While calorie counters may gravitate towards reduced fat peanut butters, there is no reason to fear the heart-healthy unsaturated fats in peanuts. Peanuts and peanut butter are associated with weight control and longevity, making this inexpensive plant protein a nutritious pantry staple.
That being said, many “no stir” peanut butters on the market (including reduced fat varieties) are riddled with unnecessary sugars and oils (often rainforest-disrupting palm oil). It is totally natural for the oils in peanut butter to separate, so if you have to stir it, thats a good sign!
My shopping tip is to look for nut butters with only peanuts and salt (if desired) on the ingredients, but that’s it! No sugars, no oils, no problem. They’re simply unnecessary. (This advice applies to other nut butters as well, like almond butter or cashew butter.)
Often, these nutritious nut butters are labeled as “natural,” but be careful — there aren’t really any standards for natural foods. For example, JIF and Skippy both have “natural” lines of peanut butter, yet all of those products still contain added sugars and oils. In fact, even Whole Foods Market carries some nut butters with these superfluous additives. It pays to read the ingredient listing!
To save you some time in the nut butter aisle, I’ve compiled a list of several of the most popular varieties of “peanut-only” peanut butter (without the hidden sugars and oils). Look for any of these at your local grocer, and rest assured that you aren’t getting any unnecessary sweeteners or stabilizers. Smooth or chunky, organic or conventional, plain or salted, and even with flaxseed, you’re sure to find a peanut butter that meets your needs!
As a dietitian, I try to keep my consumption of added sugars as low as possible. And I’m not just talking about table sugar here. I’m talking about brown sugar, agave, maple syrup, and yes, even honey. The American Heart Association recommends no more than 6 teaspoons of added sugars a day for adult women, and no more than 9 teaspoons for adult men. If you are looking to keep added sugars to a minimum, dates and mashed bananas become your best friend.
First, a little primer on dates. Dates are kind of like giant raisins, but much more sticky and much more sweet. They are about 20 calories each. I usually buy pitted medjool dates in the bulk section at whole foods (surprise, surprise). However, on a particularly desperate grocery outing, I was able to find dates at the little international market next to my apartment building. Score!
Some of my favorite recipes call for chopped dates as a sweetener, but because the dates are chopped, I find that the sweetness doesn’t distribute evenly throughout the final product. This leaves me with unsweetened food with chunks of date… not quite what I was looking for. Plus, who wants to meticulously chop up a sticky fruit every morning? Not me! Which brings me to date paste.
Date paste is a simple idea really. Just soak dates overnight, blend the softened dates (I used a knock off Magic Bullet) with a bit of the soaking water, and voila… you have a sweetener that distributes much more evenly throughout. (For a more descriptive recipe, see here).
I usually substitute 1 tablespoon of date paste for every teaspoon of table sugar that I would have used. I mostly only use date paste in my morning oatmeal, but it also works great to sweeten muffins and other treats. 1 tablespoon of date paste has approximately 25 calories, 6g sugar, and 0.5g fiber. Compare that to the 16 calories, 4g of sugar, and 0g fiber in only 1 teaspoon of table sugar. Not bad!
Have you made date paste? What are your favorite healthy sweeteners?
Most of the healthiest foods available (such as fresh produce, fresh fish, or even fresh meat) don’t carry a food label. But even then, there are choices to make: organic, local, pasture raised, etc. Because most consumers find themselves purchasing foods with nutrition labels or health claims on a regular basis, here are 4 tools to help you read, understand, and compare food labels.
1. The Diagram
Below is a basic diagram on how to read a nutrition facts panel. Here are some things to remember… If there is more than 1 serving per container (such as in the example below) and you eat the whole container, you must multiply the numbers by the number of servings (so below, the total contents would have 500 calories, because of the 2 servings. The yellow nutrients are ones that we usually have too much of, so it’s best to limit those. The green nutrients are the ones that we need to work on getting enough of.
Lastly, although it is not pictured in this diagram, do not ignore the ingredient list. Items are listed in order of descending weight, so the higher up on the list something is, the more of it is present in the product. Do you want to know if the 0g trans fat label is accurate? You must look for hydrogenated oil on the ingredient list. Do you want to know if artificial sweeteners are present? You must check the ingredient list for aspartame, sucralose, and the like. Do you want to know if the sugars on the nutrition panel are naturally occurring or added? You must look on the ingredients list. Sugar can be disguised as corn syrup, cane syrup, brown rice syrup, dextrose, ribose, and about 100 other things.
2. The Book
What to Eat, by Marion Nestle, is by far the most comprehensive and informative resource on my list. PhD Nutritionist Marion Nestle takes you aisle by aisle through the grocery store and explains what to look for in each food category.If you are struggling to learn more about which qualities are important in various foods (organic vs low fat, grass fed vs free range, etc) then I highly recommend investing in a copy of this book. I refer to my copy time and time again.
3. The Video
In this TEDxTalk, Consumer Reports Environmental Health Scientist Urvashi Rangan explains which health claims on food labels are credible and which are not.This quick 15 minute video is something all consumers need to see, to avoid getting duped at the supermarket.
4. The App
Fooducate is an award winning app (created by Dietitians and Parents) for iPhone and Android that grades food choices. Unlike other calorie counting apps, this app considers other factors of food choices, beyond just the calorie count or basic nutrient profile. Based on your goals, it can be programmed to help you avoid processed foods, GMOs, or animal products, as well as programmed to help you select heart healthy foods, and to count carbohydrates.
Take home messages:
When reading labels, don’t fall prey to unhelpful labels. The USDA Organic seal has 600 pages of regulations behind it. On the other hand, “All Natural” simply means that there are no artificial ingredients. Lastly, don’t forget to check the ingredients list!
Fruits and vegetables (beans included) are good for you no matter what, so be the most demanding with animal products (meat, dairy, eggs, and fish). From pasture raised to 100% grass fed, look for something that indicates that the animal was raised in an open pasture (or wild caught). At a Farmers market, you will likely have the opportunity to ask the farmer how the animals were raised. At the supermarket, I like the 5 Step rating program that Whole Foods uses to rank their meats (the higher the number, the better).
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