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!
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).
What is the Farm Bill? Simply put, the Farm Bill is a piece of legislation that determines which foods will be plentiful and inexpensive. It gets reworked about every 4-7 years, the last one being passed in 2008. We were due for a new Farm Bill in 2012, but as people following the issue already know, the 2008 bill was left to expire.
Where does Farm Bill money go? Contrary to popular belief, most of the Farm Bill money (73%) goes to nutrition programs, not subsidies for commodity crops (which only gets 14%). Additionally, 7% goes to crop insurance, 6% goes to conservation programs, while less than 1% supports exports and renewable energy investments and research.
How does the Farm Bill help Americans? Most Farm Bill money goes to nutrition programs, the most notable program being SNAP (formerly known as food stamps). With more Americans than ever before (about 45 million, half of which are children) relying on nutrition assistance programs, any spending cut to this area would be devastating, causing hunger and public health problems across the country. At only about $1.50 per meal, SNAP benefits are meager enough already.
Does the Farm Bill help family farmers? While many family farmer do rely on subsidies to stay afloat, 60% of farmers don’t get subsidies. Additionally, the richest 10% of subsidy recipients get almost 75% of the payments. So while many family farmers do rely on these payments, loopholes that allow large agribusinesses to collect the majority of the payments need to be closed.
Who gets subsidies? Almost 70% of commodity subsidies go to just 5 crops: corn, wheat, rice, soybeans, and cotton. Fruits, vegetables, and nuts are considered “specialty crops” and are largely ignored by Farm Bill policies. Commodity subsidies keep the building blocks of junk food (high fructose corn syrup and soybean oil) cheap, which in turn, keeps junk food cheap.
What’s the deal with biofuels? Currently, 40% of our corn crop is being diverted away from food for human consumption to be used for biofuels (corn ethanol). Biofuels are meant to displace oil, so this could be good, right? Wrong. Currently, ethanol output is displacing only 8% of gasoline. The same amount of gas could be displaced if we increased fleet wide fuel economy by just 1.1 MPG across the board! And if that weren’t enough, it takes at least 2/3 gallon of oil (gasoline) to produce 1 gallon of ethanol. That is ridiculous!
Does the Farm Bill align with U.S. Dietary Guidelines? If Americans increased their fruit and vegetable consumption to meet the USDA dietary recommendations, the US would need an additional 13 million acres of these crops! That’s more than 3 times what we currently devote to fruit and vegetable production. Without research devoted to more efficient produce farming, or economic incentives such as subsidies, there is little motivation for farmers to grow fruits and vegetables. It simply isn’t profitable.
Does the Farm Bill promote sustainable land use? Some of the biggest conservation programs for land and wildlife are actually funded through the Farm Bill, but conservation programs get only a small percentage of the budget. The financial risks of farming are so high, that farmers plant “fencerow to fencerow” regardless of what is needed, because it is the only way for them to stay afloat. More money should be put into conservation policies to help reward farmers that are good stewards of the land. Right now there is no incentive for them to farm sustainably, except for the Conservation Stewardship Program, which is severely underfunded (3/4 applications get rejected due to lack of funds).
What issues should an ideal Farm Bill address? An ideal Farm Bill should better align crop subsidies with nutrition guidelines, and make all farmers meet certain conservation guidelines before being eligible to receive support. This means no more money for large CAFOs or soil degrading mono-croppers. An ideal Farm Bill should also incentivize sustainable methods such as pasture based agriculture and crop rotation, as well as devote more research to organics and produce production.
What’s next for the Farm Bill? The January fiscal cliff bill included a 9 month extension of the 2008 Farm Bill. This bill extends direct payments to farmers (unless a new Farm Bill is passed before October), protects against a spike in milk prices (the “dairy cliff”), and makes no major changes to SNAP. Unfortunately, the extension didn’t extend funding for organics, clean water initiatives, beginning farmer programs, or disaster assistance. However, the Farm Bill is facing budget cuts across the board in the aftermath of the sequestration. It is still unclear how the money will get allocated. Things are changing quickly, so now is the time to let your voice be heard.
For a shorter video introduction, check out this 4 minute video slideshow from Food Fight 2012. While not as informative as the TEDxTalk, it is still a good place to start.
As far as reading materials go, I cannot recommend this book enough. In Food Fight 2012: The Citizen’s Guide to the Next Food and Farm Bill, author Daniel Imhoff breaks down the complexities of the bill in an easy to understand manner. The book is filled with colorful graphics and charts to help illustrate the various aspects of the bill. And best of all, Imhoff highlights the loopholes and problems of the Farm Bill, and offers sensible solutions and policy changes to improve it. This book is indispensable to anyone looking to learn more about the Farm Bill and make a difference in U.S. Food Policy.
For more information on how you can get involved in improving the next Farm Bill, see this page. Because the Farm Bill extensions expire in October, NOW is the time to get involved!
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