Minor consumer complaints Dep’t: “natural” peanut butter

Skippy “Natural” Peanut Butter contains the same salt, sugar, and hydrogenated vegetable oil as the regular Skippy no self-respecting peanut butter lover would touch with a ten-foot pole.

I’m a peanut butter fan. But I learned a long time ago that, contrary to the slogan, if you like peanuts you’ll hate Skippy. The best peanut butter comes from places (including some Trader Joe’s stores) with a machine on site that grinds up peanuts. But “natural” peanut butter in the jar (chunky, of course) isn’t so bad, compared to the crap with hydrogenated vegetable oil, salt, and sugar.

Well, I just got back from my local Ralph’s, a reasonably high-end place for a chain supermarket and cheaper than Whole Foods (aka Whole Paycheck).

They had a special on Skippy Natural Super Chunk Peanut Butter, at $2.50/lb. compared to the usual price of $4/lb. for the crunchy-granola brands. That made me suspicious enough to look on the back, to find that the ingredients were:


That’s as opposed to regular Skippy, which contains:


As far as I can figure out, the Skippy Natural has slightly more saturated fat per serving than regular Skippy.

So I guess it’s “natural” in the sense that it’s not supernatural, or in the sense that only a natural-born fool would believe that Unilever produces any food product that isn’t full of stuff that’s bad for you.

Is this a major public issue? Of course not. But shouldn’t this sort of low-grade consumer fraud be banned? I think so.

If it says “natural peanut butter,” it ought to contain nothing but peanuts and perhaps salt; if someone wants to sell the same thing with honey added, then let the label say “natural peanut butter with honey.”

It’s easy to make fun of French and European Union food specifications. But it’s possible to go too far in the other direction, and I think we have.

In the absence of regulation, an honestly run supermarket wouldn’t carry a dishonestly labeled product. I mentioned this to the manager at my Ralph’s, but of course he has about as much influence over the suits at Ralph’s corporate HQ as I do.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com

51 thoughts on “Minor consumer complaints Dep’t: “natural” peanut butter”

  1. Forty or fifty years ago, Skippy (and almost all peanut butters) had two ingredients : peanuts and salt.
    Skippy was made with pretty good peanuts, and tasted like it — hence the slogan.

    Then never-to-be-sufficiently-damned Jif, with added sugar, made a big advertising splash on children’s television.
    Kids like sweet crap, and preferred it.
    Other brands followed suit and sweetened up, especially after the Butz ag program promoted with high-fructose corn syrup (cheaper than cane or beet sugar).

    Skippy held out for a decade, but when it began to lose market share to the sweetened peanut butters, its makers finally bowed to the inevitable and added HFCS, and I quit buying it.

    1. Skippy (and its competitors) always (or at least as far back as the late 1950s) had hydrogenated vegetable oils to solidify the product and keep the peanut oil from separating out. I don’t mind a bit of sugar, since I’m going to eat it with jam or preserves anyway. But the other stuff is bad for you and also tastes awful.

      1. And Mark, your comment is EXACTLY why this is a contentious issue that (perhaps properly) can’t be solved by the state.

        You’re happy to blow off the sugar: “I don’t mind a bit of sugar”, and appear to feel that the problem is too much fat in peanut butter. Personally I think the sugar is substantially MORE of a problem than the fat. You will recall we discussed this (in the context of the “deadliness” of McDonalds meals some months ago.

        It is one thing to insist that the state do certain things when the science behind those demands is settled. It’s something very different to insist the state do certain things based on bad epidemiology from the 60s which has now pervaded public discourse. it’s bad enough that folk wisdom is that we’re all going to get thinner and healthier by eating more carbs and less fat; it dials the obesity positive feedback loop up to 11 when we get the government in on the act reinforcing these same dubious claims and more or less encouraging the food industry to follow them.

        cf public demands (based on no evidence or bad science) for frequent mammograms, or for PSA tests.

        1. The state can mandate accurate labeling of ingredients and nutritional content.

          1. Yes and we all should be thankful of the ability of a minor miracle: The ability to read the sat and trans-fat info on an attached label.
            Guess how long that has been required?

            Another example of how the Party of Reagan is no longer the Party of Reagan:

            Although his appointment as FDA commissioner in 1990 by President George H. W. Bush won bipartisan approval, many of Kessler’s actions were controversial, and he soon became more popular with Democrats than Republicans. He moved quickly to make the agency more efficient, cutting the time needed to approve or reject new drugs, including AIDS drugs, and more vigilant in protecting consumers against unsafe products and inflated label claims. It was also under his watch that FDA enacted regulations requiring standardized Nutrition Facts labels on food. In one memorable action, he had 24,000 gallons of Citrus Hill orange juice seized because although made from concentrate, it was labeled “fresh”.[2] Kessler was reappointed to the post of FDA Commissioner during the administration of Bill Clinton.


          2. I LIKE accurate labeling. What made you think I was against it?

            But the thrust of Mark’s complaint goes to more than just labeling — he suggests frustration that it’s not clear to the consumer which is the “good” peanut butter, and my point is that, given that there is no consensus which is the “good” peanut butter, this is a crazy thing to be asking for.

            We already have vastly too much of this in the form of various “low-fat” foods where the “low-fat”, technically true, does not mean healthy. And I don’t mean this in a hippy “ooh, it’s chemically modified sense”, I mean it in the sense that eating less fat and more carbs is, for most people a worse choice in terms of overall longterm health than vice versa.

          3. MH, I didn’t mean to imply you were against accurate labeling.
            Just pointing out that there are things in the state’s purview it can do. For example, more research. If research determines that certain ingredients are exceptionally dangerous, then those ingredients can be banned outright.

            As for PSA or mammograms – folks fear uncertainty, fear that some preventable disease will strike, and if they had just xyz….
            Yes, we know quite well humans don’t accurately weigh risks.

  2. I suppose this brands me as a Philistine, but I steer clear of any nut butter that a) requires refrigeration, and, once it’s removed from the refrigerator, b) requires the shoulder muscles of an East German woman swimmer and 15-20 minutes of my time to recombine the flavorful stuff with the oil to make it spreadable. I find that, once I’ve performed the required rowing against a substance with the viscosity of motor oil at -40C, I’ve lost my desire for the PBJ that led me to buy the peanut butter in the first place.

    1. a) Never trust food that doesn’t spoil (except honey, I guess)
      b) Mix the peanut butter and oil when you first bring it home, before you put it in the fridge. Problem solved.

      1. I’m sorry but this is hippy nonsense.
        Starting with what I assume you would consider “natural”, we have foods like olive oil and dry grain that only spoil if you treat them really badly. Then we get the wide variety of preservation mechanisms with an ancient history — salting, smoking, drying, adding excess sugar, even lutefisk.

        I assume your true complaint is that you don’t trust modern mechanisms that prevent spoiling because they contain CHEMICALS. No matter that those chemicals have been aggressively vetted and are vastly less dangerous, all things considered, than the mechanisms I’v just described — smoking, excess salt, or excess sugar.

        Whatever. This sort of attitude strikes me as EXACTLY the same as right-wing no-nothingism. Those on the right, having never lived through the Great Depression, or some similar failure of laissez faire, refuse to accept that there can be things worse than some government intervention in the economy. Likewise those on the left refuse to admit that mother nature harbors poisons, including poisons in foods with a long long history.

    2. The mixing problem is *very* easily solved: store the peanut butter upside-down. When you turn it right-side up, the peanut oil distributes itself through the solid part of the peanut butter quite efficiently without the need for partially hydrogenated elbow grease…

      …unless you’re silly enough to buy such a large jar that you need to keep it in the fridge lest it spoil. (Unrefrigerated natural peanut butter keeps for weeks at least.) Then the solid part indeed gets very thick and hard to combine with the oil. But that’s an unforced error.

  3. forgive me for pointing this out, but arsenic and horseshit are both all natural and i wouldn’t consider either of them particularly healthy for humans.

    1. Good point. Also, much of what is considered “unnatural” is perfectly healthy. For instance, many “natural” molecules can be produced synthetically but have the *exact* same molecular structure, yet for any number of reasons more efficient than refining the original source. Similarly, we’ve been breeding plants and animals for millenia, altering their genetic structure for purposes of efficiency. Chemistry can do the same thing without all the hassle of breeding.

      On a related note, some crops sprayed with organic pesticides qualify for the organic label, yet because the pesticide is less effective actually require *more* pesticide, which although “organic” can be just as bad for the environment or humans. Although there’s little evidence that pesticides are really having any ill health effects on humans under current regulatory requirements.

      1. Go drink your atrazine. Not a pesticide, true, but if you don’t think pesticides have been well documented to have harmed human health, you’ll have no problems swallowing your daily soe of herbicides. Drink up!

    2. I recall being offered a skin cream that was ‘made only from plants, so it is all natural and doesn’t have any chemicals’. Sigh. I refrained from pointing out that 1) there were chemicals in it and 2) poison ivy is all natural and that I still didn’t want to rub it on my face. To JMG below – dose really does matter.

      1. i’m a science teacher in texas. please imagine how i cringed as the person who came to my classroom to do an anti-smoking message told them that tobacco products are full of chemicals and they wouldn’t want to take chemicals into their bodies. strangely enough, even as she said that, she took oxygen into her lungs.

  4. I’m in the Don K Philistine camp. And I suffer from Old Hippy Guilt Syndrom because of my backsliding ways. Oh the shame!
    So anyways, the local ICA Maxi where I do my shopping discontinued my favoured brand, Mississippi (with Georgia peanuts no less) and now all they sell* is Skippy. So I got a jar and it sucks as bad as I remembered. And the “crunchy” peanut bits are the consistency of coarse sand instead of, well you know, chunks.
    At least Skippy is packed in a glass jar instead of plastic. But what I really crave is good ole Peter Pan. My lifestyle has been seriously impacted by this. Oh poor, poor me.

    *I’m now living in Sweden where peanut butter is as exotic as caviar. In fact ICA has lots of brands of caviar for a wide range of prices and origins. I like caviar less than I like Skippy.

  5. My grocery store pet peeve is “organic” foods. The only food in that store that isn’t “organic” is the salt.

    1. The “organic” label means grown organically—i.e. without unnatural pesticides or processed additives. Not that the food itself is not organic.

      Incidentally, high-fructose corn syrup, hydrogenated oil, and thousands of other additives were “grown” in laboratories and don’t exist in nature. Therefore, these are also not organic in the sense of occurring as a result of a natural process.

      1. Now Brett knows. Whereas before this comment he didn’t.

        Brett’s objection is that the meaning of “organic” is different in different contexts. All words must be used with their One True Meaning (which were set right after the Big Bang or around 1776, I forget) or else his world starts falling apart. Too much nuance you see.

        [And yes, I know I’m being an a$$. Haven’t had my morning coffee yet. Strike this if you must.]

        1. I know Brett knows. But for me it’s usually worthwhile to point out his intentional or unintentional ignorance about certain things, to provide a record that his incorrect assumptions were challenged.

          1. I’m with Brett here. I love organic food; nothing else really tastes like carbon-based molecules.

          2. I’m perfectly aware of how “organic” is being misused. It irritates me, if that’s organic food, are we supposed to believe the other stuff isn’t organic? What is it, ceramics, maybe?

            If they wanted to call it “natural”, or “pesticide free”, or any number of things, I’d be fine with that. But, except for the salt, it’s ALL organic.

          3. In France and Germany, they say “bio” – short for biologique, or biologische. In Italy and Spain, they say “ecologico”, “organica”, or “biologica.” The first attested usage of “organic” in English to mean “without industrial pesticides or chemicals” was in 1942, coined by J. I. Rodale. Which was probably before Bellmore was born. As another commented, this is standing athwart History while trying to mouth “Stop” around a gob full of Cheetos.

    2. you peeve is not a ‘pet’ as it is not a domesticated animal.

      And my salt IS organic – it’s harvested from the sweat of virgins. Sal du Marie

    3. I guess conservatives are Standing Athwart Etymology Yelling Stop now too? And just like Buckley argued against civil rights laws rather than for, say, the reimposition of slavery, Brett’s arguing for organic to mean “carbon based” rather than “possessing alchemical lifeforce”.

      We finally got everything right somewhere around 1950, people! Why can’t you see that?!

  6. Teddie is the only way to go here. Boston product, but you can order online now. You can’t good peanut butter in London, so we always stock up when we’re in Boston. Along with other stuff you can’t get here, I confess–canned clams, maple syrup (the good stuff), and those Nestle butterscotch thingies for cookies. Our suitcases are always over the weight limit, for some reason.

    1. But don’t ya love that seafood and lamb are always the cheapest items on the menus over there. >*sigh*<

      1. I do! I always tell people I live here because of the food, and no one ever believes me.

  7. It is possible to make your own; easy, even. Food processor, roasted peanuts, a bit of peanut oil, and some salt. The food processor was 70$ seven years ago. The most expensive ingredient would be the peanut oil – at $0.25 a tablespoon.

    The Bellmore comment is just “ignernt”; “Organic” is a shorthand for chemical and pesticide-free agriculture, and when you’ve got a seven-month-old, not exposing him to Du Pont’s latest-and-greatest becomes an overriding goal.

    1. Why add peanut oil? The peanut-butter machine at Trader Joe’s just grinds up the peanuts. Hadn’t thought of using a food processor, though.

      1. You need the peanut oil to get the food processor to grind the peanuts without stalling or overheating–basically, you’re just thinning the mixture slightly.

      2. Recently discovered factoid: blender bases are the right size to screw on a Mason-type jar…you can grind your peanuts directly into the jar to store them.

        1. The problem with using the blender, as opposed to the food processor, is that you need to use much more oil as a force-transmitting medium in which to to emulsify the peanuts. Otherwise, the wetted chunks of crushed peanut stick in concretions on the sides of the blender carafe. Also, some blenders (like the Kitchenaid), don’t mate to standard Mason jars – they mate to wide-mouth Mason jars. And you can’t put a wide-mouth pint or half-pint mason jar on the end, because the blades strike the glass walls of the jar as the blades spin.

  8. Hard to believe that no one has yet mentioned this, but, as is known to all residents of Lake Wobegon, if you can’t get it at Ralph’s, you can probably get along without it.

  9. Until now Peanut Butter had always been free of the worry that what I’m eating may not be good for me. This makes it hard not to yearn for the “good old days” before Ernst Dichter when food was just something you ate.

  10. Elitist. True populists go to Food 4 Less to buy from Kroger, instead of joining the bourgeoisie buying from Kroger at Ralph’s.

    (Also, Food 4 Less is consistently cheaper, and doesn’t require a loyalty card to access sale prices. But it does have fewer brands, especially downscale ones).

    The number of supermarket chains here in SoCal just boggles the mind. There are representatives of at least ten different ones within four or five miles of me. Although I’m not sure how many companies that actually is, as some of them are owned by the same holding companies as each other.

    1. Ahh, Food 4 Less – only the best entrails! I’ll never forget the time I went there and saw three cow testicles in one package. Now *that* is a bargain.

  11. I hate to break into the discussion with actual data – wait, no, I LOVE to break into the discussion with actual data.

    According to the USDA, there are effectively no trans fats in any commercial peanut butter.

    From http://www.ars.usda.gov/is/pr/2001/010612.htm

    No Trans Fats in Peanut Butter–Contrary to Current Rumor
    By Judy McBride
    June 12, 2001
    Recurring rumors that commercial peanut butters contain trans fats–which appear to increase risk of cardiovascular disease–have no basis in fact, according to an Agricultural Research Service study.

    The rumors no doubt started because small amounts of hydrogenated vegetable oils are added to commercial peanut butters–at 1 to 2 percent of total weight–to prevent the peanut oil from separating out. And the hydrogenation process can generate the formation of trans fatty acids in oils, according to Timothy H. Sanders, who leads research at ARS’ Market Quality and Handling Research Unit at Raleigh, N.C.

    To see if the rumors had any validity, Sanders prepared 11 brands of peanut butter, including major store brands and “natural” brands, for analysis by a commercial laboratory. He also sent paste freshly prepared from roasted peanuts for comparison. The laboratory found no detectable trans fats in any of the samples, with a detection limit of 0.01 percent of the sample weight.

    That means that a 32-gram serving of any of the 11 brands could contain from zero to a little over three-thousandths (0.0032) of a gram of trans fats without being detected. While current regulations don’t require food labels to disclose trans fat levels, they do require disclosure of saturated fat levels at or above five-tenths (0.5) of a gram. For comparison, that’s 156 times higher than this study’s detection limit for trans fats.

    By contrast, peanut butter has plenty of unsaturated fatty acids. The most abundant is oleic acid, the monounsaturated fat believed to be good for the cardiovascular system. In this analysis, oleic acid levels ranged from 19 percent of total weight in one private-label brand to 27 percent in one “natural” type. Palmitic acid, the most abundant saturated fatty acid, weighed in at about 5 percent among all brands.

    Scientific contact: Timothy H. Sanders, ARS Market Quality and Handling Research Unit, Raleigh, N.C., phone (919) 515-6312, fax (919) 515-7124, mqhru@ncsu.edu.

  12. I can top that, Mark. A couple years ago I went into the local Gelson’s and one thing I needed was salt. IIRC, they didn’t have what I was used to, which was Morton’s iodized, but they had something in a light blue or white canister. (I have switched to either kosher or sea salt, which you can get very reasonably at TJs.)

    What did it have in it? Some kind of sugar!!! (I don’t remember exactly, maybe dextrose. Some kind of “rose.”) I am not kidding. Someone put sugar in salt!!!!

      1. Zounds! Does that mean it was also in Morton’s all that time (when I never bothered to read the label)?

        1. Probably. From the Morton’s site: “Morton® Iodized Salt contains potassium iodide, dextrose to stabilize the iodide and calcium silicate which is an anti-caking agent.” (Question “What are the differences…”?)

  13. Oh and before everyone jumps on my head, I don’t normally shop there, I just run in when I’m out of milk. They are very very nice though, I’ll say that.

  14. No need to head to the health-food store. Smuckers, of all people makes a natural peanut butter that is my favorite. You do have to stir, but it’s not that hard. The ingredient list:peanuts and salt.

  15. Caveat Emptor – thank god you are capable of reading the label. But then I suppose those too will be dispensed with by the Red Staters. Oh what a world.

  16. Will it add too much to the crazy if I ponder aloud whether the move to plastic containers is a step back? ; >

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