Think Outside the Box with Nut Butter

 peanut butter and banana toast

Nut butter is one of the healthiest and most versatile ingredients in your kitchen - are you using it to its full potential? Today I am doing a deeper dive into the health benefits of this superfood staple plus an overview of its many culinary uses outside of the classic PB&J.

The Health Benefits 

While protein is generally the frequently cited nutritional quality of nut butter, there are so many more reasons for incorporating it. First, nuts are commonly known as being a rich source of “healthy” fat (the good stuff). In technical terms, most varieties are comprised of mostly monounsaturated fat, also known as the “good” fat that has a beneficial effect on our blood cholesterol levels by lowering LDL levels and simultaneously increasing our HDL levels.

According to the literature, adding nuts daily can also slash your risk for developing heart disease, decrease your risk for type 2 diabetes, total cancer and all-cause mortality. The mechanisms behind these benefits are not entirely known, but science suggests that nuts have a beneficial effect on inflammatory markers which are a contributing factor to several chronic diseases. Many varieties of nuts are also high in magnesium which is beneficial for heart health. Plant sterols and their beneficial effect on endothelial function may also play a role.

It's also hard to ignore that many of the world’s most well-researched eating patterns include nuts as a staple including the highly regarded Mediterranean diet, the blood-pressure lowering DASH plan, and one that has been gaining popularity in recent years - the MIND diet - which may be effective in decreasing risk for developing Alzheimer’s disease later in life. Suffice to say, most of us should be eating more nuts and seeds (unless you have an allergy of course) and nut butters can be a fabulous and delicious way to accomplish this. 

But does it cause weight gain?

This is your friendly reminder that fat is not the dietary villain it was once made out to be. In fact, fat provides greater satiety, adds flavor and a pleasant mouthfeel to any dish and a small amount goes a long way on the flavor front. Contrary to what was once thought, consumption of nuts and nut butters is actually associated with improved weight control, likely because of the fiber and fullness factor.

When targeting real food sources of fat (as opposed to highly processed snacks or fast food) fat content is not something that the general healthy person needs to stress over, especially if you are filling your plate with a diverse selection of foods and are mindful of the types of fat you are regularly consuming. Of course with most foods, moderation is key as nut butter is calorically dense.

Not sure what a standard serving of nut butter looks like? Break out the measuring spoons to give yourself a visual the first few times, then you can eyeball it from there. Think of a two tablespoon portion to be about the size of a golf ball for reference.

Going Beyond Peanut

Now, the small corner of a grocery store shelf that was once filled with the brands of your childhood now takes up almost an entire aisle in the modern supermarket. In addition to the classics you will find a plethora of varieties and flavor combinations including peanut, almond, walnut, sunflower seed, sesame seed (most commonly referred to as tahini) and even hazelnut, many of which often incorporate fun, indulgent and/or “superfood” mix-ins. Anything from cocoa powder to cinnamon raisin, honey to maple syrup to white chocolate and even coffee beans are used as flavor enhancers. The fancier the add-ins, the pricier it usually is so there’s no shame in keeping it simple.

Curious about the differences? Here are six different nut butters you might come across along with nutrition highlights and primary uses for each:


Peanut

  • Nutrition highlights: peanut butter is the highest protein choice with 8 grams per two tablespoon serving.
  • Primary uses: smear it on a honeycrisp apple, try it in a smoothie, or use it as the base of a sauce for Asian noodle dishes (I recommend creamy for this).

Almond

  • Nutrition highlights: almond butter is a good source of hard-to-come-by magnesium, a mineral that supports the immune system and helps regulate blood glucose. Almond butter is also a good source of vitamin E, which is also an antioxidant.
  • Primary uses: drizzle it over oatmeal, use as a dip for sliced pears, or as a binder and thickener in baked goods and energy balls.

Walnut

  • Nutrition highlights: in addition to all of the usual suspects, walnuts are unique because they contain alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), the plant source of omega-3 fatty acids which are anti-inflammatory and beneficial for brain health.
  • Primary uses: since walnut butter tends to have a thicker, more grainy texture than some of the other options, try it as a spread on toast or straight up.

Sunflower

  • Nutrition highlights: sunflower seed butter provides zinc, in addition to folate and vitamin B6 (both of which help form red blood cells).
  • Primary uses: sunflower seed butter is a great alternative for anyone with peanut or tree nut allergies and can be substituted in any of the above scenarios. 

Sesame (Tahini)

  • Nutrition highlights: good plant-based source of calcium along with magnesium and iron.
  • Primary uses: salad dressings or sauces, as a key ingredient in hummus, or to add a savory element to traditionally sweet snacks (like these - hello!).
 sweet potato with tahini sauce

Hazelnut

  • Nutrition highlights: rich in iron, magnesium and vitamin B6
  • Primary uses: since hazelnuts are most commonly associated with chocolate versions, spread it on strawberries to satisfy your sweet tooth while still reaping some nutritional benefits at the same time.

Should I Go Raw?

Some wonder if the nutrient profile is impacted by processing methods and like any food on the market, the answer is… sometimes. Have you ever noticed that most nut butters are available in “raw” versions in addition to their conventional counterparts? This essentially means that the nut or seed did not undergo any sort of roasting process before it was grinded down into the final product.

In terms of which one is the nutritionally superior choice, heat doesn’t seem to make a significant impact on macro or micronutrient content. However, heat can release potentially harmful compounds (as is the case with most foods when exposed to high heat). In the amount that nut butter is traditionally consumed, this shouldn’t be worrisome to the average person. Raw versions are also significantly more expensive and go rancid quicker, so if that deters you from purchasing it, go for the roasted over avoiding nut butter altogether because #healthbenefits. Experiment with the flavor profile of each as they are a quite different from each other.

Culinary Potential

Besides being a portable, shelf-stable and convenient source of protein, nut butters also have serious culinary appeal for use in all sorts of different recipes. Making nut butter from scratch is fairly straightforward, although a bit messy and time-consuming (and hey, the store-bought version is pretty darn convenient and affordable so I won’t judge if you opt for that instead). 

Some lesser known ways to incorporate it include sauces and dressings, stirring in to soups for creaminess and nuttiness, or adding it to smoothies for extra nutrition. You can also incorporate it into your favorite baked goods for a thickening agent and an extra boost of heart-healthy fat, fiber and protein.

This peanut butter banana muffin in particular puts a healthy spin on a classic, using natural peanut butter, flax seed and greek yogurt to pump up the nutrition. There's just enough chocolate chips to add some sweetness without making them dessert and it might just be your new favorite grab-and-go breakfast option in a pinch. Pro tip: pair it with a hard-boiled egg or two and a piece of fresh produce on your way out the door for even more staying power.

 peanut butter banana chocolate chip muffins

Choose Wisely

While there is definitely no shortage of options to choose from when in the market for nut butter, remember to keep in mind that many of the available versions can be more dessert-like than breakfast staple and it’s a good idea to be mindful of that. No "good" or "bad" necessarily, but it's always helpful to be in the know.

In addition to sugar content, checking for nut butters free of added oils is another way to make sure you are getting the most bang for your buck nutritionally without extras that have a potentially negative impact on health (we’re looking at you, partially hydrogenated). While those chocolate and honey studded versions can be a fun treat, a good rule of thumb is to keep it simple for your go-to spread of choice for daily use. Nuts or seeds, plus some salt to bring out the flavor, are really the only must-have ingredients. And why mess with a good thing?

Have a favorite nut butter? Tell Me about it in the comments along with how you love to use it!

References:

Kim Y, Keogh JB, and Clifton PM. Benefits of Nut Consumption on Insulin Resistance and Cardiovascular Risk Factors: Multiple Potential Mechanisms of Actions. Nutrients. 2017;9(11): 1271. Retreived from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5707743/.

 D, Keum N, Giovannucci E, Fadnes LT, Boffetta P, Greenwood DC, Tonstad S, Vatten LJ, Riboli E, and Norat T.  Nut consumption and risk of cardiovascular disease, total cancer, all-cause and cause-specific mortality: a systematic review and dose-response meta-analysis of prospective studies. BMC Med.2016; 14: 207. Retreived from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5137221/.

U.S. National Library of Medicine. MedlinePlus. Minerals. Retrieved from https://medlineplus.gov/minerals.html.

U.S. National Library of Medicine. MedlinePlus. Vitamins. Retrieved from https://medlineplus.gov/vitamins.html.

 

How Food Photography Made Me a Better Cook

My husband likes to joke with our friends that life with me means waiting to start eating until I get the chance to take some photos. While this isn't always true, I would say I take my camera out about 75% of the time when food is involved. It seems odd to some people, but I have been doing this for so long that it's innate at this point. 

The other day I was thinking, food photography is a fun hobby but it has also taught me a lot of cooking and I can hands-down say I'm more skilled because of it. Who would ever think that this would be the case! Here are five ways food photography has made me a better cook. 

1. Presentation is your first win.

The most obvious is that my plating and presentation awareness has dramatically improved and in my opinion, solid presentation is your first win as a home cook. It's the first thing you (or your guests) notice when you put the plate down. It can make someone say "wow" before even taking a bite. And honestly, even if the actual flavor isn't what you were hoping for, most people will think it tastes better than they would if the plate looked blah. When taking photos, I am always looking for ways to make meals more interesting so over the years I have learned to use garnishes, citrus wedges, an artfully placed spoonful of yogurt or (leading us into our next topic) a smear of sauce. 

 skillet of pad thai with sriracha sauce

2. Adding a sauce or glaze is magic.

Sauce is one technique that the beginner home cook probably neglects to use unless following a recipe. It seems like an extra unnecessary step if your food is seasoned well, but trust me when I say sauce is key for elevating the meal to restaurant quality. Once your pantry is stocked with all of the essentials (which I'll be covering in my 21-Day Cooking Challenge!), whipping up a sauce is as easy as combining a couple of staple ingredients in less than two minutes. Not only does this take the flavor up a notch and keep moisture locked in, it often adds that pop of color that's a win for your eyes and the photo too. 

3. A balanced meal is a pretty meal (most of the time).

Almost all of the time, a balanced meal means a variety of colors of textures which also means it's pleasing to the palate and photographs well. Some exceptions include lentils (why), root vegetables, grains and soups. Because of this, I'll often add extra greens for a pop of color, add berries to oatmeal or choose tri-color carrots over the traditional for more variety. This ends up being a win for both visual appeal and nutritional variety.

 pasta fagioli soup with parmesan cheese and microplane

4. Utilize different plates, bowls and silverware for the best result.

The way you serve a meal can have an impact on the experience. Think about family style versus a meticulously arranged plate, versus a build-your-own bowl situation (not to mention what type of bowl). It's fun to mix things up and get creative with this and recently I started searching for new bowls/serving dishes that I can use to make the food pop a little bit more. I found this one and I really like it because it has shallow sides and photographs better than a deep bowl where your food tends to get lost in a shadow. I also experiment with smaller plates and even stemless wine glasses for serving something like dessert or a yogurt parfait. 

5. Thinking through the steps logically means I can improvise later.

I am confident in my recipe development skills because when you are photographing everything, writing down each technique, and then re-visiting all of it later (again and again), it means you are hyper-focused on every point of the process. Basically, you are thinking like someone who has never made the dish before. In addition, I think I better understand the "why" behind various cooking techniques which allows me to improvise too. I know what will happen if I skip X, or add Y. I can predict how a dish will turn out if I put it in the oven uncovered versus covered. And perhaps most importantly, I can usually figure out a way to salvage a dish that's going south quickly. Most of the time. 

Leave me a comment: Tell me about a hobby you have and how it has made you more skilled in another area of your life!

3 Food and Nutrition Claims Challenged

 cappucino in a mug at a coffee shop 

In this age of online media it seems like everyday I read nutrition advice that makes me cringe a little bit. When reading a sensational headline or one of those "why you should avoid x" articles, there's probably a lot more to the story and you might want to proceed with a skeptical eye. This can be a hard skill to master, but something that I always find helpful is to ask myself - what would be the opposition to this opinion and why might they think that way? Then I do a literature search to see what else is out there on the topic (#nerdalert).

Here are three specific examples of food and nutrition claims that you might want to challenge. 

1. Avoid {insert food here} because some people have a sensitivity to it. 

I find the most common examples of this one to be gluten and dairy, so here's the story on that. Gluten is problematic for people with celiac disease or a gluten intolerance. I also have a hunch that many people believe to have issues with gluten when in fact any adverse effects are related to another food, or even just stress from having to constantly worry about avoiding said food. Very few people actually have celiac disease (somewhere around 1% of people in the U.S.) and even less have a diagnosed wheat allergy. 

Similarly, dairy is an issue if your body does not produce lactase, the enzyme that helps digest the lactose in milk. Although fairly common (about 35% of Americans), not true for everyone (source). Even those with lactose intolerance can typically consume small to moderate amounts of dairy without any adverse effects and there are several benefits to consuming it, so I wouldn't eliminate without cause unless you actually dislike it or choose to for ethical reasons.

2. Fear and misinformation around farming and agriculture. 

The latest "Dirty Dozen" list was released a couple of weeks ago so there was much conversation around the topic of organic versus conventionally grown crops as a follow-up to that. However even the so-called "dirtiest" crops on the list are entirely safe to eat. For instance, I could consume 454 servings of strawberries in a day without adverse effects even if they have the highest pesticide residue recorded for strawberries by the USDA. Also, I once heard a farmer say that the Dirty Dozen list is inherently flawed because it always has to include 12 crops and I thought that was pretty brilliant. Farmers do not "douse" their crops in dangerous chemicals. Chemical applications are the last resort for weed and pest control in both conventional and organic agriculture because that stuff is mega pricey. 

There are multiple reasons why one might choose foods cultivated via one type of agriculture over the other (availability, environmental considerations, etc) but don't let the safety piece be one of them. For more information on this topic I love following the work of Rebecca Larsen, Kevin Folta, and James Wong.

3. Making the case for {new diet} by way of the standard american diet.

Rarely does someone compare a new dietary pattern to a "mostly plant-based eating pattern that incorporates a modest amount of dairy and meat while still limiting highly processed/refined foods". Instead, it is almost always compared to the Standard American Diet, which we know is notorious for it's connection with adverse health outcomes. Something I would encourage you to do when questioning the effectiveness of the latest diet trend is to ask yourself - what is being compared to? 

Here's what I mean by this. If someone starts just about any new plan out there, he/she will probably notice a dramatic difference in a short amount of time if adding in cooking, more whole foods and eating regular balanced meals (regardless of whether it's paleo, Whole30, vegetarian, etc.). Can you accomplish similar effects by following the same behaviors but not restricting anything? We are all different and there is likely no one perfect diet, but it sure does make life simpler when you have the option to eat more foods versus less.

Share a food/nutrition myth that you have recently come across in the comments!