I get at least one email a week from a devoted reader of the blog who just can’t shake the desire (that feels like a need) to eat peanut butter on a regular basis. They’re on board with everything else. They’ve ditched grains and vegetable oils. They’re walking more and getting better sleep. They’re getting sun and eating more vegetables than ever before. They’ve switched to grass-fed beef (sometimes liver, too!) and wild-caught fish. They’ve even happily dumped all the other legumes, except for that persistent, palatable peanut. The more dedicated among them may be soaking, sprouting, roasting, and grinding their own peanuts into peanut butter, but they’re still eating peanut butter – a “forbidden” food on the Primal eating plan.
I’m talking questions like this:
I have been following MDA for about a year now and last I week I finally went primal. So far I have not had any issues with giving up grains (no cravings), except I cannot shake my peanut butter addiction! I eat a small bowl full of peanut butter with banana slices for a snack and I know it is awful for me! I eat very healthy foods for the rest of the day (eggs for breakfast, salad for lunch, meat and veggies for dinner) but the peanut butter is probably preventing progress! Help!
I don’t want people to feel deprived, nor do I enjoy stripping from them the ability to enjoy their favorite foods, but I also want people to make the best and healthiest food choices possible. To do that, we need to examine the evidence. We need to give peanut butter the rice and oat treatment. We need to figure out whether or not peanut butter is really all that bad. Let’s go, shall we?
First, The Good.
What’s good about peanut butter? Why would we ever want to eat it?
I’ll admit it: peanut butter is quite delicious. I’ve never much cared for actual peanuts – they were okay, but not something I sought out – but I’d always grab a spoon or dip a finger for some peanut butter.
It contains nutrients.
It’s food, so of course it has something to it. But what?
Why should we avoid it? What’s not to like about peanut butter? I’m not even going to discuss the soybean oil and sugar-laden garbage that passes for peanut butter, because my readers definitely aren’t asking about that stuff. They’re doing natural butter with peanuts (and salt) as likely the only ingredient.
It generally contains aflatoxins.
Aflatoxins are naturally occurring fungal toxins, or mycotoxins, produced by certain members of Aspergillus, a type of fungus found pretty much everywhere throughout the world. Aspergillus tends to colonize any monosaccharide and polysaccharide it comes across, as long as the conditions are right, but peanuts are particularly susceptible. Most crops are colonized after harvest and during storage, but since Aspergillus is found in the soil (among other places) and peanuts grow underground, peanut colonization often occurs well before harvest. The result is that peanuts are among the most contaminated crops, along with corn and cottonseed.
I wrote about the negative effects in a previous post, which I’ll sum up for you:
Aflatoxin, being a toxin, is metabolized by the liver. Large enough doses of aflatoxin are a liver carcinogen in high doses (it’s actually what T. Colin Campbell used to induce liver cancer in mice during his China Study crusade to indict animal protein). Early exposure and elevated bloods level of aflatoxin are associated with stunted growth in children.
Interestingly, it seems that the peanut butter-making process dramatically reduces the aflatoxin content of the initial peanuts, by around 89% (PDF). In the study, roasting at 160 degrees C reduced aflatoxin by 51%. Blanching, or skin removal, reduced it by 27%. Finally, grinding the peanuts into butter removed another 11% of the aflatoxin, probably because of the heat (not the actual grinding). So if you’re going to eat peanuts, stick with a good butter.
It contains peanut agglutinin.
As of now, the harmful effects of peanut agglutinin, a peanut lectin, are mostly speculative, but still compelling:
In isolated human colon cancer cells, peanut lectin is a mitogen, or growth-promoter. You generally don’t want cancer cells to divide and increase in number.
Altered glycosylation may be at the heart of inflammatory bowel disease-related cancers, like colon cancer.
Peanut agglutinin causes colon cancer cell proliferation via altered glycosylation, in an in vitro study.
That said, those are just in vitro studies. They don’t tell us what happens when peanuts are eaten. However, in real live human subjects who ate real peanuts, peanut agglutinin has been shown to make it through the gut lining to end up in the blood stream. That’s a little worrisome, don’t you think?
I want to reiterate, though: eating peanut butter has never been causally linked to the development of colon cancer. In fact, one epidemiological study found that frequent intake of peanuts and peanut products was linked to a lowered incidence of colorectal cancer in Taiwanese women.
It might contain a uniquely atherogenic oil.
Yeah, peanut oil has a good amount of monounsaturated fat, about 46.8% of the total fatty acid content, which has earned it a solid reputation for heart health in the conventional health world. But it’s also got a significant amount of PUFAs, too. 33% of the total fat is omega-6 linoleic acid, with an essentially nonexistent omega-3 ALA content. You could say that about a lot of nuts, though, and I don’t think the PUFA content is the big determinant here. It doesn’t help, but it’s not a deal breaker on its own. Let’s dig a little deeper.
You know what else reduces the peanut lectin content? Not eating any peanut butter.
It’s a little too tasty.
There’s something about the combination of fat, salt, protein, and smooth scoopability of peanut butter that promotes overeating. I wasn’t able to bring up any concrete studies on the pro-bingeing effects of peanut butter in humans (though if you run a Google search for “peanut butter addiction,” you’ll get a bevy of testimonials from all sorts of people claiming to be addicted to the stuff), I believe it. And I bet obesity researchers who typically work with rodents would believe it, too, since peanut butter is often used in these studies as a high-reward, obesogenic comfort food that rats and mice will readily and consistently overeat.
Ultimately, to feverishly scoop in a ravenous frenzy or not to feverishly scoop in a ravenous frenzy is a choice you have to make. I wouldn’t recommend eating peanut butter very regularly, and I know I won’t for the reasons mentioned above, but that doesn’t mean you have to follow suit. The inclusion – or exclusion – of peanut butter (or peanuts in general) will not make or break your Primal cred. There are a lot of things you want to have under control before obsessing over peanut butter, like grains, omega-6 oils, sleep, exercise, play, daily low level activity level, quality of meat, etc. You get those under control and then start thinking about some peanut butter as a treat every now and then, if ever.
As I see it, the easy answer is to just not eat it, because I don’t see anything at which it particularly excels (besides inducing people to eat the entire jar in a single sitting). You can get your polyphenols and your minerals from fruits and vegetables, your monounsaturated fat from meat, olive oil, mac nuts, and avocados, and your smooth pulverized salty nutty fix from almond butter, mac nut butter, coconut butter, or any other nut butter – without the peanut lectin, the weirdly atherogenic fat, the aflatoxin load, or the insatiable desire to eat more and more and more until it’s all gone and your forearm is sticky.
Of course, it’s easy for me to say: I don’t have a peanut butter habit.
Anyway, let’s hear from you guys. Do you eat peanut butter? Are you addicted? Are you able to stop with just a bite or two? And most importantly, has your peanut butter habit negatively affected your results? Let me know in the comment section!
Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.