Dazed and confused? Not me. I’m just Lost in the Cheese Aisle.

Thursday, February 7, 2013


The other day, this jar of Pee-Bee caught my eye:

Skippy Natural Creamy Peanut Butter Spread.  Oh, boy - no need to stir!

What got my attention was not the (prominently displayed) word “natural,” though.  It was the (not-so-prominently displayed) product description.  This was not “Peanut Butter,” but rather, “Peanut Butter Spread.”  That set off a small but insistent alarm bell in my head.

That’s the kind of product description that tells you that something Ain’t Quite Kosher.  Kind of like those bags of “Chocolatey Chips” that are made with fake chocolate, with some other kind of fat replacing the cocoa butter.

I looked at the label.  Sure enough, there it was: palm oil.  Palm oil!

I know what you’re gonna say. “But, Elisson, it’s natural!”  Yes, it is.  And so is a fresh, steaming turd.

First, a little history (with a tip o’ th’ Elisson fedora to Jon Krampner, author of Creamy and Crunchy: An Informal History of Peanut Butter, the All-American Food):

Natural peanut butter - the kind that’s made with just peanuts, salt, and maybe a little sugar - will separate at room temperature, the oil forming a layer at the top of the jar.  You have to stir it up before you use it, a messy process.  Keeping the jar in the refrigerator slows the separation but does not prevent it completely.

One way to stabilize peanut butter is to hydrogenate the peanut oil.  Hydrogenation raises the melting point of the oil so that it remains solid at room temperature; this, in turn, keeps the oil from separating.  It also improves the shelf life of the product.  Most commercial peanut butter you see on the supermarket shelf contains hydrogenated oil.

Procter and Gamble - the guys who make Jif - long ago figured out that the hydrogenated oil you used didn’t necessarily have to be peanut oil.  It could be soy, cottonseed, canola (rapeseed), or any other vegetable oil - all of which were cheaper alternatives to peanut oil.  This led to a protracted battle with the FDA over labeling standards, which eventually were written to allow a minimum of 90% peanut content in peanut butter.  (The industry, of course, wanted a lower number.)

Well, if you can use something that didn’t come from a peanut, you could use fractionated palm oil. It doesn’t need to be hydrogenated... and that means you can still call it “natural.”  Plus, it’s cheaper than peanut oil, and it stabilizes the goop enough so you don’t need to stir it.

Imagine, then, a product with less than 90% peanuts, the balance being salt, sugar, and fractionated palm oil.  You can’t call it peanut butter, but you can call it “natural,” since the palm oil is not hydrogenated.  How fucked up is that?

 “I say it’s spinach, and I say the hell with it.”  E.B. White, with illustration by Carl Rose, in the New YorkerCond√© Nast Publications.

As E. B. White said in this famous vintage-1928 New Yorker cartoon, I say it’s spinach, and I say the hell with it.

[At least there’s still one Skippy that isn’t full of shit.]


BobG said...

I remember the old-time peanut butter that you had to stir before using. That and some of my mom's homemade jam or jelly was a great sandwich for a little kid.

Claude said...

Skippy is a great Canadian link. Thanks!

As a French Canuck, growing up in Montreal in the Thirties, I was never served peanut butter by my mother. I learned of its existence, when I moved to English Canada, as an adult, and discovered that school children were given peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for lunch. I was horrified till I bought some and tasted it. I had a problem not eating the whole jar in one setting. I tried them all. I love them all...Some more than others. But they're all good. It's like cheese. You don't choose the healthiest. You see it. You eat it. It's that simple!

leelu said...

Have not seen it here on the East Coast, but in CA we had Laura Scudder PB. Their ad tag line was "Peanuts and salt. That's all."

The stuff I find here ain't natural.

Jon Krampner said...

Thank you for your kind words about the book. The easiest way to deal with oil separation in natural peanut butter (unless you
actually enjoy stirring and want to develop a Rod Laver-like forearm) is to simply turn it upside down in the fridge. It remixes itself with no fuss, no muss and no peanut butter mess (to speak of).

El Capitan said...

Way back when, the Boy Sprouts used to get a good deal of the food used for summer camps from USDA food programs. Pallets of butter, cheese, pasta, oil, beans, and so on.

And, of course, peanut butter. Big honkin' #10 cans of all-natural peanut butter.

You'd crack open a can, and the top 1/4 would be oil floating atop a concrete-like mass of ground goobers.

A few minutes with an ice cream scoop would get the can emptied (spoons would bend under the strain, even big serving spoons),
then you'd spend 10 minutes with a pastry cutter blending it in a big bowl. It was just too stiff for the big Hobart mixer to deal with, even in low gear with a dough hook.

The Boy Sprouts could go though 2-3 cans a day, so kitchen wogs spent a good bit of time on PB detail.

To this day, I carry a grudge against the stuff...