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.

21 comments on “Taste Test: Natural Creamy Peanut Butters

  1. Rodzilla says:

    I haven’t tried peter pan’s natural, but I’m a big fan of Skippy’s. PB&Co always struck me as grainy. I remember better n PB tasting like the fake PB found in protein bars.

    Have you tried powdered PB2? a little more effort to mix, but worth a taste.

    • Adam says:

      I’d say give Peter Pan a try. Just the right balance, a little sweeter than Skippy (I like), and not grainy at all. I’ve heard good things about PB2, but it’s expensive and tough to find. I like Naturally More as well. Not a bad price at Walmart.

  2. Hunter says:

    I grew up on JIF, and I still believe it has the best taste.

  3. Jim says:

    I prefer Skippy as well. Not that I like it, but you didn’t try Smucker’s brand. It requires alot of stirring when first opened, but is a pretty decent natural PB.

  4. SkippyMom says:

    I was surprised All Natural Jif wasn’t on here. I grew up on regular “Skippy” [and no, not where I get my nickname from] but Jif all natural is so much better [to us] then Skippy. I LOVE peanut butter and the only way to eat it now is to buy the healthier type.

    Several of what you listed aren’t available to us – but I will be on the lookout for them since they may be better then Jif.

    Although I am now very sad that peanut prices are going up. When is this madness going to end – sigh.

    • Adam says:

      I hear you on the healthy stuff, but I found that study amazing. It’s interesting to see how companies will use the “fear” of certain additives to draw dogmatic conceptions in the consumer’s mind about what they should and should not buy. Yet when you actually look at how low the trans fats are in PB made with PHO, is it really something to worry about? It’s not for me to tell anyone else yes or know, but considering people tell me I’m getting cancer by talking on a cell phone or getting cancer from exposing myself to the sun without sun screen, and I just gotta say “eh, that’s life.”

      • Jade says:

        I don’t avoid palm oil for health reasons, but I do avoid it for environmental reasons. The destruction of rainforests (and subsequent endangering of the species that live there) in order to build palm oil plantations that only benefit the affluent West and not even the local people working on the plantations…it’s all pretty appalling. Palm oil CAN be produced ethically but most still isn’t.

        I wonder how hard it is to make your own peanut butter?

  5. Chuck says:

    Personally, I thought the Smart Balance stuff was awful and fake tasting. I love the Peanut Butter and Co brands, but never buy smooth- only the crunchy version of any nut butter.

    And I don’t even want to tough the Better n’ Peanut butter…. its basically taking good healthy peanut butter and removing everything healthy from it.

    • Adam says:

      Really? I thought it has a great roasted flavor, which Naturally More has as well (I know we both like that stuff) Have you had any of the flavored PB and Co. kinds? The chocolate stuff is great mixed in with ice cream, oreos, and cocoa pebbles. I’ve been training for a half marathon and it hits a post run sweet spot.

  6. Mike N says:

    I always go for the fresh ground; it’s about twice as expensive as the shelf-stable stuff, but it’s twice as good, too!

  7. Jrdunn says:

    I had chunky pb for the firstctime in a long time today and lemme say i am back on the chunky bandwagon

  8. Karina says:

    kroger natural is my favorite! i cant believe no one liked it

  9. JR says:

    The Smuckers Natural PB is my fave… especially the crunchy kind. mmm.

  10. Shannon says:

    Your bread looks so dry.

  11. John says:

    I think skippy’s natural is pretty good. However, Smooth Operator is by far my favorite. I’ve gone through jars of it with a spoon!

  12. […] Grade reviewed a bunch of natural peanut butters. It would be fitting if you looked over it while eating peanut butter. Or even better, read the […]

  13. Lot-O-Choc says:

    oh yum so many lovely looking peanut butters!
    in the UK the natural peanut butters weve got are a lot thicker, but I quite like them that way, i dont like my peanut btuter really sloppy as such

  14. JW says:

    I’m glad to know that Kroger has a natural PB now. I will definitely buy some when I run out of the Jif Natural that I have been using.

  15. jwoolman says:

    Algood peanut butter (just peanuts and salt) might be regional (Midwestern US) but it’s the best I’ve had and is much cheaper than my previous favorite Smucker’s. Algood is too gloppy if you stir in all the oil so I pour off half into a jar that I keep in the fridge (excellent peanut oil for cooking or for stirring back into the peanut butter if it’s too dry by the end of the jar).
    Smart Balance isn’t really in the natural PB category because they add more stuff besides peanuts just to keep people from getting some stirring exercise. Not very tasty either. Your taste buds have been corrupted by the typical supermarket brands adding stuff to make it no-stir. Likewise Barney Butter (almonds) and Sunbutter (sunflower seeds), while decent, have the no-stir ingredients added. Sunflower seed butter does need a little sweetener but real almond butter (just almonds) is wonderful.
    Someone asked about making peanut butter. It’s easy. Just toss some good peanuts into a blender and let it run for a few minutes. If you have a tough blender like a Vitamix, you can make a lot at once, just tamp it down periodically to get it all into the blade. But any blender can make small amounts. Peanuts and cashews don’t need added oil but you might need to add a little oil for other nuts. Or save up to buy a jar of just plain nut butter. Hazelnut butter is to die for….

  16. […] and Co.’s Smooth Operator finished behind Peter Pan Natural and Skippy Natural in a past GrubGrade taste test, and until recently I had forgotten about the extra jars of flavored peanut butter Lee had […]

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