Is Peanut Butter Bad For Your Health? A Look at The Evidence

Woman Holding a Jar of Peanut ButterI personally have a love-hate relationship with peanut butter.

I love how it tastes and I love the smell. The texture of it is simply amazing and I even like the way it sticks to the roof of my mouth before it melts.

On the other hand, I really, really hate how my satiety signals just don’t seem to respond to peanut butter in the same way as with other foods.

Usually when I eat food, I only have to eat a “reasonable” amount for some subconscious signal to tell me “hey, you’ve had enough!”

But peanut butter doesn’t seem to respect these boundaries.

If I ever happen to indulge even a little bit, I usually end up eating an entire jar… and still have a lingering feeling of wanting just a little bit more.

Apparently I’m not alone… I also regularly get e-mails from people asking me about peanut butter, so I thought I’d try to unravel what the ultimate health effects of it are.

To begin with, some people are allergic to peanuts. For a small percentage of the population, peanuts can kill. Literally (1).

But this article is about the other 99% of people, who can eat peanut butter without any noticeable adverse effects, at least in the short term.

So… is eating peanut butter bad for you in the long run? Let’s find out.

How Peanut Butter is Made

Peanuts And Peanut Butter

Peanut butter is a relatively unprocessed food.

It’s pretty much just peanuts, often roasted, that are ground until they turn into peanut butter.

However, many commercial brands of peanut butter aren’t really just peanut butter. They often have sugar and other nasty things added to them.

However, I’m going to assume that you know this already and diligently read labels, so I’m not even going to go there. This article is about real peanut butter, nothing but peanuts, perhaps mixed in with a bit of salt.

For all purposes, the health effects of regular peanuts should be identical to the health effects of peanut butter… because real peanut butter is effectively just ground peanuts.

I’ll save the salt discussion for another time, but personally I wouldn’t be too worried as I think the “dangers” of it have been blown way out of proportion. In studies, restricting salt or sodium has no effect on cardiovascular disease or death (2).

I should also point out that peanuts aren’t technically nuts. They’re legumes, which are among the forbidden food groups on a strict “paleo” diet.

Little Carbohydrate, Some Protein and Lots of Fat

Peanut butter is a fairly “balanced” energy source in the way that it supplies all three macronutrients. A 100g portion of peanut butter contains (3):

  • Carbohydrate: 20 grams of carbs (13% of calories), 6 of which are fiber.
  • Protein: 25 grams of protein (15% of calories), which is quite a lot compared to most other plant foods.
  • Fat: 50 grams of fat, totalling about 72% of calories.

Along with this hefty dose of macronutrients are 588 calories, in a 100g portion of peanut butter.

Even though peanut butter is fairly protein rich, it doesn’t have much of some essential amino acids like lysine. To make full use of the protein, you need to eat a lysine-rich protein source along with the peanut butter, such as protein rich animal foods like meat or cheese.

The fat in peanut butter is about 50% monounsaturated and 20% saturated. The rest of it (about 30%) is polyunsaturated fat, mostly the Omega-6 fatty acid linoleic acid, which can be problematic and I’ll get to in a minute.

Peanut Butter is Fairly Rich in Vitamins and Minerals

Peanut Butter in a Spoon

Peanut butter is fairly nutritious. A 100 gram portion of peanut butter supplies a whole bunch of vitamins and minerals:

  • Vitamin E: 45% of the RDA.
  • Vitamin B3 (Niacin): 67% of the RDA.
  • Vitamin B6: 27% of the RDA.
  • Folate: 18% of the RDA.
  • Magnesium: 39% of the RDA.
  • Copper: 24% of the RDA.
  • Manganese: 73% of the RDA.

There’s also a decent amount of Vitamin B5, Iron, Potassium, Zinc and Selenium in peanut butter.

However, be aware that this is for a 100 gram portion, which has a total of 588 calories. Calorie for calorie, peanut butter actually isn’t that nutritious compared to low-calorie plant foods like spinach or broccoli.

Other Important Nutrients in Peanuts

As it is with most real foods, they do contain more than just the classic vitamins and minerals. There are also plenty of other biologically active nutrients in foods, which can have some health benefits.

Peanut butter is no exception and is pretty rich with antioxidants, including p-coumaric acid which may lead to a decreased risk of stomach cancer (4, 5).

It also contains some resveratrol, which may lower the risk of cardiovascular disease. It has small amounts of Q10, an important nutrient in energy metabolism. Then it has a decent amount of Beta-sitosterol, a nutrient that may have anti-cancer properties (6, 7).

A Potential Source of Aflatoxins

Even though peanut butter is quite nutritious, it may also contain substances that cause harm.

At the top of the list are so-called Aflatoxins.

Peanuts actually grow underground, where they tend to be colonized by an ubiquitous fungus called Aspergillus, a source of aflatoxins… which are toxic and highly carcinogenic.

Humans are actually fairly resistant to the acute (short-term) effects of aflatoxins, but what happens down the line is not fully known at this point.

However, some studies in humans link aflatoxin exposure to liver cancer, stunted growth in children and mental retardation (8, 9, 10, 11).

But there are good news… according to one source, the processing of peanuts into peanut butter reduces the aflatoxins by 89% (12).

Additionally, the USDA monitors the amounts of aflatoxins in foods and makes sure that they don’t go over recommended limits. However, I’m not sure I really trust these people very much as they have a track record of getting things wrong.

I’m not sure if the amount of aflatoxins in peanut butter is something to be worried about. It seems plausible, especially if you eat it regularly.

Omega-6s and Lectins in Peanut Butter

Peanut Butter Ingredients Label

As I mentioned above, about 30% of the fatty acids in peanut butter are the Omega-6 fatty acid linoleic acid.

Peanut butter also contains a lectin called Peanut Agglutinin. Lectins are a diverse group of proteins that have the ability to bind carbohydrates.

Lectins are everywhere, they’re in all foods, but some people believe that lectins from particular foods can cause harm.

In one study, individuals on a diet high in peanut butter reduced their total cholesterol by 11% and LDL cholesterol by 14% (13). Another human study showed that adding peanut butter to the diet significantly reduced blood triglycerides (14).

However, animal studies have shown that peanut oil along with high doses of cholesterol can induce atherosclerosis (thickening of arteries, which can lead to heart attacks) in animals like monkeys and rabbits (15).

However, these studies have been criticized for including ridiculous amounts of cholesterol and other studies actually show a reduction in atherosclerosis in test animals (16, 17, 18).

I’d like to point out that excessive Omega-6 fatty acids in the diet are associated with inflammation and an increased risk of cardiovascular disease (19, 20, 21).

Most people are already eating too many Omega-6s (which peanut butter is loaded with) and too few Omega-3s (which peanut butter lacks completely).

Peanuts, Type II Diabetes and Colorectal Cancer

There are a few observational studies I found showing a lower risk of some diseases for people who eat the most peanuts and peanut butter.

In one study in Taiwan, individuals who ate peanuts had a 27% lower risk of colorectal cancer (22).

In the Nurses’ Health Study, a massive study of 83.818 women in the U.S., those who ate peanut butter regularly had a 21% lower risk of type II diabetes (23).

These are observational studies that don’t prove that peanuts actually reduce any disease, just that people who eat peanuts are less likely to get them.

Probably Fine in Small Doses, But…

Vegetable Oils

There are a lot of good things about peanut butter, but also a few negatives.

It is fairly rich in nutrients and actually a decent protein source if you make sure to eat a lysine-rich food source along with it.

It is loaded with fiber, vitamins and minerals, although this doesn’t seem as significant when you consider the high caloric load.

On the other hand, it is a potential source of aflatoxins and contains very high amounts of a fatty acid that most people are eating too much of and is associated with harmful effects in the long run.

Even though I wouldn’t recommend peanut butter as a dominant food source in the diet, it is probably fine to eat every now and then in small amounts.

But the main problem with peanut butter is that it’s so incredibly hard to resist.

If you eat only small amounts at a time, then it probably won’t cause any sort of harm. However, it can be almost impossible to stop after eating just a little bit.

So if you have a tendency to binge on peanut butter, it may be best to just avoid it altogether. If you can keep it moderate, then by all means continue to eat peanut butter every now and then.

I highly doubt moderate consumption of peanut butter will have any major negative effect as long as you are avoiding the truly awful foods like sugar, wheat, trans fats and vegetable oils.

51 Comments

  1. Granny Mumantoog says:

    “To make full use of the protein, you need to eat a lysine-rich protein source along with the peanut butter, such as protein rich animal foods like meat or cheese.”

    So what do you recommend eating it with? Should it be spread on a slice of deli turkey or cheese? I know there are some good Thai type recipes but for a snack or ‘sandwich’ type meal I’m not sure what would be good? Glad to hear it’s OK in moderation though. :)

    • I’ve seen people at the gym mix it with pieces of bacon and eat it as their snack.

    • Your body stores amino acids. It isn’t about getting them all at once, but rather getting all the essentials at some point. Basically, you couldn’t just eat peanut butter for your protein source because it’s not a complete protein. So at some point eat meat, or cheese, or quinoa, etc.

    • Jameson says:

      I think what he meant was you need to have eaten some sort of animal protein at some point in your day, and regularly. You do not have to eat the animal protein at the same time as you eat the peanut butter – no, the lysine stays in your system for a while and can be called upon at any time of the day.

  2. I thought that the need to eat incomplete proteins with a complementary food supplying the other essential amino acids had been debunked, that so long as one gets all the essentials regularly, the timing doesn’t matter. Anyone know? With my diet there isn’t a problem: heavy on fatty meat and eggs.

    • Hmm interesting point. I suppose it makes sense, the protein from the previous meal may still be getting digested by the time you eat the second meal, so perhaps these foods may not have to be eaten at the same time. Haven’t seen any studies on it though.

      • Yeah, I’d agree with Mark on this.

        Considering the constant turnover of amino acids and 24-hour amino acid pool…

        I’d say unless peanut butter is the main source of protein in the diet, lysine shortage shouldn’t be a problem.

  3. Hey Kris,

    Great article, as always. I just have one little correction. When you say that peanut butter contains 20g carbohydrates per 100g you are probably basing that on commercial brands with lots of sugar and other nasty stuff added. I have been comparing brands and find that the carb content differs quite a lot, even between commercial brands. I found one at the reform store that has 11.6g carbs per 100g (of which 5.9g sugar).

  4. Dave Sill says:

    “In one study in Taiwan, peanuts lowered the risk of colorectal cancer by 27% (22).”

    No it didn’t: it showed that people who ate peanuts had a lower risk of colorectal cancer. That doesn’t prove that peanuts reduced the risk–it could be that some other factor common to people who tend to eat peanuts, e.g. they’re health conscious, younger, fitter, etc., lowered the risk.

  5. Dave Sill says:

    So how do almond and cashew butter compare to peanut butter?

  6. Donna Jensen says:

    Since I’ve removed most wheat and sugar from my diet, I’ve been scouring food labels at the store (which has consequently tripled my shopping times!) and so far, I’ve found only one brand of peanut butter that does not add sugar. Smucker’s Naturals (also packaged under Adams brand) is the only peanut butter I can find at a regular grocery store (not counting health food/organic stores) where the ingredients list consists of peanuts, salt, and nothing else. Thought you’d like to know :)

    • If you have a Costco close by they have a 2 pack of two huge jars (Valencia Peanuts and salt)… I even think it is organic for $10. Trader Joe’s is the other one that has it. I like theirs the best.

    • Laura Scudder’s, which is made by Smucker, lists only peanuts and salt as ingredients. It is commonly available in groceries around Tempe, AZ.

    • Diana Wallis says:

      Krema is a brand I find locally in regular grocery stores–nothing but peanuts in it.

    • Teddy All Natural PB does not have sugar in it. They have salted or unsalted, smooth or chunky. It is tasty! I have discovered Sun Butter and it is delicious! It is a healthier alternative. There are multiple versions. It seems to satisfy the “PB craving” – I’ve yet to try “other” butters, but plan to.

  7. Regrading the proteins one could add, that peanut protein composition is high in branch chained amino acids (BCAAs), that can be benefitial in some sportive contexts like protect agains DOMS (muscle soreness).

  8. Ahaah..cheese and peanut butter, food fit for the gods- I wonder how some omega-3 caps would taste on top?
    [:-|p Guess you could just wash’em down w/some heavy cream/coffee…….

  9. This article Ruined my day !
    … I’m, kinda, like you – no boundaries with peanut butter :)

  10. I “LOVE” peanut butter and use to eat it on a regular basis; I still crave it from time-to-time, but I found out that it was causing my skin to produce cysts on my face. I thought I was having adult onset acne since I never had problems when I was younger. Since I stopped, my skin has cleared up and I’m much happier. I just wanted to share in case someone else is experiencing the same thing. It took me a few years to figure out that was the culprit…

    • Regina,
      I cannot believe I read this, I feel so much better knowing that I am not alone. I thought I was having adult onset acne too but it was around the time where I was having peanut butter every single day! I thought it might have been the peanut butter but couldn’t seem to find answers to why it would cause cysts on my face. I still have it from time to time but no way near as much as I used to. Do you happen to know if it was definitely the peanut butter?

    • Probably due to the ratio of omega 6 to other fatty acids. Cut back and get more omega-3′s and it might not be a big problem.

  11. Kris,
    I’m glad to hear that you find peanut butter irresistible! As you’ve correctly stated, it provides a variety of vitamins, minerals, protein, good fats, fiber and much more. A serving of peanut butter has 8g protein and 190 calories, certainly a reasonable addition to any healthy diet. For resources, including references to the research about peanut butter you and your readers might enjoy visiting our website at http://www.nationalpeanutboard.org where you will find information on nutrition, as well as recipes for how you can enjoy peanut butter!
    Best,
    PeanutRD

    • Well, like I said there are some potential downsides as well.

      The fact that I find it irresistible is a bad thing btw, because I can’t help eating way too much.

  12. Oh my God, I couldn’t agree more, I can’t have it in the house, I absolutely love it and I am disgusting when it’s time to eat a portion, it’s like potato chips, the salty terrible ones, who can eat just one – that is when you have a taste for it. I don’t eat either of these, but seriously I love peanut butter and I can’t seem to watch the portion, so thanks for this information! I love this site!

    and yes I know everything in moderation, but some things are just too tempting :)

  13. Oh my gosh Kris! I am the same way. I can’t put it down once I start… the funny thing is, a few years ago I wouldn’t touch a nut or peanut…ever! Then I lost 30 lbs and I can NOT get enough of those darn things. I can eat handfuls of nuts, jars of PB (peanuts only of course) all in one sitting. Why is that?

    I did some research and found that many others had the same experience but no answers why your body craves it (mainly after weight loss)??!! The one thing I did notice, is if I do overindulge in PB, I really can’t eat anything else for the rest of the day, sometimes two…no other food does that to me. Also, I have found I wake up in night sweats. I am sure some kind of overload on my system. Oh well, just have to stay away!

    Love your site and trying really hard to live the low carb lifestyle. Need to lose 10 lbs!! So thanks for all your support!

  14. I used to eat a peanut butter sandwich for lunch almost daily during the workweek. Unfortunately, after three decades, the high omega-6 content began to take its tole. I began losing mobility due to leg pains. Fortunately, I heard NIH scientist Bill Lands note that “…peanuts have 4,000 milligrams of omega-6 in each 28 gram, one ounce serving of peanuts.”

    When I heard that I realized I was slowly doing myself in. In the three and a half years since I stopped eating peanut butter I have regained considerable strength and stamina, my leg pains are gone, my gingivitis cleared up, and my systolic blood pressure dropped from above 140 to 113. Is peanut butter toxic? Probably not in once or twice a week doses.

  15. As far as I’m concerned, the worst ingredient in PB is peanuts. I’d not consume groundnut oil, so why’d I want to eat PB…?!

    Many brands also contain palm oil; now, even if a company has signed up to the Roundtable Agreement on Sustainable Palm Oil, it’s just that – an agreement, it’s NOT legally enforceable so, if a signee was found to be using palm oil from an illegal plantation, there’s feck all anyone can do about it so, for this reason, I avoid ANY food which lists it as an ingredient. I strongly urge everyone to do the same – or our grandchildren (or even our own children) may only know magnificent creatures, like the orang-utan and Sumatran elephant as pictures in a book.

    You say it’s irresistible – well I have no probs resisting it – it’s junk food, and I don’t eat junk.

    You’ll be posting that soy isn’t that bad, really, next – and the day you do that, will be the day I stop taking you seriously, even this entry has me questioning your sanity…

    Finally, since WHEN was the USDA of any relevance to you…? Has the US invaded Iceland and annexed it as the 51st state…?! If so, it must have happened pretty quick, as it passed me by… The USDA is as relevant to you as it is to me.

    Yes, in case you’re wondering, I’m grumpy. Pretty much everything has pissed me off today.

    • Dave Sill says:

      What she said… :-)

      • Hey Miss Grumpy! The article was about REAL peanut butter. He made that perfectly clear. I agree with you about the palm oil thing, but it’s irrelevant to the article. It seems from the evidence that REAL peanut butter in moderation can be part of a healthy diet. Good thing…my kids ate it nearly every day!

    • Just trying to be objective and present the research as I see it.

  16. Good article, Kris. There’s nothing wrong with good PB now and then. Here in NZ we can buy an excellent brand called Pic’s Really Good Peanut Butter (and it is!) which is just squashed nuts. No additives. http://reallygood.co.nz/

    I like to make lettuce wraps for a quick and easy lunch – chop up some cold cooked chicken, grated carrot, chopped green onions, moisten with a little chili and lemon juice. Smear PB on a big lettuce leaf, and use it as a wrap for the chicken mixture. Delicious and takes only a few minutes to prepare.

  17. Kirstan says:

    Hi, two points to add which I thought you might find interesting… Firstly you should be looking for an organic peanut butter! Peanuts are often used as a rotational crop for cotton (as they are legumes and add nitrogen back to the soil). Farmers spray their cotton crops with loads of pesticides and chemical fertilisers and then grow peanuts in that soil after the cotton is harvested!!

    Secondly, that irresistibility you’re talking about… It is because peanuts are high in glutamate. Basically in the mouth it has the ‘Umami’ effect, because the glutamate stimulates all the taste buds simultaneously, sending a message to the brain that makes you want more (same effect as MSG).

    I buy an organic PB that has nothing added, not even salt… But I like to sprinkle a little sea salt on top because I prefer it salty. My morning routine wouldn’t be complete without hot sourdough toast with organic cultured butter and PB with a cup of herbal tea :)

  18. Great article! I have switched to PB2. It is peanuts that are ground up after the oil is removed and sold for people to deep fry their turkeys! It’s not the same, and I love real peanut butter, but it is a good option!

  19. Nice article! My bet is still on that the added sugars in peanut butter is a bigger problem than peanuts by themselves, even if it is hard to eat just one peanut.

    Dr Fredrik Nyström made an interesting, small study recently where he let two randomized groups eat either peanuts or the same calories from candy. Only the candy eaters gained weight. Men’s Health reported on the study here: http://www.mh.co.za/nutrition/healthy-eating-tips/snack-on-nuts-not-sweets

  20. Teddy All Natural PB has just peanuts listed. You can purchase it with or without salt. It comes in smooth or crunchy form.

  21. Just an FYI, my nutritionist recommended Bell Plantation PB2. I have the powdered form, plain & chocolate. It is ok {not quite as good as the REAL thing, but does not upset my stomach & cause the other effects people mentioned above; it does help to satisfy the craving} – it has 85% less fat calories than traditional PB. The powdered regular PB has 5 g protein per serving, 1 g of sugar, 94 mg sodium & 2g fiber.

    There are recipes available on their site. I found this a little less expensive through Amazon. They have a variety of peanut butter products available on both their site & Amazon. Generally, I opt for healthier nut choices though, like cashews, almonds & walnuts. Once in a while, I’ll even splurge and have pecans!!

  22. Per doctor Loren Cordain at thepaleodiet.com.

    “….on the surface, you might think that peanut oil would probably be helpful in preventing the artery clogging process (atherosclerosis) that underlies coronary heart disease. Well, your ideas were not a whole lot different than those of nutritional scientists – that is, until they got around to actually testing peanut oil in laboratory animals. Starting in the 1960s and continuing into the 1980s, scientists unexpectedly found peanut oil to be highly atherogenic, causing arterial plaques to form in rabbits, rats, and primates – only a single study showed otherwise. Peanut oil was found to be so atherogenic that it continues to be routinely fed to rabbits to stimulate atherosclerosis to study the disease itself.”

  23. Eat a small amount of peanut butter 1 to 2 Tablespoons with a small glass of milk.

  24. I have been eating peanut butter since I was a kid. I get through about a jar a week on average. I love it. I am now 61 years old and reasonably healthy still. I reckon PB must be the elixir of life.

    • Uh my dad, age 75, sits around all day, smokes and drinks usually about 6 coca colas, glass orange juice and then some processed local diner meal and thinks he is healthy.

      Oh right, he does like the trans fat laden commercial peanut butter.

  25. Personally, peanut butter has been my saviour!

    I was suffering from an eating disorder (anorexic) for 3 years and for that time I shunned peanut butter but then, one day, something in me just wanted to change so I began eating it again. I think my body was just devoid of nutrients for so long that peanut butter just seemed like heaven on earth.

    Slowly my weight began to rise into the normal range and now I eat peanut butter EVERY DAY! I love it! I probably eat it to excess though… 10 TSP+ a day, I whack it on toast, oats, muffins, carrots, even in my liquids.

    Thanks for the article and thank you peanut butter!

  26. Melissapena says:

    Omg! I love peanut butter, but some people say that it’s bad for all people and kids too.

  27. Jocelyn Collins says:

    Same here. I have 1-2 tablespoons of peanut butter with a glass of powdered non-fat milk a day, especially at night before going to bed when I do not feel hungry enough to eat my regular dinner.

  28. I love this site. I have learnt so much from you.

  29. The last bottle of peanut oil I looked at was 15% PUFA, so probably there is some variability there. In any case research into harms of omega 6, though it is very convincing, exclusively looks at oil consumption, not whole foods. Where epidemiology does look at nuts, they are beneficial, even in diseases where omega 6 oils are harmful.

    I don’t eat much PB because the lectins don’t agree with me and make me feel uncomfortable if I get too much. But still not as bad as soy.

  30. Here’s why peanut butter isn’t great: it’s processed food. Sure, there’s only one of two ingredients in *good* peanut butter, but the peanuts have been roasted, shelled, salted and ground.

    It’s basically pre-chewed peanuts that need only to be swallowed. Compare that to eating regular peanuts that have to be individually cracked, shelled, and chewed.

    Peanut butter makes it too easy to consume more peanuts than one would if one had to do all the work.

  31. Lucas Contreras says:

    What’s wrong with wheat?

  32. Unless you buy organic wheat it has probably been genetically modified… and it’s hard on your digestive system. I have a hard time restricting myself with peanut butter too, I normally end up eating half a jar in one sitting. My favorite brand is Santa Cruz. Does anyone know why some brands have Niacin and vitamin E and others do not, is it just not listed?

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