By Matthew Thompson, Associate Food Editor for EatingWell Magazine
There was a year of my life, first grade, when I literally ate peanut butter and jelly sandwiches every single day without fail, even on weekends. It's not that I was a timid eater-at that age I was happily sampling my mom's macrobiotic vegan experiments and even requesting some favorites of my own-it's just that when you find a good thing you stick with it.
And I did, tenaciously. Though other meals made it into the lunch rotation after a year or two, peanut butter and jelly was a mainstay throughout my childhood, along with its attendant variations: peanut butter and banana, peanut butter and Fluff, peanut butter straight-from-the-spoon-hold-the-bread.
It wasn't a bad thing, nutrition-wise. While peanut butter is high in fat and is a concentrated source of calories, it's not fattening-you just don't want to go overboard. Luckily, you don't need much to feel satisfied: just a tablespoon (90 calories) or two of peanut butter goes a long way. Plus, peanut butter provides protein and folate, a B vitamin important for the healthy development of new cells.
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But there came a point in adulthood when I started paying attention to things like grams of sodium per serving and just what "hydrogenated soybean oil" is. I'd read the long, trailing list of ingredients on favorite products and wonder, "What the heck is this stuff?" What exactly makes my favorite creamy peanut butter so creamy? Do I even want to know?
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That's why I'm such a fan of natural peanut butters. Take all the extra junk out of a normal jar and what you've got left is just plain old mashed-up peanuts with a pinch of salt. Delicious. Some might be turned off by the way oil separates out, but I've found that if you simply leave the peanut butter upside down for about an hour, the oil will migrate up to the jar bottom so it's easier to stir without making a mess. After stirring, you can store it in the refrigerator.
Of course, not all natural peanut butters, or jellies for that matter, are created equal. EatingWell taste-tested different brands of smooth natural peanut butters to find some of the best of the bunch that are nationally available. We put a range of low-sugar strawberry jams and jellies to the test too. (Why strawberry? I think I speak objectively for PB&J fans everywhere when I say that strawberry is obviously the best.) Our guidelines: Anything containing high-fructose corn syrup was eliminated right off the bat. The ingredients had to list strawberries first or second, juice concentrates were the preferred sweetener and a tablespoon of jam had to contain 40 or less calories.
So, savor our results! Next time you get a hankering for creamy, toasted peanuts and sweet, sticky jam, you can feel confident knowing you're reaching for reader-approved favorites.
The results of our natural peanut butter taste test:
Smucker's Natural: Creamy
The omnipresent Smucker's brand garnered high marks in all categories. Tasters called its grainier texture "the crunchy-lover's smooth" and said it had "more peanut butter taste." It was one taster's top pick for natural peanut butter.
Woodstock Farms Organic: Smooth/Salted
This selection was a bit too grainy and sticky for some, but one taster said, "It's perfect! It has a nice, sweet taste the others don't really have." Another taster liked its looks and "great flavor," while others found it grainy, bitter and too thick or said it tasted really good but "looked like Dijon mustard."
Teddie Old Fashioned: Smooth
Tasters loved this peanut butter's "very peanuty" taste and "good consistency." While some found it "too salty," and one taster commented that "it was so sticky it was hard to swallow," the general consensus was that this was a well-flavored and textured option.
Other natural peanut butters we liked:
MaraNatha Organic: Creamy & Roasted
Peanut Butter & Co.: Smooth Operator
The results of our low-sugar strawberry jam/jelly taste test:
Polaner All-Fruit Strawberry
The top pick, Polaner All-Fruit, has graced the supermarket shelves with its fruit- and fruit-juice-sweetened jams for nearly 20 years. Two panelists selected it as their favorite in taste and it was one panelist's top for texture. One taster waxed poetic about its, "Explosive taste, rich texture." Another added, "Its tart taste was honestly strawberry." A third loved its "nice chunks of berries."
Smucker's Low Sugar Strawberry Preserves
The ubiquitous supermarket staple, Smucker's Low Sugar option was the panel's second-favorite. The only sample containing added color, it received the highest marks from our panel in the appearance category. One taster thought it had a "smooth vibrant color," while another added that its "color and texture were appealing." Tasters enjoyed its "nice fruit taste-most like a real strawberry." Alas, some saw through the "red 40" in the ingredient list: one taster complained, "This is way too red."
365 Organic Strawberry Conserves
The child-friendly house brand of natural-foods giant Whole Foods also made the grade with our panelists, particularly one who cited it as his favorite in all three categories. A second taster praised its "delicate and rich strawberry flavor" and a third said it had "a good strawberry taste" without being "overly sweet." But another wasn't a fan of its appearance, noting it "spreads a bit too thinly for great jam."
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Other low-sugar strawberry jams we liked:
Bionaturae: Organic Fruit Spread
Cascadian Farms: Organic Fruit Spread
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What's your favorite natural peanut butter?
By Matthew Thompson
Matthew Thompson is the associate food editor for EatingWell Magazine.
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