Nutty about peanut butter

Cravings for bread spread lead to a delicious livelihood

October 08, 2003|By Erica Marcus | Erica Marcus,NEWSDAY

When Lee Zalben was a child, his mother grew tired of finding the family peanut-butter jar ravaged by the fingers of her two sons. So she made sure there were always three jars on the shelf, marked "Lee," "Scott" and "Mom" - Deborah Zalben herself being no stranger to midnight peanut-butter cravings. Then they all could plunder their own peanut butter with spoonless abandon.

Zalben never outgrew his love of peanut butter, and in 1998 the former advertising executive founded Peanut Butter & Co., a Manhattan sandwich store specializing in peanut butter with a growing retail and mail-order business.

Although it doesn't always turn into a livelihood, peanut butter exerts a hold on children equaled by few other foods. That doesn't surprise Leslie Wagner, executive director of the Peanut Advisory Board, which represents peanut growers in Georgia, Florida and Alabama.

"I don't know why kids love peanut butter," Wagner said, "but they do. Maybe it's because they like foods that are uniform in texture - that's why they tend to prefer creamy to crunchy."

Parents, too, have always appreciated peanut butter, especially its lunch-friendly qualities. Wagner pointed out that before insulated lunchboxes and cold packs, peanut butter was one of the safest things you could spread on a sandwich that would be left at room temperature for hours. "And it's relatively inexpensive," she said.

Not to mention nutritious. "It's a wonderful food," said Marilyn Tanner, a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association in St. Louis who keeps a jar in her car at all times. "I like it because it fills you up and nourishes you," she said, "and it has a great combination of carbohydrates, protein and fat - and a lot of other nutrients."

According to Tanner, 2 level tablespoons of peanut butter contain 12 milligrams of calcium, 0.6 milligram of iron, 214 milligrams of potassium and 23.7 micrograms of folate.

As for peanut butter's generous 16 grams of fat in each 2-tablespoon serving, Tanner said that most of that fat is heart-healthy mono-unsaturated. Nevertheless, the major brands have all introduced reduced-fat "peanut butter spreads," a new category that contains only 60 percent peanuts and uses soy proteins and cornstarch to replace some of the fat in peanuts.

Tanner cautioned the fat-phobic against reflexively opting for reduced-fat peanut butter. "They take out some of the fat," she said, "but then they put in more sugar and more salt. I'd just go with the regular."

Although they have virtually identical nutritional profiles, there are two distinct styles of peanut butter on the market: stabilized and natural. The stabilized product - Jif, Skippy and Peter Pan are the three leading brands - must by law contain a minimum of 90 percent peanuts, though the Peanut Advisory Board's Wagner said that major brands usually contain upward of 93 percent. It cannot contain any artificial sweetener, flavor or color, but it can contain natural sugars such as table sugar or corn syrup. The so-called stabilizer that defines their styles is a partially hydrogenated oil that keeps the peanut oil from separating and gives the peanut butter a firm texture.

Yes, we said partially hydrogenated oil. But before going into a trans-fat tizzy, consider that the amount found in stabilized peanut butter is infinitesimal. "The USDA tested jars of peanut butter that they found on store shelves," said Wagner, "and they found that the amount of trans fat is almost not measurable - .0032 grams for 2 tablespoons." (By comparison, 2 tablespoons of butter contain 0.6 gram of trans fat, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.)

The more significant differences between stabilized and natural peanut butters have to do with flavor and texture. Lee Zalben (he of the midnight peanut-butter raids) started out eating supermarket brands.

"But as I got older, I ventured into more natural varieties," he said. "They had so much more flavor because most natural peanut butters are just peanuts and a little salt."

At Peanut Butter & Co., Zalben produces six varieties of handcrafted natural peanut butter. "There's a lot more to peanut butter than taking peanuts and grinding them up," he said, likening the process to that used by coffee makers. "Our process is a combination of how we blend different peanut varieties, how we roast them and how we grind them."

As much as he loves peanut butter, Zalben has been surprised at the success of his venture. "What was a great surprise to me," he said, "was that there were so many people out there like me, grown-ups who loved peanut butter."

When asked his favorite peanut-butter sandwich, Zalben named one of his shop's most popular: cinnamon-raisin-swirl peanut butter, cream cheese and slices of Granny Smith apples on whole-wheat bread. "But my favorite way to eat peanut butter," he said, "is still right out of the jar."

Newsday is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

Stir-Fried P'nut- Butter Pork

Makes 4 servings

1 cup regular or reduced-fat coconut milk

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