What's the difference between peanut butter and peanut spread? And what's up with peanut butter in a tube? Here's the dish.

peanut butter on a piece of bread
Credit: Pernille Pedersen
  • Reduced-fat may be bad fat. Supermarkets sell low-fat offshoots of everything these days, so of course reduced-fat peanut butters line the shelves. Identified as "spreads," they contain about 60 percent peanuts―not the 90 percent required for a product to be labeled peanut "butter." Fewer peanuts means less fat: Butters average 16 grams per two-tablespoon serving; spreads weigh in at 12 grams or less. But those peanuts are replaced by additives: corn-syrup solids, molasses, salt, and hydrogenated oils (otherwise known as trans fats, which have been linked to high cholesterol levels and heart disease). The skinny: Eating a smaller portion of regular peanut butter is healthier.
  • Convenience can cost you. Peanut butter has always been a no-hassle food, but now it comes in easy-to-squeeze tubes (Skippy Squeez' or the smaller Skippy Squeeze Stix) and plastic-wrapped squares resembling processed cheese (Kennedy Foods' P.B. Slices). You'll spend about three times as much on the tubes as you'd spend on Skippy in the jar, but the slices cost only slightly more per serving than jarred peanut butter.
  • Peanuts aren't perfect. Between 1997 and 2002, peanut allergies among American kids doubled, according to a study that appeared in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology in 2003. Why? Theories abound, but suspects include early exposure to legumes through soy-milk baby formulas and skin creams containing peanut oil. Peanut allergies can worsen even if a first reaction is mild, so a child with an allergy runs the risk of suffering a serious reaction after eating just a dab of peanut butter. If a member of your immediate family suffers from food allergies, talk to your pediatrician about how to safely introduce peanuts into your child's diet.
  • Unblended butter is better. Have you ever brought home natural peanut butter from a health-food store, only to have your kids turn up their noses at the oil that floats on top? OK, natural peanut butter isn't as nice to look at as the blended variety, but it's a little bit better for you. Why? Nonseparating peanut butter contains texture- and flavor-enhancing salt and sugar, as well as those trans-fatty hydrogenated oils, which act as emulsifiers. All peanut butters contain mono- and polyunsaturated fats, which may reduce cholesterol levels and the risk of type 2 diabetes in women, but the ones with oil on top have a trans fat-free advantage. Isn't that worth making a stir about?