If you’ve recently visited the “peanut butter” aisle at the grocery store, you’ve probably been greeted by an overwhelming number of options. Your choices are no longer limited to peanut and sunflower seed butter. Now you can choose not only different nuts but various flavor combinations. Chocolate hazelnut, almond maple, vanilla cashew… How can you possibly choose the best nut butters?
3 Unsavory Nut Butter Additives to Avoid
First off, whichever variety of nut butters intrigue you, before you make your way to the checkout counter, be sure to flip over the container to look at the ingredients. The healthiest options are those that offer just one or two ingredients: nuts, of course, and maybe salt.
Other nut butters, meanwhile, can include an array of additives. For example, they might have additional ingredients to prevent separation. Worst-case scenario, they can include hydrogenated vegetable oils like cottonseed, soybean, and rapeseed oil. These vegetable oils exist naturally as predominantly polyunsaturated fats, but they are hydrogenated — essentially, turning them into saturated fats — by manufacturers to make them solid and shelf-stable at room temperature, which changes the behavior of the oil in the body.
Now that companies are no longer using partially hydrogenated oils (i.e., trans fats), many are mixing hydrogenated oils with liquid vegetable oils through a process called interesterification. So far, however, we don’t have enough information on how harmful these oils can be. They may or may not be as dangerous as trans fats. 1
Other nut butter manufacturers add palm oil to prevent separation. This additive does prevent the oils from separating. However, the quality of palm oil depends on where it comes from and whether or not best practices are used in sourcing.
If your choice of nut butter lists palm oil on the label, make sure you look for RSPO (Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil) certification or the stricter organic EcoSocial certification. Both certifications look at how sustainable the farming practices are, including soil fertility, erosion, energy use, water quality, waste, greenhouse gas emissions, and more. EcoSocial adds organically grown, non-GMO, and Fair-Trade practices as qualifications for certification.
Another additive you’ll want to watch for is sugar. Often, the second ingredient is just plain old refined sugar, but other hidden sources of added sugars include agave syrup, maltodextrin, coconut palm sugar, dried cane syrup, maple syrup, and molasses. Perhaps the biggest issue with sugar is that it adds calories, yet it provides no real nutritional value. Yep, the definition of empty calories. (And honestly, do you really need it in your nut butter?)
What’s more, when sugar is added to fat — especially when it’s also combined with salt — it creates what food manufacturers refer to as the “three pillars of processed foods.” And it’s this trilogy of additives that food manufacturers use in very, very calculated amounts to “override our dietary self-control” and “compel overconsumption.”
Said differently, this combo leads to a “bliss point” of maximum taste satisfaction, and it may explain why you have a hard time putting down a jar of “peanut butter spread” (containing nuts, added oils, added sugar and added salt) yet can call it quits after just a tablespoon or two of natural peanut butter (containing only peanuts).
Ranking the Best Nut Butters
Which nut butter is best? It’s kind of like trying to rank your kids; generally speaking, any nut butter made with nuts and no added junk can be part of a healthy diet that, as it’s typically going to provide healthy, filling fats, fiber, and a good source of plant-based protein. They’re also loaded with phytonutrients, vitamins, and minerals.
So, once you make sure your nut butter is limited to just an ingredient or two, it comes down to personal taste, nutrient needs, and fitness goals. However, there are some nuts and nut butters that do have a bit more nutrition than others.
Here’s how we ranked the best nut butters:
1. Walnut Butter: 2 tablespoons provide 200 calories, 19 gram (g) fat, 4 g carbs, 2 g fiber, less than 1 g sugar, and 5 g protein. Walnuts provide the omega-3 fatty acid alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), which may help lower the risk of heart disease, lower blood pressure, and lower cholesterol. They also have the highest free and total polyphenol efficacy of nuts and the highest lipoprotein antioxidant activity. 2 And, walnuts are rich in the B vitamin folate, tannins, and arginine. 3
2. Pistachio Butter: 2 tablespoons provide 180 calories, 14 g fat, 9 g carbs, 3 g fiber, 2 g sugar, 7 g protein. It’s also a great source of B vitamins. Best of all, it’s really yummy — creamy with a sweet, nutty taste (even with no added sugar). It’s good on its own, spread on crackers, toast, and fruit, or even served with cheese.
3. Almond Butter: 2 tablespoons provide 196 calories, 18 g fat, 6 g carbs, 3 g fiber, 2 g sugar, and 7 g protein. In terms of texture and thickness, almond butter probably resembles peanut butter more than anything else on the list of the best nut butters. It’s rich in healthy fats and also provides an abundance of antioxidants like vitamin E. It tastes amazing slathered on celery and apple slices or drizzled over a banana or a small bowl of cherries. Almonds and almond butter, when consumed as part of a heart-healthy diet, have also been shown to significantly lower LDL cholesterol. 4 Like walnut and pistachio butter, it is, however, more expensive than peanut butter.
4. Peanut Butter: 2 tablespoons provide 191 calories, 16 g fat, 7 g carbs, 2 g fiber, 3 g sugar, and 7 g protein. The “OG” of nut butters, peanut butter is one of the best sources of plant-based protein. It also provides iron, potassium, magnesium, vitamin B6, and zinc. Research has found that a high intake of nuts, including peanuts, is associated with a reduced risk of type 2 diabetes 5, cardiovascular disease, and overall mortality (i.e., death). 6 Plus, it’s typically the most available and affordable.
5. Hazelnut Butter: 2 tablespoons provide 160 calories, 14 g fat, 8 g carbs, 1 g fiber, 0 sugar, 5 g protein. Not only are hazelnuts free of sugars, but they’re also a good source of the heart-healthy fat oleic acid and vitamin E. Sorry, that super-popular chocolate hazelnut “spread” doesn’t fit the bill, as it’s loaded with the additives discussed above including added sugar and vegetable oils. If you do have a hankering for that chocolate hazelnut spread, you can easily make a healthier version on your own.
6. Sunflower Seed Butter (aka SunButter): 2 tablespoons provide 197 calories, 18 g fat, 5 g carbs, 3 g fiber, less than 1 g sugar, and 7 g protein. The number of Americans with peanut and tree nut allergies has tripled since the 1990s and affects between 0.5 and 1% of the U.S. population. 6 People with one nut allergy can often eat other nuts but not always. They can, however, typically eat sunflower, sesame, and pumpkin seeds without issue. This is why sunflower seed butter has long been found to be an acceptable alternative to peanut butter. Even if you don’t have a nut allergy or sensitivity, sunflower seed butter can be a great choice. It’s high in vitamins E and A and has more magnesium per serving than any of the other best nut butters.
7. Macadamia Nut Butter: 2 tablespoons provide 195 calories, 20 g fat, 4 g carbs, 2 g fiber, 1 g sugar, 4 g protein. With a similar mouthfeel as cashew butter — with less sugar and carbs and more fiber — macadamia nut butter is a nutritional powerhouse. However, it is higher in calories and cost and is harder to find than many of the other best nut butters.
8. Cashew Butter: 2 tablespoons provide 195 calories, 14 g fat, 8 g carbs, 1 g fiber, 2 g sugar, 5 g protein. If you’re looking for something to indulge a sweet tooth without added sugar, add this sweet and creamy option to your list of the best nut butters. It is, however, more expensive and lower in protein than many of the other options, so you may want to consider it more of a dessert or treat nut butter than an everyday staple. That is, unless you’re vegan. Then cashew butter makes a fantastic dairy replacement—though you may want to use macadamia nut butter instead from time to time.
9. Brazil Nut Butter: 2 tablespoons provide 185 calories, 19 g fat, 3 g carbs, 0 g sugar, 2 g fiber, 4 g protein. Brazil nuts are one of the best sources of selenium, which is a vital nutrient for supporting healthy thyroid function. In fact, one single nut can provide 140% of your daily needs. They’re also high in B vitamins, zinc, magnesium, and iron as well as antioxidants like vitamin E and the phenols gallic acid and ellagic acid. Because of their high selenium content, which can be toxic at high amounts, it’s a good idea to limit your intake.
10. Coconut Butter: 2 tablespoons provide 200 calories, 18 g fat, 7 g carbs, 3 g sugar, 5 g fiber, 2 g protein. Coconut is actually a fruit, not a nut, but it fits in the same way sunflower seed and cashew butters fit on the list, so let’s go with it. Perhaps the best thing about coconut butter is that it’s super high in fiber, which is vital for a healthy heart and good digestion. It also provides some protein (not a lot compared to the other nut butters on the list) as well as potassium, magnesium, and iron.
Any of these delicious nutty spreads can be part of a healthy, wholesome diet. 7 Of course, nuts and nut butters can be a bit dense when it comes to calories, so use caution. As tempting as it may be, think twice before giving into the temptation of grabbing a jar and spoon and digging in. You can go overboard quickly. But adding a smear here and there is a great way to add some healthy fats, protein, fiber, vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients to your meal plan.
DIY Nut Butter
If the cost is concerning (and it can be with many of the best nut butters on the list), you may want to make your own. That’s completely doable with just one or two ingredients, a food processor, and about 30 minutes of your time. Start by picking up some raw nuts; you can choose one or a mix of different nuts. Spread about three cups of nuts on a baking sheet until they’re in one layer. Roast for 8 to 10 minutes at 350°F (or skip this step and leave them raw if you prefer). For an even creamier nut butter, remove the skin after roasting the nuts.
Place them into a food processor, cover, and blend for about two minutes. Scrape down the sides, and then blend again for another three to five minutes. Scrape down the sides again (it should be getting creamy by now), and blend until it reaches your desired level of creaminess. You can now add a few pinches of salt, if you choose, and blend for one more minute.
Transfer your nut butter into a container with a lid; enjoy some right away and refrigerate the rest for later. It can be stored chilled for up to a month.
And finally, if you do buy your nut butter pre-made and find the oil on the top of your nut butter messy and frustrating (I get you!), there’s an easy solution. Simply store your nut butters upside down in the cabinet until you’re ready to open them the first time. Once you turn your nut butter right side up, the oil will be on the bottom of the jar, so it will be much easier to mix without oil sloshing over the sides. And once it’s stored in the refrigerator, the oil will solidify, so it stays mixed with the nut butter. (This little tip has been a game-changer for my family and me!)