Peanut Butter

'You ever wonder about the 'high fructose' in 'high fructose corn syrup'?" asked Patrick as he scanned the ingredients of his Rice Krispies. "It sounds like 'high octane.' I mean, what does corn syrup lack that it needs to be made high fructose?" Patrick's been asking a lot of questions like that lately, as the Kelly household has embarked on a mission to live a little more healthily. Patrick's eating fewer chips, lacing his diet with Omega-3, and exercising twice a week. I'm drinking green tea, cutting refined sugar, and starting yoga. I'm also subscribing to Cooking Light instead of Bon Appetit , and Patrick's question came back to me as I perused an article that pointed out the prevalence of both high fructose corn syrup (a sweetener) and trans fats (used as a preservative) in foods aimed at children. Stuff like peanut butter. I checked the Skippy ( $3.05 for 18 oz. at Vons) in the pantry: peanuts, sugar, hydrogenated vegetable oil. No corn syrup, but plenty of trans fats. I decided to do better by the Kelly kids, and hopefully find something that wouldn't strike them as overly healthy (read: bad-tasting). The kids like creamy, so I stuck with that.

My friends Livia and Sophia joined me for a late-night peanut-butter binge. We started with Skippy as a baseline and agreed it had a creamy consistency and very little peanut taste. Then we broke out a trio of the healthy stuff: Vons First Organics Creamy Peanut Butter ( $3.39 for 18 oz.), Laura Scudder's Old Fashioned Peanut Butter ( $3.55 for 16 oz. at Vons), and Smart Balance Peanut Butter ( $3.39 for 16 oz. at Vons). None of them had any trans fats, and only the Vons brand contained sugar (just a smidgen). "There's an oil slick on top," I said, as I opened the Vons, "but it disappears with a little stirring." We agreed that it was a pleasant alternative to the Skippy and liked the hearty peanut finish.

Laura Scudder required a lot more elbow grease -- we had to work in three quarters of an inch of oil. "I think the oil separation is less of a problem once it goes in the fridge," offered Sophia, "and I think this is a good example of 'natural' peanut butter -- only peanuts and salt." "Then they should choose their peanuts more carefully," I replied. "I'm getting a burnt and bitter aftertaste." And while I was excited about the Omega-3 in the Smart Balance, I couldn't help but wonder if added Omega-3 meant subtracted peanut flavor. "All I taste is oil," I complained. "It's adhering to my tongue and the roof of my mouth," mumbled Livia. "Use it to fix loose shoe soles, but don't eat it," concluded Sophia.

We left Vons behind and headed for Henry's, land of sugar-free peanut butters. "This would make a good peanut butter cookie," said Sophia of the Henry's store brand ( $2.39 for 18 oz.). "It tastes like peanuts, and it wouldn't make the cookie too sweet." I was grateful for the relative lack of oil and the absence of bitterness. "It's not overpowering," added Livia, "so it would complement other flavors well -- stuff like jelly or honey." The Wild Oats brand ( $3.99 for 16 oz.) didn't hold up in comparison. "Not much stirring necessary," assessed Sophia, "but the color is as wan as the flavor. It's lifeless. And the texture is gooey." No stirring at all was necessary for the Maranatha No Stir Organic Peanut Butter ( $2.39 for 16 oz.), but while Sophia's wrist got a break, Livia's nose got assaulted. "Ew! It smells like a bad peanut!" On the tongue, "there's some sweetness making the bad peanut taste, but there's also a pervasive taste of oil." "At least the texture is silky," smiled Sophia.

Trader Joe's sold two store brands -- Organic Creamy ( $2.99 for 16 oz.) and Creamy Salted ( $1.69 for 16 oz.). Both contained only peanuts and salt, and both required a little stirring. The Creamy Salted scored a palpable hit: Sophia said it was "everything I want in a peanut butter except chunky nut bits, with good texture and a robust peanut flavor and aroma." But the Organic, made from Valencia peanuts (supposedly smaller and sweeter than regular peanuts) felt like glue in our mouths. "It makes you ssslur your words," slurred Livia. "I need traction!" cried Sophia. "This just coats!"

Our palates were getting tired and gummy. We drank water to clear our mouths and dipped into the Whole Foods selections. "This is just a fraction of the nut butters they carry," I lamented. I had to pass over cashew butter, almost butter, and macadamia nut." The ladies wailed in sympathy over missed macadamias but soldiered on. None of the six peanut butters contained hydrogenated oils, and only one contained sugar. Both the store brands -- 365 Organics (sweetened or unsweetened, $2.99 for 18 oz.) -- were light on flavor and a touch runny but came across as a healthier version of Skippy. The next two, Once Again Organic No Stir Peanut Butter ( $3.99 for 16 oz.) and Arrowhead Mills Creamy Valencia Peanut Butter ( $3.99 for 16 oz.), were both healthy but were flavor disasters. "The Once Again has a dry, powdery texture," winced Livia. "And a chalky finish." "This is the second no-stir peanut butter that's been bad," observed Sophia. "I guess there's no free lunch -- if you want good peanut butter, you have to stir it." But even vigorous stirring couldn't save the Arrowhead Mills. "It tastes like oil and feels like glue," cried Sophia. "Where is my peanut flavor?" We found it, slightly roasted, in Justin's Classic Peanut Butter ( $6.29 for 16 oz.), and I liked the slightly gritty texture.

Finally, we arrived at the fresh-ground stuff. Whole Foods lets you do it yourself with the press of a button ( $3.99 for 16 oz.). Fresh (and sweet!) peanut flavor popped in our mouths, and we happily crunched on the granules. Henry's Fresh-Ground Organic ( $3.34 for 16 oz.) finished a close second but well ahead of the Henry's regular Fresh-Ground ( $2.79 for 16 oz.), which was dull by comparison.

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