Taste Test: Natural Creamy Peanut Butters
Uh oh. We all knew food costs were getting higher, but is one of the country’s historically thrifty foods – peanut butter – going to spike soon? Looks like it. And if peanut butter prices are going up, you can bet the prices of natural peanut butter, already more expensive than regular peanut butter, will be going up as well. To compound it all, concern for eating healthy is at an all-time high, with many consumers demanding the same taste and texture of the traditional, made-with-hydrogenated oil peanut butter formulas of the new natural peanut butters. What’s a buyer to do?
If you’re like me, you love peanut butter, but sometimes are a little overwhelmed at the grocery store. Well, you’re in luck, because for the past few weeks I’ve been enlisting the help of family in friends in determining the best tasting natural creamy nut butters. Notice how I said “tasting” and “nuts.” Of the samples we were offered by companies or bought ourselves, we included the curious case of Barney Butter (Almond Butter, not, as I had thought, Purple Dinosaur Butter), as well as the butter-esque Better ‘n Peanut Butter. Unlike past taste tests, where I and my compatriots attempted a systematic ranking of components like texture and taste, our test of peanut butters were admittedly unscientific, and not nearly as complete at a recent Serious Eats test. Instead, we opened a dialogue as to what each nut butter brings to the table, and which application we felt it best suited for.
One word of caution: we found the top three (technically four) all very close in desirability, and would endorse buying any one of them based on their availability and price. Here are our full findings:
Note: An asterisk (*) denotes peanut butter sample provided by company.
1a. Peter Pan Natural*: The ConAgra brand recently launched a brand new natural line, and GrubGrade was among the first to receive samples. Personally, I found this to have the best mouthfeel, and enjoyed it’s easy spreading and balanced sweet and salty taste in tandem with a strong roasted peanut flavor. One taster, a usual natural peanut butter avoider, commented on how “smooth” and “creamy” it was, confirming our thoughts that it tasted identical to the “classic” peanut butters made with hydrogenated oils. Overall the consensus was that it was the best eaten straight from the jar, and had the strongest peanut taste.
1b. Skippy Natural: I personally had Skippy ranked third, but two of our tasters (my mother and sister, in the interest of full disclosure) felt it was almost identical to Peter Pan. We all found it to have the best viscosity and classic creamy texture of peanut butter, and my mother commented how it didn’t come across as “sticky,” – a complaint sometimes made about peanut butter. I found it to have less than desirable sweetness and depth of peanut flavor, but admit that it was a very good choice as an all around peanut butter, but especially in a peanut butter and jelly application.
2. Peanut Butter & Co. Smooth Operator*: We found this to be very smooth and easily spreadable, with an altogether “classic taste,” although not particularly strong in terms of a roasted or deep taste. It seemed less than desirable in overall sweetness, and didn’t show as well eaten straight out of the jar as Peter Pan or even Smart Balance. We thought it was a little lacking on saltines, but thought it was one of the top two in a PB and J application, given its superb mouthfeel and perfect consistency. Overall, we really liked it, but stopped short of saying we’d be consistent buyers, given it’s more expensive price. Now, if were talking the flavored PB&Co. spreads…well, we’ll just save that for an upcoming post
3. Smart Balance Rich Roast Creamy*: My personal favorite, the Smart Balance label had the best flavor in my mind, with a salty-sweet taste that struck us as multifaceted (no doubt due to the use of both evaporated cane juice and molasses in the mix). Likewise, the peanut flavor seemed somehow bolstered and bolder than other products – a positive for me but a slight turn-off for others. Being a fan of stickier peanut butters, I wasn’t put off by the texture, but one taster found it grainy, and didn’t like how it “sticks to the roof of my mouth a little too much.” Still, it spreads well, and is solid in all applications. A bonus for you health freaks: it contains 320 mg of Omega-3 ALA (20% DV) per two tablespoons.
4. Barney Butter*: We could see the point in buying this if you had a peanut allergy, but other than that, we failed to see what all the hoopla was about. Even I, the guy who always takes crunchy over creamy, found it on the “grainy” side, and felt like the taste was bland, albeit for a slightly sweet almond aftertaste. My complaints were not isolated. Overall, the consensus was that it was “dense on the palate” and didn’t taste “whole,” as if it weren’t fresh. Spreadability was average, but it failed to impress upon us a distinctly peanut or almond taste.
5. Kroger Natural: Our store brand control, we all found this to be the least desirable actual peanut butter we tried, caring less about its minimalistic ingredients (Peanuts, salt) because of its lack of balance, flavor and texture. With no added sugar, it tasted incredibly salty and was “uneatable” out of the jar. The peanut flavor was moderate, but not roasted, revealing a lack of depth that may have cut the perceived over-saltiness. It was too “earthy” for our taste, and while it wasn’t grainy, it tasted “too healthy.” It had a decent creamy texture but poor spreadability, and wouldn’t be something we’d use in any application other than a cream cheese, banana, and maple syrup sandwich – which is exactly what I used most of the jar on.
6. Better ‘N’ Peanut Butter: In the interest of full disclosure (again), none of my family or friends were subjected to trying this. Only I dared to try the peanut butter-like product, which contains 85% less fat than standard peanut butters, and about half the calories. Made from peanut flour, it has a ridiculously sweet taste that I find, well, oddly addicting – like candy really. But the texture is nowhere near the real deal, and while I won’t pretend I didn’t top off a couple bowls of ice cream with this stuff, it’s not worth your time or money if you’re looking for the genuine article. Still, I thought I’d mention it, considered a dug it out of a reduced bin for a buck.
So what’s the best peanut butter to buy if you’re going the all natural route? Belive it or not, we say Peter Pan, and despite the fact that the brand still has a negative connotation to many after the Recall of 2007, we found it to deliver in terms of smooth texture, balance of sugar and salt, and roasted peanut flavor. All things considered, however, we’d endorse any of the top three brands listed here, or regular, “additive” laden peanut butters for that matter. Why? Because, in moderation, peanut butter seems to be perfectly healthy, even when companies use hydrogenated oils instead of palm oil. But I’m not a health professional, and neither do I claim to be, so take our suggestions at what they’re worth. Something tells me loyal GrubGraders already have their favorites, and despite whatever my suggestions are, they’ll be sticking (get it, sticking…man I kill) to ‘em.