Jun 7, 2013

Are Peanut Butter and Jelly Sandwiches Healthy?

The peanut butter and jelly sandwich is the most classic of all American sandwiches. This humble sandwich of such simple ingredients is not just a sandwich, but a cultural icon!

"In the last half-century, peanut butter & jelly has become an American icon- a true cultural phenomenon. In fact, the average American will have eaten 1,500 peanut butter and jelly (PB&J) sandwiches by the time they graduate high school! A staple for many since childhood, PB&J is a revered classic." ~The History of the Peanut Butter and Jelly Sandwich

I think most people assume the PB&J is fairly healthy, or at least not "unhealthy," because it has peanut butter and jelly contains fruit. And bread is of course healthy because it's on the USDA food pyramid! (Which was never based on scientific research anyway...) Sadly, these basic ingredients have been severely adulterated over the course of time. And sadly, so many of us still eat the PB&J and feed them to our kids without even realizing this.

The good news is, with a few changes the peanut butter and jelly sandwich can be made healthy.

Lets disect the three parts of the classic PB&J: Peanut butter, jelly, and bread.

The Peanut Butter:

Peanuts are a fairly healthy food. Grinding them into peanut butter is just another way to eat them.

The biggest issue;

Unfortunately most peanut butter on grocery store shelves is very unhealthy because it contains hydrogenated oil. Hydrogenated oil is probably the most unhealthy oil sold as "food." (It was originally discovered during the creation of wax-free candles). Most peanut butter also has a lot of sugar and other unnecessarily fillers.

Minor issue;

Peanuts do have a a lot of monounsaturated fat, which is the kind of fat that can easily go rancid. And most peanut butters are processed at high heat and made of toasted nuts, which kills some of the nutrients. Now, peanut butter IS a traditional food, even though it was supposedly not invented in the United States until 1890 (source).  In West Africa peanut butter is a traditional food and it is commonly made with roasted peanuts.

Peanuts also contain phytates, or nutrient blockers, which inhibit the digestion of some of the vitamins and minerals. Soaking raw peanuts in a salt brine will dissolve a lot of the phytates. They would then be dried or dehydrated at low heat. Traditionally, I am not familiar with this actually being done.

Almonds actually have these two same issues as peanuts, so choosing almond butter is not automatically healthier. Almonds are not legumes, though, so people with allergies to peanuts or sensitivities to legumes should choose almond butter.

The solution;

Raw peanut butter doesn't taste that great. Not to mention no stores actually sell it. Some nutrition enthusiasts soak and then dehydrate the peanuts, then grind them up at home into peanut butter. I would quit eating peanut butter before I went to all this work.

The healthiest store-bought peanut butter is that labeled "natural." Some of the natural peanut and almond butters actually contain only one ingredient; peanuts! (Imagine that...). Others contain a small amount of natural ingrediants like cane sugar and salt. (I was pleased to see the Aldi brand "natural" peanut butter contains only healthy ingredients.)

For me, I see that the traditional peoples I grew up with did eat toasted peanut butter, and did not soak the peanuts when they were raw. But they also did not eat peanut butter every day. It would be more of a once or twice a week food. Because of this I am comfortable eating regular, store-bought peanut butter, as long as it is labeled "natural" and only contains natural ingrediants. If you are not eating a PB&J every single day, (and do not already have compromised health or a peanut allergy) the minor issues mentioned above should not negatively effect your health.

The Jelly
The problem;

I was dismayed in my real-food journey to find that almost all jams and jellies being sold are now sweetened with high fructose corn syrup. This is NOT a natrual sweetener simply because it comes from corn in its first life. It is very unhealthy and leads to a host of health problems.

The solution;

The good news is there is some all-natural jam being sold with sugar as the sweetener and actual chunks of fruit. I found some very reasonably priced at Aldi .

The healthiest jam or jelly is of course that which you would make at home and sweeten with honey, maple syrup or another traditional whole sweetener.

Or as a reader suggested, you can also just use sliced or mashed fresh berries. Mmmm!

The Bread

The problem;

Most bread in the grocery store is laden with unhealthy ingredients like vegetable oil, even hydrogenated oils, high fructose corn syrup, enzymes and fillers made from questionable ingredients like pig pancreas or pig hair (I'm not making this up!), and preservatives. Also, wheat bread contains gluten, a protein that frequently causes harm to the human body leading to a number of health issues, from acne to Celiac disease.

The solution;

I've talked a lot about bread on this blog since I wholeheartedly believe the sourdough bread method is the healthiest way to make bread. (Bread from sprouted grain is also very healthy, if you have the ability to do this). But I realize everyone is not there yet, or may never be. (My bread recipe really is very easy, so I do encourage you to give it a try). The second best is to make bread at home. I encourage anyone who eats a lot of bread and wants to be healthier to get a bread machine. They are SO easy.   

If you do continue to eat store-bought bread, here are some of the healthier choices you could make:
Look for bread with a short ingredient list such as "flour, sugar, salt, yeast." Most breads will contain a lot of synthetic vitamins which will add to the number of ingredients, but you can sort of skip these in your count as they are added to most flours nowadays anyway. 

Ezekiel bread is one of the only healthy store-bought breads I know about.  It is made from sprouted grain. Trader Joe's sells Ezekiel bread and has a the greatest number of healthy bread options that I've seen anywhere. Oh, and store-bought sourdough bread is not any healthier than regular bread as it is not made with a starter in the traditional way. 

In summery, look for the word "natural" on the label, read the list of ingredients, and avoid hydrogenated oils, high fructose corn syrup, and any words that seem particularly vague (like "enzymes" or "dough enhancer"). 

May the peanut butter and jelly sandwich live 
on in the American culture, but with healthy ingredients!

Thanks to istockphoto for this free image!

{This recipe is linked up at Whole Foods Wednesday, and Wildcrafting Wednesday.}


  1. DEFINITELY NOT healthy!! However, if people decide to use almond butter made of just almonds and Ezekiel toast... And mashed up raspberries then YES, yes it is! ;)

    1. Thanks for the suggestion of fresh fruit, GiGi! I've added this to the post.

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