How peanut, almond, and cashew butter stack up in nutrition, plus your guide to buying and DIY-ing nut butters.
Running requires the right type of fuel—the kind that’s nutritious enough to support training efforts but also tastes great. The almighty nut butter checks both those boxes. Not only does it have an impressive nutrition resume, but according to a study from the Asia Pacific Journal of Clinical Nutrition, published in 2010, tree nut consumption (that’s nuts like almonds, cashews, walnuts, and pistachios) can improve overall diet quality and nutrient intake.
What’s more, a review published in 2021 in International Journal Molecular Sciences found nut consumption was inversely associated with metabolic syndrome and excess weight. It also suggests eating nuts can reduce risk of heart disease and other chronic health problems, as well as reduce inflammation. The review calls out nuts’ healthy properties like mono- and polyunsaturated fats, fibre, minerals, and vitamins.
And let’s be honest, nut butters are delicious enough to spread on just about anything. So it’s no wonder nuts and the creamy spreads made from them are consistent favourites among dietitians and doctors.
It’s also worth pointing out that because nut butters contain a fair amount of calories in a small volume of food, the various guises of nut butters can be considered a calorie-dense item to put on your menu. “This is helpful for runners who are often underfed but need to make sure they are consuming enough calories to support training efforts,” says Jennifer O’Donnell-Giles, M.S., R.D., C.S.S.D., a Columbia University adjunct professor and owner of Eat 4 Sport. So, yes, runners have a lot of reasons to go nuts for healthy nut butters.
The range of the spreads on the market has never been greater. Here are three healthy nut butters to stash in your kitchen pantry, plus how they stack up in nutrition.
How 3 Healthy Nut Butters Compare
1 tablespoon serving of peanut butter contains:
- 96 calories
- 3.5 grams protein
- 8 grams fat
- 1.7 grams saturated
- 3.5 grams carbohydrate
- 1 gram fibre
The reign of peanut butter might have come to an end, but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t still be a staple in your diet. For relatively little cost it gives you some plant-based protein.
A handful of recent studies including one in the European Journal of Epidemiology from 2020 suggests an association between a higher intake of plant-based proteins, like peanut butter, and lower chances of premature death from various causes including heart disease. “Reducing some of the animal-based protein in your diet for plant-based protein can be a good way to decrease your intake of saturated fat if you are eating high amounts of high-fat meats and dairy which can have health benefits,” notes O’Donnell-Giles.
The original nut butter also provides more niacin than its newer counterparts. Niacin is a B vitamin needed to convert food into energy. And a recent study published in the journal Nutrients discovered that a loftier intake of niacin may be associated with a lower chance of developing glaucoma, a disease that damages your eye’s optic nerve and can lead to visual impairment.
Also, count on peanut butter as a source of vitamin E. “Vitamin E is a powerful antioxidant and also has benefits to our health when it comes to vision and skin,” O’Donnell-Giles tells Runner’s World. She adds that since vitamin E is fat-soluble the fat in peanut butter helps with the absorption of the nutrient.
1 tablespoon serving of almond butter contains:
- 98 calories
- 3 grams protein
- 9 grams fat
- 0.7 grams saturated
- 3 grams carbohydrate
- 1.6 gram fibre
Sweeter and richer tasting than peanut butter, the almond spread can be considered an excellent source of monounsaturated fat—nearly 60% of its fat calories hail from this form of fat. “Monounsaturated fats have several health benefits for athletes because of their anti-inflammatory properties, as well as the role they play in preventing heart disease, optimising brain function, helping with the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins, regulating hormones and lubricating joints,” O’Donnell-Giles says.
A study from the Journal of the American College of Nutrition published in 2002 found that consuming almond butter daily for a month as part of a plant-based diet could result in a reduction of low-density lipoprotein-cholesterol (LDL) numbers, which may result in improved heart health.
Furthermore, an investigation in the journal Nutrients published in 2017 discovered that almond butter consumption can bring on a potentially positive change in the composition of the microorganisms in the digestive tract microbiome. But what health benefits, if any, this may provide remains to be determined.
Compared to the other nut butters, almond butter contains more magnesium. According to the National Institutes of Health, magnesium is necessary for at least 300 enzymes to perform a diverse array of functions including blood pressure regulation, nerve and muscle behaviour and protein synthesis.
You also get a bit more dietary fibre and non-dairy calcium from this spread. Considering that about 99% of the calcium in the body is found in bones, it should come as no surprise that you need a steady supply of this mineral to help build and maintain a sturdy skeleton. “Calcium is also an electrolyte that helps with muscle contraction, regulates normal heart rhythm and plays a role in optimal hydration,” O’Donnell-Giles explains.
1 tablespoon serving of cashew butter contains:
- 94 calories
- 3 grams protein
- 8 grams fat
- 1.6 grams saturated
- 4 grams carbohydrate
- 0.3 gram fibre
Fatty in a good way, about 76% of the fat in cashew butter comes from mono- and polyunsaturated fat making it a heart-benefiting spread. This fat make-up is likely a big reason why a study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition published in 2017 discovered that increased intake of the nut as part of a typical Western diet can help bring down total and LDL (‘bad’) cholesterol numbers. While participants consumed whole cashew nuts, it’s likely similar effects would be seen with the butter.
Compared to peanut and almond, cashew butter supplies more copper. This essential mineral is necessary for energy production, iron metabolism, and the production of connective tissue—all things that most runners should be concerned with. And, according to a review published in Nutrition Research Reviews in 2011, as with other spreads from tree nuts, cashew butter can be considered a reliable source of beneficial antioxidants including flavonoids. “Athletes create a lot of oxidative damage when training and antioxidants from food sources like cashews counteract this cellular damage and protect tissues and cells from the harmful effects of oxidation,” says O’Donnell-Giles.
Count magnesium, manganese, and phosphorus as micronutrients that each spoonful of cashew butter will also deliver to your diet.
How to Buy the Best Healthy Nut Butter
Like all packaged foods, you want to read the ingredient list of a nut butter you are considering purchasing. Preferably, O’Donnell-Giles suggests you find a healthy nut butter with no added sweeteners in the ingredient list. Most of us already consume too many added sugars in our diet, so finding options without them is preferential. Although, amounts of sugar added to nut butters can be relatively low and if you are running lots of kilometres, then spreading a sweetened butter on your toast is not a deal breaker.
Palm oil is commonly used in the nut butter business, too. It’s a low-cost way to keep the butter and oil from separating in a jar and it has a neutral taste. And because the Food and Drug Administration called for a complete ban of trans fats (hydrogenated oil) in foods including peanut butter in 2018, palm oil use has become more popular.
The problem with palm oil, though, is that it’s very high in saturated fat. So be aware of the extra amount of this less desirable fat it can add to a nut butter if you are using one that contains palm oil. “If you like salted nut butters, salt is an acceptable ingredient to look for on the label,” O’Donnell-Giles adds.
With all this said, ideally, you want no more than one gram of sugar, one and a half grams of saturated fat and 50 milligrams of sodium for each tablespoon serving of your healthy nut butter of choice.
Don’t be swayed by jars of reduced-fat peanut butter. While two tablespoons of regular fat creamy peanut butter has about 190 calories, the lower fat versions typically have only 10 fewer calories. Why? Most brands stir in processed sugars to overcome the flavor lost when the fat, much of which is beneficial, is stripped away making the calorie difference negligible.
“Natural” nut butter options don’t have anything mixed with the nuts, and so they’re natural oil often separates and pools on top of the jar. To combat this, store jars on their side before opening. This way, you can stir the contents horizontally down the sides of the jar instead of the seemingly impossible task of trying to mash the oil back into the spread from the top, without it spilling over.
How to Make Your Own Creamy, Healthy Nut Butter
Armed with a food processor, DIY nut butter is far from a high-flying kitchen feat. Start with this base recipe and experiment with flavourings from here.
- 2 cups unsalted roasted peanuts, cashews, or almonds
- 1 tablespoon neutral-tasting oil like canola or grapeseed
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
Place all of the ingredients in a food processor or high-powered blender container and blend on high until the mixture becomes creamy, about four minutes. Wipe down the sides of the container as needed during blending. If the nuts are not becoming smooth enough, add a touch more oil. Add any desired flavour boosters such as cinnamon, cocoa powder, or vanilla at the end of the blending process.