The FDA proposed a standard of 95 percent peanuts, with the remaining five percent being “optional ingredients” (like salt, sugar, or hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated peanut oil). But that was confounded by the enormous commercial success of Jif, with its creaminess and honey (and Skippy and Peter Pan, which also increased their sugar and hydrogenated oil use). Consumers clearly loved these sweet, spreadable butters.
Ultimately the FDA compromised with manufacturers in 1971, settling on the threshold of 90 percent peanuts that persists today. It was put to the test during the low-fat craze of the 1990s, when the big three created “diet” peanut butters that contained less fat, and the FDA blocked the use of “peanut butter” on the label. Instead, the concoctions had to be called “spreads.”
The process of defining peanut butter was so arduous and expensive that the agency gave up on trying to do the same for other food standards. Under Richard Nixon, the FDA pivoted to focused on safety and transparency of ingredients on food labels. This allowed for innovation and creative interpretations, like mayonnaise. In 2015, the egg industry attacked the food-tech company Hampton Creek over its vegan product called “Just Mayo,” arguing that mayo is defined by the inclusion of eggs. The FDA allowed the name to stand.
The challenge of “natural” foods still looms large, though. The FDA is working to define “natural” at the moment, a period for public comments on the matter having closed in May after the agency received more than 5,000.
This follows a federal attempt at defining natural in 1974, when the Federal Trade Commission proposed that “natural” foods are “those with no artificial ingredients and only minimal processing.” The agency deliberated for nine years before giving up.
The FDA will likely have to do the same. Jean Jacques Rousseau endorsed natural foods in 1762, writing, “Our appetite is only excessive because we try to impose on it rules other than those of nature.” He was not alone in this “appeal to nature,” a long-standing logical fallacy in philosophy which overlooks the fact that nature produces some of the most toxic substances that exist. Snake venom is natural. Influenza and hurricanes are natural. Defining nature is one of the great challenges of philosophy, as writer Alan Levinovitz noted on NPR, and not one that we will suddenly solve.
And the more immediate question of which peanut butter to use remains.
Partially hydrogenated oils are bad for our hearts, yes. As is too much sugar. But in the amounts of peanut butter that most of us eat, it’s tough to know if it really matters—especially if it can be produced more cheaply and live longer on a shelf, which means less food waste and more egalitarian access to peanut butter.
As people have recently grown wary of the health effects of trans fats, some peanut butters have incorporated fully hydrogenated oils (essentially a synthetic saturated fat). Manufacturers have taken to blending these fully hydrogenated oils with liquid oils in a process called interesterification, yielding a product with the desirable gooeyness and stability of a partially hydrogenated oil. It’s not yet clear whether that’s good for our bodies.
Ultimately, the question of peanut-butter superiority is a question of what constitutes better? Do refrigeration and shelf life matter? Are we talking only about nourishing our own bodies, or about minimizing waste and feeding a planet? There’s also the matter of enjoyment, which I tend to overlook.
In any case, as with every question about food in a world of defined by unsustainable production, peanut butter transcends physiology.