Peanut butter alternatives gaining in popularity

Peanut butter in jar

The UK loves peanut butter. But in fact there are a host of nutty spreads out there that could be better for you.

High in protein, but also in fat, peanut butter has, some would say undeservedly, gained a bad reputation.

Many peanut butters contain additives, salt, sugar, and sometimes even seemingly healthy options can contain palm oil.

While sales of peanut butter (technically a legume butter) have skyrocketed by 20% in the past year, making it the most popular spread around, in fact there are plenty of spreads that may be nutritionally better.

Almond, macadamia, cashew, hazelnut, pistachio, walnut, pecan, and brazil nuts all make terrific butters, and are no longer just the preserve of health food fans.

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John Carley, from Carley's Organic Foods, has been making "very pure" nut butters since the 70s, and says people often think nut butters are a "new thing".

"In different cultures, in different parts of the world, people have ground up nuts and seeds and made pastes literally forever. Palaeolithic dieters (a diet based on the food cavemen ate) know we have been doing it for thousands of years.

"There has been evidence of ground up nuts and grinding tools at archaeological sites," he explains.

John Carley thinks they are making a resurgence after falling out of fashion over the era when food first became an industrialised industry.

"We don't read much about hazelnut butter in Dickens' novels - there is a gap there," he jokes.

Nut allergies

Both peanuts (legumes or beans) and tree nuts (including walnut, almond, hazelnut, cashew, pistachio, and Brazil nuts) can be allergens, which can cause life-threatening reactions in some people.

Medical experts advise if you are allergic to peanuts you may also be allergic to tree nuts, and vice versa, so avoid nuts wherever possible.

Read the BBC Health Allergy Advice

Russell Smart, is the commercial director of the 3V Natural Foods Group, which owns the Meridian brand.

Its butters, with no added sugar, have been made for 25 years in north Wales, with peanut butter Meridian's "number one".

While peanut butters jostle for space on supermarket shelves, Russell Smart says other nut butters are starting to move from online and health store sales in to the mainstream, and the firm now processes over 750 tonnes of different types of nuts and seeds a year.

"In the independent sector we sell eight jars of peanut to two almond and one cashew," he says.

"Peanut butter is worth £50m a year, and almond butter £1m a year: about 2% of the overall nut butter market, as it is a lot more expensive than peanut," says Mr Smart.

Britain consumed 14 million kilograms of peanut butter in 2012, spending £56m, and increase from £47m in 2010.

Pistachios in bowl Pistachio butter could be used to create a filling for pistachio macarons

Mr Smart says almond and cashew butters were counted in this, and in fact counted for a 10% increase in sales. And the growth isn't stopping there.

"We have made a case for our almond and cashew butters and we'll be stocking more major supermarkets from next month."

Carley's sells more than 30 types of nut and seed butters, with no sugar or palm butter, and business is also booming for the organic firm in Cornwall.

"Definitely we make ever-increasing quantities of it: over the years we have seen production increase massively to meet demand," John Carley says.

"Almond butter is our biggest seller, as it is a very rich source of many minerals, and eating almonds is seen as very healthy."

Seed pastes like tahini (sesame seed paste), sunflower, pumpkin and pine nut butter are also healthy alternatives to peanut butter.

How to make your own

Dan Lepard

Award-winning chef and food writer Dan Lepard says:

"One of my cooking approaches is to combine adult and child flavours - so something like peanut butter and whisky, to tickle people's interest.

Nut butters are good at emulsifying very well so you can get a creamier texture. It's easier to do slightly coarser texture ones at home.

Start by selecting your nuts and go unsalted. Wash them, pat them dry, and put them in to a food processor, with a neutral oil, like a grapeseed oil. Add a few drops and whizz until you get a smooth paste.

The beauty of making something at home is that you can try different textures, and a shorter time in the processor will mean you won't put too much pressure on the motor. I'd say about six minutes, and you'll get a lovely rich butter."

While it can take days to mill, cool and get a commercial batch just right, many raw food fans like to make their own.

"Nut butters are really easy, if you have a strong blender. You just puree nuts," explains Sam Calvert from the Vegan Society.

Nuts are often seen as just "fatty" due to their high-fat content. The total fat content of most nuts is high, because as it ripens its fat store increases and starch content declines.

But in moderation they can be incredibly good for us, with many having high calcium levels.

Several research studies have shown that moderate nut consumption does not increase weight. In fact because of nuts' high energy density and protein and fibre content, they can help us to feel less hungry.

"Many independent scientific studies have found that eating nuts and nut butters helps reduce our risk of heart disease and diabetes," says Sam Calvert.

"This would be a moderate intake of nuts, giving up to 20% of calories in our diet, depending on our individual needs.

"Nuts can be a good source of some vitamins and minerals and they are high in protein, fibre and essential fatty acids," she says, citing vitamins E and B6, folic acid, and niacin.

Almonds are held up perhaps as the healthiest, as a source of calcium, magnesium and vitamin E.

Cashews contains several trace minerals - potassium, iron and zinc. Pistachios are also really high in potassium.

Only 25g of Brazil nut butter a week would be needed to obtain all the selenium required for a healthy diet, and walnuts are a good source of essential Omega-3 fats.

John Carley says nut butters have the added advantage of being easily digestible. "Your system can get hold of nutrients right away and you can assimilate almond butter to tackle a loss of calcium easily," he says.

Cashew nuts in bowl Cashew nuts contain potassium, iron and zinc

People interested in vegan or raw food diets, Palaeo dieters, and fitness fans looking to boost protein are the traditional consumers. But so-called "foodie discoverers" are now starting to pick up on nut butters too.

There are plenty of ways to cook creatively using them, as master baker Dan Lepard knows.

"Cashew butter is delicious, cashews and sugar go really well together. Try a homemade cashew ice-cream using the cashew butter, and bits of crystallised ginger," he says.

"You can also spoon cashew butter over the base of a tart case and fill it with chocolate ganache or maybe pineapple and then ganache.

"Almond butter is lovely too - you may want to make a rich butter cookie dough with orange zest, and add it to that, and do crescent-shaped cookies dipped in icing sugar, similar to Greek cookies," Dan Lepard says.

He also recommends using walnut paste in an apple strudel.

But what should you pick to have on toast?

"You're either in to peanut butter or you're not," he says.

"I love toasted bread, peanut butter and fresh pineapple on top, you could also do a grilled toast though, with a nut butter and cinnamon and sugar sprinkled on top and grilled."

John Carley says butters can be added to smoothies, dips, dressings and even in baking cakes, used "instead of a shortening in the cake", or even to crisp up roasted vegetables.

The Vegan Society recommends a simple Thai satay sauce using peanut butter, or even combining nut butters with vegetables and beans to make a creamy stew.

"I'm hoping almond and cashew nut butters will come and take their rightful place alongside peanut butter," says Russell Smart.

That may be some way off, but it might now be time to try something new.

What's in your nuts? An average serving is 30g (two tablespoons)

Nuts (per 100g) Protein (g) Fat (g) Monounsaturated fat (g) Kcal

Almond

21.1

55.8

34.4

612

Brazil

14.1

68.2

25.8

682

Cashew

17.7

48.2

27.8

573

Hazelnut

14.1

63.5

50.0

650

Macadamia

7.9

77.6

60.8

748

Pecan

9.2

70.1

42.5

689

Pistachio

17.9

55.4

27.6

601

Walnut

14.7

68.5

12.4

688

Source: Fruit and Nuts: The First Supplement to McCance and Widdowson's The Composition of Foods

BBC Food does not recommend eating nuts or nut butters if you have a nut allergy. For more advice on nut allergies contact the NHS or Allergy UK.

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