Feb. 20, 2009 -- Since a mid-January recall of peanut butter products, many people have been squeamish about purchasing peanut butter snacks and jars of the lunchtime favorite itself, although major brands were not part of the recall.
As of February, 15,642 people in 44 states were reported to have contracted salmonella from the peanut products, according to the Web site of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. But while major brands of jarred peanut butter are not being recalled, this may be an opportune time to add more variety to your PB&J.
A variety of butters made from tree nuts -- lower in fat than their peanut counterpart -- may be able to bring more balance to your diet.
"Look at it as an opportunity to try a few other things," said nutritionist Keith Ayoob, an associate professor at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City.
Ayoob did not advocate banishing peanut butter from your diet, noting that it has good nutritional value, providing protein and some fiber, while its fat is primarily the monounsaturated kind. The spread is also appealing because it's convenient and easy to use and is a relatively inexpensive plant form of protein.
Other nutritionists echoed those sentiments.
Kathleen D'Ovidio, an exercise and nutritional sciences professor at San Diego State University, said the omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids found in tree nut butters would enhance some diets, although they wouldn't replace peanut butter completely.
"There's reasons why you want to eat peanut butter, and there's reasons why you want to eat tree nut butters," she said.
D'Ovidio said her concerns are more with peanut products like cookies and other snacks than with the jarred brands. But having looked at jarred peanut butter after a similar outbreak in 2007, she said nut butters might be a little safer in this regard, as they are manufactured in smaller amounts.
While jarred peanut butter may not be anything to fear right now, the following pages have some alternatives you might like to try out.
Tasty Alternatives to Peanut Butter
Many large supermarkets, health food stores and specialty markets stock jars and jars of nut or seed butters that have a similar consistency but slightly different tastes.
You might even be able to grind your own butters in some stores, so you can buy a smaller amount, a good option when you're experimenting with a new food and are not sure if you'll like the taste. "Or you can try the new spread on crackers," Ayoob said. "It's less of a commitment than a sandwich."
You can even make your own nut butters at home in a food processor. It will be fresh and will lack the salt, sugar and preservatives that some store-bought brands might have.
D'Ovidio notes that peanut butter alternatives may have a different consistency, but that can often be alleviated by having the nuts freshly ground.
Also, she said, the different consistency could simply be a positive part of trying something new.
"I like almond butter," she said. "It tastes really good. It's a little runnier than peanut butter, but so what?"
Still, it's wise to bear in mind that many of the options below tend to cost more than peanut butter and all are somewhat comparable in calories.
As an almond lover, Leslie Bonci, the director of sports nutrition at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, is also a big fan of this spreadable butter.
She described its taste as a little sweeter than peanut butter with a crunchier consistency. "Some people say it has a cherry overtone, in terms of its flavor," Bonci said.
Lighter in color than the tan tones of peanut butter, almond butter is also higher in calcium and has a little bit more fiber.
In addition, it has similar amounts of good-for-you monounsaturated fats and slightly less protein than peanuts.
"Almond butter lends itself to the same uses as peanut butter," she noted. So you can slather it on bread for a sandwich along with some jelly or honey, or you can put it on celery.
Legumes vs. Tree Nuts
One of the biggest differences is that peanuts are a legume -- as are beans and peas -- while almonds are a tree nut. And from a salmonella or potential contamination perspective, the legumes, which are grown in closer contact with the soil, might be riskier than tree nuts, which have a stronger outer shell.
Cashew Nut Butter
Lower in protein and fiber than either peanut or almond butter, cashew nut butter is also a little bit higher in saturated fat. And its color is even a lighter shade of brown than almond butter.
It also is more expensive than peanut and even almond butter. The butter has an intense cashew flavor as well as a creamy and oily feel in your mouth, Bonci said. Because of its fatty, almost indulgent taste, you might want to use less of it than other nut or seed butters.
Soy Nut Butter
Tan in color and not as creamy as peanut butter, soy nut butter comes from a legume -- the soybean -- rather than a nut or seed. As a result, it has a different taste profile than the other spreads.
"You'd have to like the taste of soybean," Bonci said.
Made from roasted soybeans, soy nut butter will have the most protein and the lowest amount of fat than other nut and seed butters, and its fiber content is similar to almond butter. It's a good option for people who have peanut or tree nut allergies.
"Soy nut butter is sweeter than peanut butter and, in terms of nutrition, it's terrific," Ayoob said.
Sunflower Seed Butter
With a slightly grey tinge to it, sunflower seed butter is somewhat bland in taste. But if you like sunflower seeds, you might like this spread as well.
It's high in polyunsaturated fats, so it might spoil more easily than nut butters. People who are allergic to peanuts or tree nuts can eat sunflower seed butter.
Three other nut butters that you might see on some store shelves:
You Can Always Come Back to Peanut Butter
And although not as widely available, some specialty or health food stores are stocking hemp seed butter, which has a nutty taste and, like walnuts, also provides some omega-3 fats, and golden peabutter, made from golden brown peas and has a strong resemblance to peanut butter.
As Bonci put it, if you want to be cautious about peanut butter, you can make a switch to one of these alternatives. "Buy a small amount, wait until the concerns about the salmonella outbreak blow over, and then go back to what you really enjoy."
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