Americans eat enough peanut butter every year to coat the floor of the Grand Canyon—700 million pounds of the sticky stuff. And while that's a mind-blowing river of smooth, crunchy and everything in between, peanut butter is just one segment of the growing nut butter category. Today's consumers can spread a growing variety of flavors ranging from coconut and pumpkin seed to soynut and chocolate almond espresso. According to SPINS, a San Francisco-based market research and consulting firm for the natural products industry, sales of packaged nut butters in natural supermarkets reached $33 million last year, up 16.8 percent from $27.4 million the previous year. It's a big enough glop of an increase to stick to the roof of your mind.
Why the increase?
"The market's just exploding," says Lisa Blatz, director of sales and marketing for Nunda, N.Y.-based Once Again Nut Butter. The company's been making natural nut butters for 25 years, but the last few have brought a surprising amount of growth, she says. "We're literally working around the clock to fill orders."
Frequent media reports about the health benefits of nuts fuel the nut butter frenzy. "Every time there's a news article about, say, almonds being heart-healthy, sales go up," Blatz says.
Jody Futterman, president of Buffalo Grove, Ill.-based Futter's Nut Butters, says she's not surprised by the popularity of the more unusual flavors. "As you know, if you eat a lot of almonds, they can be a little bland. It can get boring. So we decided to jazz it up—and people love them."
Those nutty kids
While peanut butter may be a classic childhood favorite, the rise in peanut allergies has caused parents to search for alternatives. Another factor in the growth of nut butters is the increasing awareness of the dangers of childhood obesity, which has spurred parents to look for nutritious, kid-approved foods. "Parents can't pick up a newspaper and not hear about trends in childhood obesity," says Amy Rosen, a spokeswoman for MaraNatha Nut Butters, a division of San Leandro, Calif.-based nSpired Natural Foods. "And they don't want to serve their children something they're not going to eat," she says, a fact that has led several companies to develop butters with a more kid-friendly flavor and consistency. The restructuring of the food pyramid has also brought favorable attention to nuts and seeds, Rosen says.
The skinny about fat
The Atkins diet craze a few years ago "blew everything out of the water as far as the public's understanding of fat," says Futterman. "People began to understand that not all fat is bad and that, in fact, some fat is good for you."
According to the American Heart Association, monounsaturated and poly?unsaturated fats like those found in natural and organic nut butters can lower cholesterol levels and may decrease the risk of the formation of arterial plaque. Monounsaturated fat has been shown to reduce low-density lipoprotein, the "bad" cholesterol. Saturated fats increase LDL levels and cause the body to produce arterial plaque.
Many conventional nut butter manu?facturers hydrogenate their oils to improve consistency and spreadability and extend shelf life. But the process converts unsaturated fats into saturated and trans fats, which have contributed to America's spreading waistline—and the spread of heart disease. Natural and organic nut butters without the hydrogenation offer healthy alternatives.
Stirring up solutions
During her decades with Once Again Nut Butter, Blatz has fielded many calls from customers griping that their butter has gone "bad" because oil has collected on top. "They had never seen anything not filled with hydrogenated oil. They didn't know separation was a completely natural occurrence," she says. Sometimes, customers poured it off, leaving them with a brick of butter. The best way to handle the situation, she says, is to give the jar a good stir when you first use it, then store it upside down in the fridge.
But even for people who understand that the oil on top is natural, separation anxiety remains. "People just aren't interested in dealing with stirring," says Mara?Natha's Rosen, "and finding a solution has been an issue that has risen to the top, no pun intended." Many companies, Mara?Natha included, have found the answer in palm fruit oil. It's not hydrogenated, contains zero trans fat, is cholesterol-free and lower in saturated fat than butter. "It's helping break down the last barrier to natural nut butter usage," she says.
Once and Again's new, organic American Classic is the company's first no-stir nut butter and it has quickly become one of its best-selling items. MaraNatha introduced a new line of no-stir organic nut butters last month.
Katalin Coburn, president of Portales, N.M.-based Peanut Better, has discovered another way to eliminate oil separation. She hopes to have a patent on the process within the year, but won't disclose any information about it yet.
And Smucker's Natural—which also makes Adam's and Laura Scudder brands of natural and organic peanut butter—sells a replacement lid with a crank handle that fits right over the jar and mixes the nut butter with less effort and mess than a spoon or knife.
The fridge: in or out?
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, conventional peanut butters (with hydrogenated oils) need not be refrigerated. Some natural and organic varieties should be, however. Manufacturers' instructions vary with each product.
"Because they don't have the anti-rancidity effect of the partially unsaturated oils in conventional peanut butters, MaraNatha peanut butters should be refrigerated after opening to slow down rancidity," says Theodore Herrera, a food technician with nSpired, the parent company of MaraNatha.
What about aflatoxin?
Aflatoxin is a naturally occurring type of toxin produced by two types of mold, Aspergillus parasiticus and Aspergillus flavus, when they encounter certain conditions, such as a hot and humid climate, in the field or during storage. In high doses, aflatoxin can cause liver cancer. Peanuts are particularly vulnerable to hosting these molds during growth and storage. Aflatoxin was first found in peanuts in the 1960s, and though it can occur in corn and cottonseed products, peanuts are the most highly regulated.
"Every peanut sold in the U.S. has to be tested," says Howard Valentine, director of the Peanut Foundation, the research arm of the Alexandria, Va.-based Peanut Council. For raw peanuts, the USDA allows no more than 15 parts per billion of the toxin. The Food and Drug Administration allows no more than 20 parts per billion in peanut products. "We work hard to get it down to zero and we come pretty close," says Valentine. "Europe requires retail products to have no more than 4 parts per billion and a lot of our nuts are shipped there."
In September 1990, the last time Consumer Reports magazine tested peanut butter, the nonprofit publication said it found traces of aflatoxin in all the brands it analyzed (both natural and conventional), although it said all its samples had levels below that permitted by the FDA. Based on its studies, the magazine estimated that with "an intake of one peanut butter sandwich every 10 days, the lifetime risk might be about seven cases of cancer per million consumers."
The peanut gallery diversifies
"Don't be scared of our peanut butters," Coburn jokes, referring only to Peanut Better's savory flavors: onion parsley, rosemary garlic, Thai ginger and red pepper, spicy southwestern and hickory smoked. "We know it's messing with people's comfort food, but trust us, you'll be very, very pleasantly surprised."
"I just love peanuts," Coburn adds, explaining the creation of the savory line, "and adding all these really cool herbs and spices was just a natural way to enhance them." Coburn admits it's been "a bit of a challenge to get the public to wrap its mind around something like onion peanut butter. But once they taste it, I'd say 98 percent love it." In-store sampling is the best way to open minds—and mouths. "Many people will say it reminds them of something they tasted in Africa or in the Philippines or of course, Thailand," she says. The Thai flavor is the most popular. Customers use the savory butters as spreads as well as ingredients in sauces and dips. "People have been very creative," she says. "I've been surprised how many have written in about using the savories as sandwich spread instead of mustard or mayonnaise, or as a condiment for meats." The company offers a smorgasbord of recipes on its Web site, www.peanutbetter.com.
On the sweet side, Peanut Better offers cinnamon currant, peanut praline, deep chocolate, vanilla cranberry and sweet molasses. Honey-peanut combinations are also big sellers with other companies, such as MaraNatha, Arrowhead Mills and Smucker's Natural.
Only in the past few years have "nonpeanut" nut butters truly grabbed the spotlight. "Almond butter has always been a great seller for us," says Blantz, of Once Again. To broaden the almond palette, Futters Nut Butters offers cherry almond, orange almond and chocolate almond espresso.
Premier Organics, of Berkeley, Calif., offers Artisana organic raw coconut butter made from 100 percent organic raw coconut. The product has been steadily growing in popularity, says company co-owner Matt Gocham. "It's mildly sweet and can be spread like peanut butter or drizzled on salads or fruit." Premier also makes Eat Good Soynut Butter, which tastes "fairly close to peanut butter," Gochman says. Sunflower seed butter is also emerging as a popular peanut butter replacement with kids. Sesame seed butter, or tahini, has always been a popular ingredient in Mediterranean dishes and as a spread.
Cashew butter has a sweet taste that's "almost milky," says Futterman. "It makes a delicious spread and is also great in Indian dishes. Futters also makes a hazelnut butter that's "incredibly rich," as is the company's macadamia nut butter. And its pistachio butter "looks like guacamole—it's beautiful, and works great as a spread or in both sweet and savory recipes" she says. Pumpkin seed butter, Futterman says, is a flavor that will appeal only to people who "really love pumpkin seed—it's pretty strong."
Sales of walnut butter recently got a boost when a study published in the Oct. 17, 2006 issue of the Journal of the American College of Cardiology showed that consuming a handful of raw walnuts along with meals high in saturated fat appeared to limit the ability of the harmful fat to damage arteries. "[Walnut butter is] great [stirred] in hot cereal in the morning, like most of the nut butters," Futterman says.Whether you spoon a dollop into your oatmeal or directly into your mouth, the menu of available nut butters is growing. "There are such different flavors in so many nuts and seeds," says Rosen, "there's no need to stick with just one."
Shara Rutberg is a Boulder, Colo.-based freelance writer
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVIII/number 2/p. 26, 28, 30