I found myself a bit stumped last week when trying to decide which nut butter -- peanut, almond or cashew -- to choose as the spread for my Monster PBJ sandwich. The food truck offers all three, as well as gluten-free bread and other options for the truly discerning sandwich diner. I've been attempting to make healthier choices when eating out lately, but found myself flummoxed as to which of the three would make the best option.
Are other nut butters healthier than peanut butter? The answer to that question depends on what you're looking for.
I don't need to tell you that this is it: the king of nut butters. This is what every American kid of my generation grew up on, slathered on some Wonderbread with delicious, delicious jelled sugar masquerading as a fruit spread. Fruit! Healthy!
And as long as you're avoiding peanut butter that contains added sugar (i.e., most mainstream brands like Jif, Skippy and -- my favorite -- Peter Pan Creamy), peanut butter is actually not bad for you. It has about 200 calories per serving (two tablespoons), so don't hork down a whole jar. And it has roughly 16 grams of fat, but it's mostly the good kind -- monounsaturated fats. (In fact, peanut butter is equal to olive oil when it comes having a balance of saturated and unsaturated fats.) At roughly 6 carbs and 8 grams of protein, it's ideal for those watching their starch intake and for providing energy. it's also a good source of Vitamins B3 and E, plus minerals such as magnesium.
So why choose an alternative butter?
The almond is classified as a tree nut for culinary purposes, but it's not a nut in the botanical sense. It's the seed of a fruit tree, and it's more closely related to the peach than anything else. This means that some people who are allergic to peanuts (which are legumes) -- but who can tolerate tree nuts like almonds and cashews -- can turn to almond butter as an alternative. (Those allergic to both peanuts and tree nuts can always turn to sunflower seed butter.) It also has a smooth, mild, naturally sweet flavor and a texture not dissimilar to peanuts when ground and emulsified. These are the main reasons you'll find almond butter so readily available in stores -- much more so than any other peanut butter alternative.
But aside from offering people with nut allergies a PB&J option, does this mean it's healthier for you?
While it's true that almond butter is lower in saturated fat than peanut butter, it has a slightly higher fat content overall at roughly 17 to 18 grams per serving. It has the same amount of carbs (6 grams per serving), but packs a lower protein punch than peanut butter at only 5 to 7 grams per serving. Calories are the same, however: 200 calories.
So what makes almond butter special? The vitamins and minerals. It's significantly higher in vitamin E, magnesium, manganese, copper and calcium than peanut butter. Just make sure you're choosing an almond butter that hasn't been enhanced with hydrogenated oils or additional sugar, and you're looking at a fun and slightly healthier alternative to peanut butter that gives you a little boost of vitamins, minerals and fiber -- a serving of almond butter can provide 15 percent of your daily fiber intake.
Cashews are also seeds, like almonds. But they're not necessarily a good alternative for those with peanut or tree nut allergies. Cashew allergies aren't as common as peanut allergies, but those allergic to peanuts are often sensitive to cashews as well. So if they're not a good alternative to peanut butter, why make butter out of them?
Because it tastes good. Have you ever had a cashew? If I could make the world's perfect nut blend, it would contain nothing but Brazil nuts, macadamia nuts and cashews. They're lightly sweet, slightly salty, wonderfully balanced and full of natural oils. So good.
Unfortunately, however, because cashews have such a high starch content, they also make the nut butter with the most carbs per serving (8 to 10) and the least amount of protein (4 to 6 grams) of the trio. On the plus side, cashew butter is lower in fat overall -- despite its oily flavor -- with only 14 to 16 grams per serving (although it doesn't provide any omega-3 fatty acids, as peanut and almond butter do). They're also the lowest in terms of calories, at between 160 and 190 calories per serving. Cashew butter is also high in copper, magnesium and phosphorus, but doesn't pack the vitamin punch that almond butter does.
Which Do You Choose?
It's splitting hairs to declare one butter better than the others. So here's how I'd break it down:
If you're a traditionalist, stick with peanut butter. The protein and heart-healthy fats keep this as healthy a choice as the other two.
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If you have tree nut allergies (but aren't sensitive to almonds) or appreciate a milder "nut" spread with more vitamins and fiber, choose almond butter.
If you adore cashews or want a "nut" spread that's slightly lower in fat and calories without sacrificing flavor, choose cashew butter.