Peanut butter, once a staple in every American child’s diet, has become something of a food villain. Many families and schools now avoid it due to the rapidly rising number of kids with peanut allergies and gut disorders.
But peanut butter is a highly nutritious food that both kids and adults like. It’s also affordable and easily transportable, making it ideal for packed lunches. So what happened to peanut butter? And should we (and our children) eat it or not?
To understand what may be behind peanut butter’s tarnished reputation, let’s take a closer look at this once-favorite spread.
What’s So Bad About Peanut Butter?
Natural peanut butter separates. Prior to eating it, you have to mix the separated peanut solids and oil together. But that may be inconvenient for some people, who prefer their peanut butter pre-mixed. To cater to this preference, the food industry figured out how to stabilize a liquid in another substance with which it is not naturally soluble. The resulting mixture is called an emulsion, which simply means a suspension of small globules of one liquid in another.
Compounds that aid in the stability of an emulsion are called emulsifiers. Soap and egg yolks are some recognizable examples of emulsifiers, which are detergent-like molecules. However, some emulsifiers may not be good for our bodies. This includes additives such as polysorbates, carboxymethylcellulose, and various lecithins (often derived from GMO soy).
The list of packaged foods that contain emulsifiers reads like a Who’s Who of typical American favorites: Ice cream, baked goods, margarine, spreads, processed meats, chocolates, salad dressings, whipped toppings … even infant formula! A complete list of emulsifiers and the foods in which they are commonly used can be found here.
A study published in Nature showed that emulsifiers may impact our health, affecting the intestinal lining of our guts as well as our microbiomes (the collection of organisms that inhabit our guts). So are emulsifiers the real problem with peanut butter?
A Quick Dip into Science
The effect emulsifiers have on the relationship between the host and the microbiome may be partly responsible for the national rise in peanut butter allergies (as well as a host of allergies to other food groups).
While the bugs that inhabit our gastrointestinal tracts provide many benefits, occasionally, they get out of control, and the host needs protection. Our bodies create a protective shield, covering the intestinal lining with a layer of mucous to keep these undesirable microbes at a safe distance.
Emulsifiers, as mentioned earlier, work as detergents that can disrupt the protective mucous layer. This can lead to inflammation as well as other unhealthy consequences, including obesity, metabolic syndrome, and colitis. However, there are various foods that can help protect the gut’s intestinal barrier. These protective foods include certain fats, calcium, polyphenols (found in black and green tea), and dietary fiber found in fruit and grains.
Food Labels: Know What to Look For
Spotting emulsifiers on food labels can be a challenge. The emulsifier known as CMC (Carboxymethylcellulose), for example, can cause an overgrowth of certain pathogens in the microbiome. Such overgrowth may be linked to SIBO (Small Intestine Bacterial Overgrowth), a common condition that is often difficult to diagnose. But what you will likely find on the food packaging label is ‘‘cellulose gum,” “polysorbates,” or “dietary fiber,’’ which is misleading at best.
The Cost of Convenience
Eliminating emulsifiers and processed foods from our diets is an excellent first step to restoring health. However, an equally important step is incorporating an organic diet that is free from pesticides. Many herbicide combinations are glyphosate-based and also contain inert substances such as surfactants (which act as detergents for breaking down fats).
The toxicity of many pesticides is found in substances that increase the effects of an active ingredient like surfactants. These substances are often described as “proprietary,” which means their chemical makeup does not have to be revealed. Unfortunately, these pesticide formulations can cause similar disruptions to the gut via the same mechanisms of action as emulsifiers.
In the future, practitioners may be able to measure surfactants in a patient’s urine, which may provide a way to evaluate and monitor the impacts of these non-food substances. Until then, avoid foods containing emulsifiers, as well as non-organic foods that may contain pesticides. And make the health of your microbiome a priority.
A good probiotic, such as Proflora™4R, can help maintain microbial balance, promote beneficial microbes, and support a healthy inflammatory response in the gut. Proflora™ 4R’s effective blend of spore-based microbes resists breakdown in the stomach. Proflora™ 4R also contains soothing herbs (marshmallow root, Aloe vera, and quercetin) to calm the digestive tract.
As we move away from processed foods and non-nutritive additives, healing the gut becomes possible. Who knows? We may even invite peanut butter back into our kitchens and lunch boxes once again.