Jeff Koeze's Blog Good Food, Good Business, and the Good Food Business

16Nov/090

Reading Your Peanut Butter Label

I have a bunch of Google alerts set to pick up blog postings about peanut butter. And what I've learned is that people are really confused by the labeling and ingredients in peanut butter products, and they especially confused about the difference between "natural" and "organic" peanut butter.  Justifiably so, because it is confusing.   Here is my explanation.  It is long.

In the beginning, there was peanut butter.  It was all the basically the same, consisting of ground peanuts, and, almost always, salt.  The liability of this peanut butter, then as now, was that the oil in the peanut butter and the solid components would separate over time with the oil coming to the top.  This is because peanut oil is liquid at room temperature.

In the 1920's and '30's, the separation problem was solved by adding hydrogenated vegetable oil to the peanut butter.  This had the effect of making the oil solid at room temperature (think Crisco).  Added in small amounts (as little as 1% by weight) by skilled manufacturers, the hydrogenated oil was enough to prevent separation.

As time passed, manufacturers figured out that hydrogenated oil was cheaper than peanuts.  As was, I believe, sugar.  So these ingredients began to be added to the product in higher and higher amounts.

In response, the Food and Drug Administration passed a rule (21 CFR 164.150) that provided a "standard of identity" for peanut butter.  This provides that to be labeled "peanut butter" a product must be 90% peanuts.  Anything with less than that must be called "peanut spread" (21 CFR 102.23).

Under the general requirement that foods use ordinary and customary descriptors on their labels, peanut butter labeled as "natural" or "old-fashioned" contained only peanuts and (usually) salt.

So, for the last 30 years or so, the world consisted of two kinds of peanut butter:  homogenized peanut butter and "natural" or "old-fashioned" peanut butter.  This was pretty simple, and I think everybody knew the game.

Coming forward to today, first add USDA organic standards.  These rules has nothing to do with the prior regime created by the FDA.  Either homogenized or old-fashioned peanut butter can be organic, so long as the ingredients meet organic standards, and they are made in a facility that meets organic standards.  The result is that not all organic peanut butter is "natural" by the ordinary, traditional nomenclature, nor are all natural peanut butters organic.

It gets worse.

Recently, the food marketers have gotten aggressive with labeling again, and I believe this is leading to additional customer confusion, based on what I'm seeing on the blogs.  (I'm not going to name names here because I didn't create this blog to attack competitors.)

Some companies have begun describing as "natural" peanut butter products that contain both palm oil as a stabilizer, and sugar.  Others have created products that contain 90% peanuts and a variety of other ingredients -- including things such as flour and chocolate topping -- which are being sold as "peanut butter spread."  Yet the most prominent word on the label is "natural," which again, some bloggers, wrongly in my view,  are describing and reviewing as a natural peanut butter.

On top of that, there are all of the various peanut butter and flavor combinations on the market -- pb and honey, pb and chocolate, etc. etc.  There are a number of peanut butter products that have enhancements that are marketed towards health and nutrition oriented consumers -- pb with Omega 3's, pb with flax, pb with sunflowers, etc.  And there are reduced-fat products on the market.  Depending on the ingredients, these may also carry the "natural" or "organic" labels.

I, self-servingly, advocate the KISS approach:  Cream Nut if you like the fuller flavor of Virginia peanuts, or Sweet Ella's if you either like a little sweeter peanut or prefer organic products.

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