Which nut butter is best to spread for your health?

There are more than 70 different nut spreads in the leading supermarket chains across Australia: Coles, Woolworths, Aldi, IGA and FoodWorks. How different are they and how does one decide which are ‘best’?

As part of research I do for writing my food and nutrition books, I explore and examine specific popular food and drink products. This month, I focused on nut spreads and peanut butters. Now I want to share some of the information with you.

Don’t let kJs be the decider.

When it comes to kilojoules (calories), there is not enough difference between brands and varieties to be worried about. It doesn’t matter what type of nut is used to create the spread either. Almond, cashew, peanut or mixed nut, the kJ count for every 100 g is pretty close.

The range is 2300 kJ for the light versions through to 2760 kJ for every 100 g. Per spread on toast (about 22 g), the range is 506 - 607 kJ which is only about 100 kJ difference per serve. Spread half a teaspoon less of the ‘heavier’ spread and you come close to the ‘lighter’ kJ level. In the scheme of things, the difference between nut spreads is not particularly based on kilojoules.

Don’t let total fat be the decider either.

Nut spreads are not a low fat food and you can’t choose a nut spread based on the total fat content. You expect to see a high total fat content on the nutrition panel and pure nut spreads contain anywhere between 50 and 60% total fat. This is not an issue if the fats come mostly from nuts but it is of concern when the fats come mostly from vegetable oils of unnamed quality and type.

Are you spreading more vegetable oil than nuts?

You may be horrified to discover your top branded established nut spread is really a vegetable oil spread with a small amount of nut present (less than one quarter nuts). Look carefully at the ingredient list of your nut spread; when vegetable oil appears first on the list, oil is the main ingredient in your nut spread. You are spreading vegetable oil not nuts. Use protein content to spot the impostors as well; the high vegetable oil spreads contain much less protein than better quality nuttier spreads.

Seeking a low salt-low sodium product?

There are many nut spreads to choose from that do not contain added salt. Some products declare ‘no added salt’ on their label, others don’t bother to make the claim. Sodium salt is naturally present in nuts in very small amounts.

If the sodium value on your nut spread is 30 mg or less per 100 g, congratulations, you’ve selected a spread that has no salt added.

Want a lot of nuts in your nut spread?

Quite surprisingly, some nut spreads contain less than 50% nuts, some other nut spread are as low as 23%. The cocoa-chocolate nut spreads contain even fewer nuts with these sitting between 10 and 19% nut content.

Turn to the back panel of your nut spread to see what the true nut content is. It will be shown as a percentage in the ingredient list. I would suggest you choose a spread with at least 80% nuts but preferably more. If you bother checking any part of the label, it ought to be the amount of nut present.

The 100% nut spreads are all no added salt so prepare your tastebuds for a blander experience if you are used to saltier spreads that are less nutty.

Want a pseudo-nut spread rather than a real nut spread?

Some brands of nut spreads don’t make it clear on the front of packaging that they are a chocolate-cocoa nut spread or an oil-sugar spread. All the hazelnut spreads I found in the supermarkets contained cocoa powder.

Eight out of twelve chocolate nut spreads made it obvious by using words cocoa, chocolate or cacao or choc in their product name. The remaining four were hazelnut spreads and none of these mentioned chocolate on the front of package.

When is a nut spread not a nut spread?

When it contains more sugar than nuts and the very first ingredient is sugar or rice malt syrup (a fancy name for a type of sugar), that’s when. Some nuts spreads are more than half sugar.

Would you sprinkle 2 teaspoons of sugar on your toast? Spread a tablespoon of these ‘more sugar than nut’ spreads and you’ve eaten just more than 2 teaspoons of extra sugar. Sweetness and sugars are also added in the form of sugar, honey, rice malt syrups, maltodextrin, molasses, chocolate, milk solids and lactose.

Cocoa based nut spreads are usually more sugar (39 - 61%) than nuts (just 10 - 20%). One exception is Mayvers Dark Chocolate Super Spread which contains only 11% sugar - slightly more sugar than is naturally found in a pure nut spread. Pure nuts naturally contain about 4 to 10 g sugars in every 100 g (4 - 10% sugar).

What makes light peanut butter light?

Light peanut butter is whipped into shape through the addition of air and maltodextrins. Yes, air. Light peanut butter has the same kJ per 100 g but because air is whipped into it, the ‘per serve’ weight is much lighter than other nut spreads. But if you dip in to spread more because the taste is not good enough then the whipped nut spreads are a waste of time.

‘Home’ brands shape up well.

Supermarkets stock their own ‘corporate branded’ and economy nut spreads. Overall, these compare well with well known brand names. A higher price doesn’t necessarily mean a higher quality product. Price, high or low, doesn’t appear to influence the nutrient composition of nut spreads

How much is a serve?

The majority of nut spreads declare one tablespoon as a serve.

Do you use a metric tablespoon to scoop out your peanut butter? How about measuring scale to check your portion size? Most people don’t. A knife for spreading is more common. That’s why I show and describe a serve as ‘knife spreads’ rather than tablespoons in my ‘this=that’ books.

The label serve size of one tablespoon matches the serve in my book ‘this=that’ but instead of a tablespoon I show it as 2 knife spreads full (which is 1 tablespoon or about 20 g). This yields about 600 kJ.

For chocolate-nut spreads, a serve of one tablespoon is most common on product labels. Again this aligns perfectly with my book ‘this=that’ description and photo of 2 knife spreads full (which is 1 tablespoon or about 20 g). This yields about 600 kJ.

Be on the look out for tricky labels that list a smaller ‘per serve’ serving sizes like 10 g or 15 g. By cunningly using a smaller serve size than other products on the shelf, you’ll think the product has fewer kJs and less fat per serve. You’re not comparing like with like.

Want even more detail?

For a printer friendly pdf version of this article that includes brand names (correct at June 2015), click here.

If you are a number cruncher and want a copy of my comprehensive comparison chart or brand named products for your personal use, please email me and I’ll forward a copy on to you. There are a few gaps in my data because some suppliers have not replied to me yet. When and if they finally do, I will update the data for you.

And just to let you know, this article is free from bias and influence. I am not associated with nor have ever received samples from any of the companies listed.