On Peanut Butter

A note on why I'm so pro-natural.

I eat peanut butter every day. Always the natural, organic kind, usually smooth, generally purchased in a two-pack from Costco. I’ve tried other nut butters and I don’t like them as much. Almond butter? Feels like I’m trying too hard to be healthy, and we know about the water issues. Cashew? Macadamia? They don’t impress me much, and they’re far too expensive. Give me peanut any day, but make it as plain as possible—maybe a little salt. That’s it. I like to choose the level of sweet and salt I get in my breakfast, whether it’s oatmeal or toast.

Peanuts are rather sustainable to grow, too, and add nitrogen back into soil; there is of course a larger greenhouse gas emission impact post-farm, through processing, shipping, and getting to each person. Their water usage is quite low compared to other nuts, because of how they grow. Should I eat as much peanut butter as I do, especially as I advocate for the diversity of one’s diet as an organic approach to sustainable eating? No, I should not. This is my burden to bear and to work through.

Despite this clear love and devotion to my specific nut butter, every time I tweet about natural peanut butter, I make people upset. They tell me there are other things to rage about (if they actually knew my work, they’d know I rage about quite a few things). They block me.

You would think that because of this guaranteed poor response, I simply wouldn’t touch the subject. After all, I don’t need to make people unsubscribe in droves. But I want to talk about why it’s a subject near and dear to my heart, something representative of the issues I write about all the time when it comes to corporate food and how much leeway we can and should give to companies that feed us.

There is a lot of attachment to brands like Jif and Skippy, which require no stirring, and it’s not well-known that if you leave a jar of natural peanut butter upside down in the fridge overnight, the oil incorporates. I try to mention this trick whenever someone brings up the supposed superiority of the big brands. I also say that natural peanut butter tastes really good, oftentimes isn’t much more expensive than unnatural, and doesn’t have questionable fats in it like hydrogenated palm or soybean oil, for which origins and health effects are dubious. In response, I’m called classist, elitist. I would never bother to suggest that many people make their own peanut butter and would never go back to jarred stuff, for I would be burned at the stake as an out-of-touch idiot who doesn’t know how regular people live. And that would be fair.

Which all goes to show that nothing I ever say about meat is as controversial as what I say about peanut butter. People reply as though I have a magic wand and will make all the unnatural peanut butter disappear from the shelves. I can’t do that, and I don’t want to do that. I just want people to understand the difference.

The contempt with which people respond is warranted. Peanut butter is a nostalgic food, and these are nostalgic brands, and when we grow up believing that something is supposed to taste a certain way and that when we take it off the shelf it should be ready to eat, it is difficult to get away from these notions. We believe it is our God-given right to experience nonstop convenience, no matter the ecological or labor cost. (Homogenized peanut butter is also useful for kids or anyone with a need for easy, smooth nut nourishment—it must be said.)

But I also want people to think a bit more about this specific attachment, if they have the means and ability to decide which jar they pick up and face no obstacles to dealing with separated peanut butter. To me, these jars are so representative of U.S. food culture: trust a corporate brand, trust nostalgia, trust ingredients despite not knowing what they are, how they were derived, and where they came from. There’s also an attachment based on the perception that the oil-stabilized stuff is “better” in baking, which I think is simply semantics and, again, nostalgia. I’ve always used natural peanut butter in my recipes, and it’s worked out every time. In cookies, it’s a little trickier, but you can work with it. What’s the point of basing recipes on a kind of peanut butter just for ease when that ease requires the use of these questionable, opaque oils?

I grew up on that kind of peanut butter, too, but I never really loved peanut butter until I switched to natural. It tastes more, to me, like peanuts and has a texture that is less, let’s say, overdone. The funny thing is that natural peanut butter is often also made by corporate brands. Smucker’s is, to my mind, the best there is, with just the right amount of salt and sold in a reusable glass jar to boot. As I’ve discovered, though, the company is the same that owns Jif, which in addition to their best-selling stuff, makes a kind of peanut butter they call natural because it has “only” five ingredients, but one of them is still palm oil.  

In 2015, Jif—or Smucker’s—made a pledge to start using traceable, sustainable palm oil. The thing is, why don’t they just stop using it? Production in Indonesia hasn’t just led to deforestation, but to child labor. Skippy uses “hydrogenated vegetable oil (cottonseed, soybean and rapeseed oil)” to keep the peanut butter from separating, which isn’t ideal either. These kinds of fats have been linked to health issues, not to mention the necessitation of agricultural monocultures to produce them at scale.

Jif, with its palm oil, is the market leader, with a 31.7 percent share of total peanut butter sales in the U.S. as of 2017. They use palm oil and Skippy uses hydrogenated vegetable oil because they will keep the peanut butter from separating. That is the only reason, along with shelf-stability and the ability to put fewer actual nuts in each jar. These oils, with demonstrated poor outcomes ecologically, humanistically, and biologically, are used in peanut butter only for something that is in most cases cosmetic (I’m not discounting the ease for children or others who need it). There is no other reason to put them in peanut butter. They lead the market because people don’t want to stir, don’t want their ease interrupted.

Chellis Cedeno, who makes nut butters and an amazing vegan Notella as Spread Happiness, a local Puerto Rican company, doesn’t add any oils to her products and allows them to naturally separate. “The hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oil that you see in other brands are added to make the butters more creamy and extend shelf life. That is why some of the nut butters you see on the shelves can last a year without going bad!” she says. “They use them as cheap and unhealthy fillers to increase their profits.”

That fits in with everything I’ve read about why oils are added despite not being necessary. I just received a galley of Jocelyn C. Zuckerman’s forthcoming Planet Palm: How Palm Oil Ended Up in Everything—and Endangered the World. (Note: We’re not talking about all palm oil here.) The prologue takes place on a reporting trip to Liberia:

Liberia proved a rude awakening. The violence on display there extended beyond the destruction of the landscape to the Liberians themselves. In one village, a scattering of mud-block and thatch houses located inside an oil-palm concession run by a Singapore-based company, a fifty-year-old father of seven described how the outsiders had shown up and bulldozed the town in which he’d spent his entire life. Others talked of how the company had destroyed their crops and gravesites, polluted their streams, and run them out of their homes. “What I’ve lost is plenty,” a fifty-three-year-old woman told me through tears. “We can’t plant plantains. We can’t plant rice. We can’t plant peppers.” The people who had ripped out her crops to replace them with oil palm had given the woman a one-time payment of a few hundred dollars.

This is what is done across the Global South to feed the Global North. “The global food system is the biggest driver of destruction of the natural world,” said a recent UN report. Does that mean nothing? Is a preference for not stirring peanut butter worth more?

Well-meaning people often defend cheap, processed, corporate food because it is accessible. I think instead we should be demanding more and demanding better for everyone, in terms of access to good food that isn’t exploiting someone else’s labor or land on the other side of the world, that doesn’t have dubious health effects, that tastes the most like food as it came from the ground. These shouldn’t be privileges. Indeed, it’s a privilege to exploit people and land far, far away (or far, far away in the imagination, such as with domestic immigrant labor) and then say, “Whatever, I just like it better” when you could afford to choose differently.

We should be demanding fair wages, much more than a minimum wage of $15 in more than five years, and fair benefits, fair time off, fair rest so that the idea of stirring a jar of peanut butter isn’t looked upon as a miserable, onerous task. Smucker’s makes a shit-ton of money off of Jif because we’re all too tired. Fuck them.

The use of these oils, though, is a perfect example of the kind of corporate food practice that relies on people to simply not care about anything but convenience. I’m not saying people shouldn’t buy the peanut butter that accommodates their preferences just as I buy the peanut butter that accommodates mine. But isn’t it interesting that these oils they use, that extract from the earth and from humanity, are used for one reason only? What we take from the planet and don’t give back has consequences, even when we’re talking about something as seemingly trivial, as seemingly classed, as peanut butter. These small choices, these differences of a dollar or two, are meaningful.

Now, let the attacks on my character begin.

This Friday’s paid subscriber interview will feature Claire Sprouse, the owner of Brooklyn’s Hunk Dory and an incredibly knowledgable figure on sustainability in bars and restaurants. We talk about that, as well as the pandemic’s impact on her space.

I’m going to introduce a monthly question-and-answer Monday newsletter. If you have a question—advice, a recipe need, anything!—send me an email (responding to this is fine, but ideally with “Q&A” in the subject). Let’s see how it goes!

Note: An annual subscription is $30, and paid subscribers have the ability to comment.

…nothing! But stuff is coming.

I’m waiting for fun books and, in the meantime, I’m researching my book. May is my self-imposed deadline for the first draft, which should be to my editor on July 1. Writing a book is hard.

Above is peanut butter cookie dough about to be baked, to make the image relevant to the topic at hand, as I saw some men on Twitter complaining that my piece on marriage had nothing to do with pizza (I think marriage has everything to do with pizza). A carrot-ginger cake with lemon icing—perfection. More chocolate cake with tahini-date frosting because I perfected the recipe. Rocky road cookies with walnuts and Dandies marshmallows. A fake version of patatas bravas. Gnocchi with fresh cherry-tomato pan sauce. Brown rice “ramen” noodles from Costco with stir-fried vegetables and a side of Costco frozen veggie spring rolls. I am a walking Costco ad.