often just peanuts and a little salt – for the healthiest options, Crumble Smith says.
The other component of peanut butter and your health is food safety. Peanuts grown in warm and humid regions may grow mold during harvesting or in storage and transit and develop aflatoxin, a natural byproduct of mold. Exposure to aflatoxins is associated with increased risk of liver cancer, the National Cancer Institute says.
There’s never been an outbreak of human illness caused by aflatoxins in the U.S., but there have been in other parts of the world. The Food and Drug Administration has federal regulations in place to monitor aflatoxin content and make sure your peanut butter is toxin-free. Still, you may want to exercise caution with homemade peanut butter. Don’t use peanuts that are moldy, shriveled or discolored to make nut butter.
Which nut butter is best for weight loss?
Nuts and nut butters are nutrient-dense foods, so the calories you absorb from eating any kind of nut butter will support a healthy diet, Crumble Smith says. Added hydrogenated oils, sugar and salt are what could take away from the health of nut butter.
Nut butter is also easier to overeat than regular nuts, so if you’re choosing one of the more popular brands with added sugar, be mindful of portion size, Crumble Smith says.
“Just the simple act of chewing, that slows down the eating process and allows more time for our brain to register that we’ve actually eaten something, whereas nut butter is really easy to overeat,” she says.
But in general, nut butter is a great addition to any healthy diet. Add it to smoothies, yogurt, granola or even try it in a savory dressing or sauce, Crumble Smith recommends.
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