I would imagine everyone is aware of the salmonella outbreak in peanut butter. The outbreak has been traced to the Peanut Corporation of America (PCA) plant in Blakely, Georgia. As you can guess, with a name like PCA, this company handles a whole lot of peanuts.
Of course, they make A LOT of peanut butter for cafeterias and care facilities (you can even buy a 1700 pound case of PB). They also make peanut paste, a product that gets added to everything from cakes, cookies, crackers, candies, cereal and ice cream. Warnings from the FDA are suggesting we stay away from ALL commercially-prepared peanut butter products until further notice. Click here for more info on the recall and here for specific products that have been recalled.
It may be helpful to explain how salmonella gets into foods. Salmonella is an enteric bacterium, which means it hangs out in the intestinal tracts of animals, birds, reptiles, insects and humans. As you can guess, getting that enteric bacterium out requires a pooping process (the story is a little different for salmonella in eggs). Nothing to be embarrassed about, we all poop. However, if safe hygiene practices, food handling procedures, farming practices, or, in the case of a 2007 outbreak, important building inspections are ignored, feces can make its way into a food product.
We could discuss the issue that the recall raises about our inability to quickly trace food to its source. This is a huge security and food safety issue. If anyone wants to share their opinion on this, please do. However, I think I’ll stick to the fluffier topic of healthy nut butters…
Thankfully, the recall hasn’t affected our house because we tend to mix up the nut butters (I know, peanuts aren’t a nut, they’re a legume, but ‘bean butter’ just sounds weird). We mainly eat raw almond butter and then switch in some cashew butter and walnut butter to liven up our choices. Different nut butters have very distinct tastes and different nutritional benefits. Some are higher in antioxidants, while others give more protein, still others boast a better fatty acid profile, trace minerals, vitamin E, etc., etc.
Peanut butter with tons of preservatives, added oils, sugars and salt are the cheapest and most commonly consumed. But these products are wasted calories. They are NOT healthy. There are other choices out there. Here are some tips for buying healthier nut butters:
- Buy natural. Whatever you get, check the ingredients. Stay away from products that have artificial anything in them. Hydrogenated oils, high-fructose corn syrup, salt and sugar just take away from the flavors of the peanuts and the nutritional benefits.
- Buy pre-packaged. Pre-packaged nut butters on the grocery shelf are a better choice than the grind-it-yourself option at the natural food store. I know, sounds weird, but there’s a good reason for this.
Peanuts attract the molds Aspergillus flavus and A. parasiticus. These molds can grow on the crop before harvesting, but also love the warm, humid storage areas that crops may sit in after harvesting (peanuts, corn and grains are the most common carriers of the molds). A byproduct of these molds, Aflatoxin, has been associated with liver cancer. The U.S. has cracked down and continues to test crops to assure safe levels of Aflatoxin.
To reduce the mold content, it’s important that peanuts are harvested, tested for mold levels, manufactured, sealed in air-tight containers and sold to customers as quickly as possible. Companies that produce nut butters go through this process fairly quickly and concern of Aflatoxin is reduced. However, for the grind-your-own offerings at grocers, the nuts may sit in the room-temperature store for weeks or months before they are ground. This sitting period WILL increase the Aflatoxin levels. Unfortunately, these molds (and Aflatoxin) are generally invisible to the naked eye, so there’s no point in searching for them (unless there is an obscene amount growing on them- ewwww).
The simple solution is to stay away from the grind-it-yourself options. You can also look for companies that use peanuts grown in arid climates where the mold doesn’t grow (Valencia peanuts for instance). Arrowhead Mills organic peanut butter is a good choice.
- Buy organic. Peanuts, almonds and pecans are sprayed pretty heavily with chemicals to increase yield and get rid of pests and other plants. Cashews and macadamia nuts have the least amount of sprays on them. However, because of the high fat content, all nuts will hold onto more pesticides than other foods. So, if possible, buy organic for all nuts and nut butters (especially if you’re serving them to children).
- Buy raw. Raw nut butters will have more nutritional benefits because the roasting process kills off some nutrients. Concerning Aflatoxin, the roasting process won’t kill 100%. For salmonella, roasting will kill the bacteria ONLY if the contamination occurred before the roasting process.
- Keep refrigerated. No matter what type of nut butter you buy, keep it refrigerated after opening (even if it says “does not need to be refrigerated”). Also, storage for all types of nuts is best in the refrigerator (freeze the nuts if you will be storing them for longer than 1 year).
Try something new and report back here. If you already have some personal favorites, share ‘em here!