Whether you are working around the salmonella outbreak, a food allergy or you simply want some variety, a wide range of nut butters offers healthy, delicious surprises. Nut butters have seen a spike in popularity recently, due in part to reports touting the nutritional benefits of nuts. Although many people are most familiar with peanut butter, any nut–from a walnut to a high-end macadamia–as well as a number of seeds, can produce a thick, luscious spread. The scrumptious flavors of these butters mean they work just as well in a recipe as they do in a sandwich. They’re perfect for putting on crackers, dipping celery into, embellishing a favorite dessert or flavoring savory dishes. Whether you want to replace your everyday butter or splurge on a gourmet treat, our guide to the world of nut and seed butters will have you spreading like a pro in no time.
Nuttin’ But the Best
“All nut butters are excellent sources of healthy unsaturated fats, including heart- and brain-healthy monounsaturated fats,” notes Minh-Hai Tran, a registered dietitian at NutritionWorks Consulting in Seattle. “People often forget that fat is an essential nutrient that the body needs and doesn’t make.” Among the more popular nut butter varieties are almond and cashew, which both pack nutritional punches. “Almond butter is twice as high in calcium as peanut butter,” says Tran. Cashew butter, which is pale and drier than peanut butter, also has a healthy dose of calcium, plus iron, protein and those hard-to-get, but much-needed, B vitamins. One caveat: Both cashews and almonds are high in fat, even if a lot of it is the healthy monounsaturated variety, so you may want to go easy when spreading the butter on toast in the mornings.
For something sweeter than cashews and almonds, try rich hazelnut butter, which is loaded with calcium and folic acid and tastes like a more healthful version of decadent Nutella. Or opt for mellow macadamia-nut butter, which is also quite sweet and contains essential omega-3 fatty acids. The most nutrient-dense nut butter, metabolism-increasing walnut butter, has plenty of the omega-3 alpha-linoleic acid. Or, if you’re looking for a spread with high antioxidant capacity, pick up some pecan butter.
See(d) Beyond Nuts
These nuts are not the only sources of butters–legumes and seeds also make savory spreads. In fact, ever-popular peanut butter may be the “nut” butter most commonly found in kitchens across the country, but a peanut technically isn’t a nut at all; it’s a legume. As peanut and tree-nut allergies become increasingly common, consumers who still want to savor the thick, creamy consistency of peanut butter are turning to soy-nut and sunflower-seed butters instead.
Derived from soybeans (also a member of the legume family), soy-nut butter is actually quite similar to peanut butter in terms of taste and texture. Cholesterol-free and with far less total and saturated fat than peanut butter, it’s made from freshly ground, high-protein soybeans. Kid-friendly soy-nut butter is making a splash at camps and cafeterias throughout the country as an attractive peanut-butter substitute.
Sunflower-seed butter is also growing in popularity. “It may appear similar to peanut butter at first glance,” says New York City-based registered dietician Andrea Brekke. “But it has a distinct nutritional edge–especially for kids.” Brekke notes that sunflower-seed butter is high in alpha-linoleic acid, loaded with antioxidants vitamin E and selenium, and has cholesterol-lowering phytosterols. “Just two tablespoons provide a whopping dose of vitamin E, which many kids’ diets lack,” she says.
Other seed-based butters include the Middle Eastern-style tahini, a creamy paste made from toasted, ground sesame seeds; the high-protein, heart disease-fighting pumpkin-seed butter; and nutty hemp-seed butter, which is an excellent source of omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids.
When faced with an overwhelming number of nut and seed butters in the grocery store, concerned parents should remember one thing: steer clear of fillers. Choose natural butters that avoid oils, stabilizers and artificial sweeteners over products that list hydrogenated oils or corn syrup in the ingredients. Although the butter’s natural oils will tend to separate in these healthier products, they are still easy to mix and use. To avoid oil spillage over the top of the jar, simply turn the covered container upside down for a few hours so the oil migrates to the bottom. Then flip the jar back over, open and stir. Once the oil is distributed throughout the butter, store the container in the fridge.
Although, many of the specialty butters can be expensive, they make a special treat. Price compare and look for deals from store brands. Most natural and organic peanut, soy and sunflower butters are closer in price in price to conventional peanut butter.
Nut Just for Sandwiches
Since PB&J is probably what your mother (and her mother before that) made, it’s natural to associate nut and seed butters with sandwiches. However, the full flavors and versatility of these spreads mean they make ideal partners for more than just bread. Soups, desserts and even savory entrees recipes can all be made with nut and seed butters, giving the dishes a creative and healthy boost. According to Brekke, “It’s a great way to add staying power to snacks and provides a quick option to satisfy hunger and add important nutrients to your family’s meals.”
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