Crunchy or Wrong
a deep dive into the sticky, messy history of peanut butter
Recently I heard about an article about how every peanut butter sandwich you eat adds 30 minutes to your life. It had me thinking about my own peanut butter consumption.
Growing up, my dad was in the military and we moved about every four years. My mom loved to cook and was a good cook. My family is adventurous in trying new foods and cuisine. But peanut butter was my constant safe food.
It might sound odd to hear this, but about 95% of the lunches I’d eat at school were peanut butter and jelly. Bread didn’t matter, white or wheat. It had to be crunchy peanut butter. I started out with grape jelly but switched to strawberry by the time I was thirteen.
From first grade to twelfth, I might have pizza on pizza day. Maybe. But a PB&J with carrot sticks or a piece of fruit and chocolate milk was my lunch. Maybe I’d have chips. Maybe I’d get a cookie. But that was it. When I think about it, it sounds boring, but with all the moving and switching schools and not wanting to go in line and interact with others had me eating this for lunch.
I’ve never been a fan of deli meats. Most leftovers were for dinner the next evening. And it being the late 70’s /early 80’s, well there were no real thermos containers for kids lunchboxes.
Good old PB&J was my jam, literally.
So for about 2000 days of my life growing up I had that sandwich. Thats almost 6 years.
Fast forward to being an adult living on my own. I still always have the fixings for my sammich. It has evolved a wee bit.
Better bread. Usually one with a crust that has a bite to it. Baguettes are always good. I still prefer strawberry jam. The peanut butter still has to be crunchy. I’m not a fan of other nut butters; cashew is the only one that comes close, but it requires apricot jam. And I do mean jam, not jelly. I prefer the fruit bits in jam vs. the clear jelly.
Back in the in the early days of the internet when online groups and message boards were new, I was in one with a few other chefs and I recall one fellow chef asking about what do we eat when we get home after a long 12 hour day at work.
I replied PB&J with salt and vinegar chips. To me, the epitome of a sandwich.
Sweet crunchy creamy salty.
It was then I found out a few of my other chefs also had a PB&J after work. Some added cheddar cheese. One added bacon. Some preferred other chips like Doritos. One just had peanut butter and pickles (gherkins to be exact). Whatever you like flavor wise.
It’s an easy food that requires no special preparation and It has a long shelf life. Peanut butter marries with many flavors and I’ve had it in many different cuisines. It has been a very successful global food that is from the Americas like tomatoes and potatoes.
You should try a sandwich today!
The Boring Facts
That was a lovely, heartfelt essay. And now I’m here to dump a load of boring facts on you.
The study #7 mentioned is the Nature Food study, “Small Targeted Dietary Changes Can Yield Substantial Gains for Human Health and the Environment” by Katerina S. Stylianou, Victor L. Fulgoni III and Oliver Jolliet. It received a lot of press last year for its attention-grabbing but statistically suspect method of ranking foods based on how many minutes they would add to your life.
That study ranked food items based on how good they were for your health. On that metric, peanut butter fared well, but it wasn’t the best — sardines in tomato sauce added a whopping 82 minutes to your life, with peanut butter and other nuts a distant second.
However, the study then did a second ranking that adjusted those scores based on how good the production of those food items were for the environment. Sardines and other nuts dropped off the list, leaving peanut butter alone at the top of the pack. Every PB&J adds 33 minutes to your life, just enough to offset the 35 minutes you lose to every hot dog.
Peanuts, it turns out, are great for the environment — because they’re not actually a nut. They are actually a legume, like chickpeas or lentils, that returns more nitrogen to the soil than they take out of it.
The peanut plant originated in the Gran Pantatal reagion of South America, near the border of Brazil and Bolivia, and was first cultivated about 4,000 years ago. It spread gradually throughout the rest of South America, and then into the Caribbean and Mexico where it was discovered by Portuguese and Spanish colonizers who spread it to the rest of the world. It quickly became a staple crop in many regions, including West Africa and Southeast Asia.
One place it did not become a staple crop? The United States. For some reason Americans considered peanuts to be a garbage crop, fit only for animals and slaves. That attitude shifted during the Civil War when disruptions in the supply chain meant people could no longer afford to be picky. It turns out soldiers actually liked the taste peanuts, and after the war they became a popular snack food. Though they didn’t become a cash crop until the 1880s when mechanical harveters made large-scale farming of peanuts possible.
However, these people were eating peanuts straight from the shell, or roasted. Do you know who invented peanut butter?
It wasn’t George Washington Carver.
No. That man was totally horny for peanuts. He famously invented over three hundred uses for peanuts, turning them into wallboard, paint, and soap. He suggested peanut-oil rubdowns were a miracle cure-all for polio. And every once in a while he would turn peanuts into some terrible unappetizing meals.
But he did not invent peanut butter.
The first peanut butter was likely made by the first South American cultivators, who would use a mortar and pestle to grind raw peanuts into a sticky paste for cooking, often as base for a sauce. That is still a common practice anywhere in the world peanuts are cultivated and eaten. But this sticky paste is nothing like modern peanut butter.
In 1884 Canadian chemist Marcellus G. Edson received a patent from the US Government for “the manufacture of peanut candy.” Edson’s process produced a sickly-sweet paste of ground peanuts, oils and sugar with lard-like consistency that sounds pretty unappetizing and entirely unlike modern peanut butter. However, it was enjoyable in small quantities, especially when enrobed in chocolates. (Then again, what isn’t?) For years Edson’s process was used to make little chocolate peanut butter treats by confectioners across the country.
Maybe peanut butter was first produced in 1890 by George A. Bayle of St. Louis, when a local doctor asked him to produce nutrient-rich food suitable for patients with bad teeth and poor digestion. Bayle settled on peanut butter and history was made.
Or maybe not. There are huge problems with this story. It’s not clear why a doctor would turn to Bayle, whose specialty was manufacturing snack food, to make something healthy. And there are no records of Bayle manufacturing peanut butter before 1914, over two decades later.
Here’s what seems more likely: Bayle had been making a snack food spread named “Cheese-Nut,” made by mixing soft cheese and ground nuts, but it didn’t sell well. Later he turned to making peanut butter as a way of recouping his losses on expensive grinders and presses. This version of the story seems more legit, but it also pushes the timeline back to the late 1890s, pushing Bayle out of the running for the title of inventor.
Perhaps the true origin of peanut butter lies with Dr. John Harvey Kellogg of the Battle Creek Sanitarium in Michigan. Dr. Kellogg was a Seventh Day Adventist and practiced a vegetarian diet — which he also forced on patients at his sanitarium. He was always experimenting with new recipes, searching for foods high in protein and other nutrients. And like Bayle, he was also searching for something invalids could easily eat.
Around 1893 Dr. Kellogg and his younger brother Will made the first modern peanut butter by griding the nuts in an industrial grinder and then running them through the rollers they were using to make corn flakes, producing the first modern peanut butter. It was perfect for his needs — low in cholesterol, high in protein, and a good source of Vitamin B and folic acid.
Or perhaps not. The Kellogg recipe differed from modern peanut butter in two key ways. First, instead of roasting the peanuts the Kelloggs boiled them; they were under the mistaken impression that roasting caused the peanut oils to go rancid faster, and also roasting the peanuts caused them to develop flavor, which Dr. Kellogg considered sinful. For similar reasons they did not add any salt to the mixture, either.
Now, you can argue about whether Edson, Bayle, or Kellogg deserves the credit for inventing peanut butter. In truth, none of them really deserve the credit, but you can’t deny that Kellogg was the one who made it popular. He was basically a food influencer and turned peanut butter into a pop culture health food craze. Within a few short years of peanut butter’s introduction at the San it was being served at health resorts all across the country, and then started to spread out of the sanitarium into the homes of the rich and ladies’ tea rooms.
They were the only ones who could afford peanut butter. The product they were consuming was very similar to “natural” peanut butter, except that in those days before widespread electrical refrigeration the peanut oil would separate and go rancid very quickly. That meant the peanut butter had to be consumed fresh, which meant grinding it shortly before eating. The grinders cost a small fortune.
They also weren’t eating peanut butter the way we eat it today. Yes, they would spread it on bread and make finger sandwiches with it, but it was often paired with other food items that seem odd to us today. There are the usual suspects: jellies and jams, apples and celery; but also bread and butter pickles, carrots, cabbage, gingerbread, and tomatoes. (The Bible of French cooking, Larousse Gastronomique, suggests serving peanut butter on lettuce with garden cream, chervil and tarragon which sounds super gross.)
Middle America didn’t get its first real taste of peanut butter until the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair and Louisiana Purchase Centennial Exhibition. Concessionaire C.H. Summer had a small stand where he would hand-grind peanut butter while you waited. Soon, the middle-class had a taste for peanut butter and it started showing up in general stores across the country.
The problem was that general stores sold them the same way they sold everything else: it was stored in a big communal vat, and you had to scoop it out of that into your own container. That wasn’t ideal. The vats were less than sanitary, they had to be stirred multiple times per day to prevent the oil from separating, and as a result they were always on the verge of going rancid.
The first large-scale producer of peanut butter was the Atlantic Peanut Refinery of Philadelphia, who also received the first trademark on the phrase “peanut butter” in 1898 (only to lose it a year later). Atlantic was followed into the market by Beech-Nut and Heinz about a decade later. None of these companies currently makes peanut butter. (Well, Heinz does, but they only make it in those single-serve containers you see at diners and they don’t sell it direct to consumers.)
Peanut butter couldn’t really catch on as a kitchen staple until it could be sold in tins and jars. That would require it to be shelf-stable, which wasn’t going to be possible until the invention of hydrogenization.
The process of hydrogenization involves taking a vegetable oil and then bubbling hydrogen gas through it. The hydrogen atoms bond with the carbon atoms in the oil, basically replacing electrons and elongating the molecules. This makes the molecular structure more flexible and allows them to stack and create dense crystalline structures. (Hydrogenization also creates trans fats, which can cause arteriosclerosis — but the amount it produces are so miniscule that you’d have to eat a tub a day for it to be a real factor. A little hydrogen never hurt anyone, except maybe the people on the Hindenburg.)
The first process for hydrogenating peanut oil was created by Pittsburgh inventor Frank Stockton in March 1921. The Stockton process produces a fully hydrogenated oil, which is a a little bit waxy and not very appetizing. On the other hand, it also means you need less of it to stabilize your product. Stockton licensed his patent to Heinz, which began using it to stabilize their product.
A second process for hydrogenating peanut butter was invented just a month later in April 1921 by California entrepreneur Joseph Rosefield. The Rosefield process produces a partially hydrogenated oil, which is less stable at high temperatures but gives the resulting product a delicious, creamy mouthfeel. Rosefield licensed his process to Swift & Company, which used it to make a peanut butter that they first called “Delicia,” and then “Dainty,” and then eventually “Peter Pan.”
In the 1932, a new management team at Swift tried to halve the royalties they were paying to Rosefield to license his patent. Rosefield responded by revoking their license, forming his own company, and selling a competing brand of peanut butter called “Skippy.”
As much as I personally don’t like Skippy, I do have to credit Rosefield for also coming up with the next major innovation in peanut butter technology. Opinion polls revealed that some people thought Skippy was too creamy, so he came up with the innovation of adding chopped peanuts back in to the mix at the end of the process. And thus, crunchy peanut butter, the one true peanut butter, was born.
(Studies actually show that America is evenly split between those who love creamy peanut butter and those who love crunchy peanut butter. Women tend to prefer creamy by a small margin, as do residents of the East Coast. But it is the official position of this podcast that crunchy is best, and those who like creamy are just wrong.)
So by the 1930s, peanut butter was now being sold in individual shelf-stable jars. The combination of peanut butter with the age-old practice of canning jams and jellies and the then-recent invention of sliced bread led to the most amazing culinary innovation: the peanut butter and jelly sandwich. The PB&J had been a staple since peanut butter was first served in tea rooms — in 1901 the Boston Cooking School Magazine suggested mixing peanut butter with crab apple jelly — but now it was a convenient and delicious anytime food.
Cheap, too, which helped during the Depression.
The final big brand to enter the picture was JIF, which was started by Procter & Gamble in 1958. P&G were less interested in making quality peanut butter and more interested in leveraging the emulsification process they had invented for Crisco. First, they took out the flavorful peanut oils (which could be sold more profitably elsewhere) and replaced them with cheaper and less flavorful alternatives like soybean oil and canola oil. To make up for the lost flavor they added sugar and molasses. The result was way too goopy, so they increased the percentage of hydrogenated oils to a whopping 25% and added other chemical stablizers on top of that.
The result was less peanut butter and more of a flavored paste that was less than 50% peanut by weight. And popular, because it was cheap.
This led to one of the first public outcries over modern processed foods and a debate that raged for over a decade. On one side you had Proctor & Gamble, which resented being told what it could sell as food. On the other side you had Ruth Desmond and her Federation of Homemakers, who wanted their peanut butter to be nothing but peanuts. And on yet another side you had the other peanut butter manufacturers, who wanted some standards, preferably stringent enough to drive JIF out of the market while still allowing them to adulterate their own product. Trapped in the middle you had the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
In the end, the FDA set a rule that peanut butter had to be at least 90% peanuts by weight, no more than 5% fat, and contain no added preservatives, artifical color and flavor, or vitamin fortifications. These rules went in effect in 1971 and all the major manufacturers scrambled to comply with them. As a side effect of the standards, all of the major manufacturers switched from peanut oil to other cheaper oils, and switched from partial hydrogenization to using some variation of Frank Stockton’s full hydrogenization process. Skippy, in particular, is a bit touchy about it.
Since there were now standards for peanut butter, that meant you could now buy standardized peanut butter! The National Institute of Standards and Technology sells a standard reference material peanut butter (SRM #2387). I briefly considered buying some for the podcast, but since it costs $350 a jar and the minimum order is three jars, and this podcast makes no money…
Also starting in the 1970s, the industry switched the type of peanuts they were using.
There are four major varieties of peanuts: Valencia, Virginia, Spanish, and runners. Virginia and Spanish peanuts are the most flavorful and generally the ones people like to eat, but they are also tricky to grow and are therefore expensive. Runners, on the other hand, grow quickly and produce high yields and are therefore cheap, but have little oil and therefore very little flavor. To use a coffee metaphor, if Spanish and Virginia peanuts are arabica, runners are robusta. As a result, they were typically only used for animal feed.
In the late 1960s, scientists developed a new variety of runners that were oilier and therefore had more flavor. All of the large peanut butter manufacturers said “good enough” and switched their recipes to use runner exclusively. After all, when you industrialize food production, flavor is usually the first thing that gets thrown out the window. Only a few specialty peanut butter manufacturers continue to use Virginia and Spanish peanuts.
As a result of the new standards and the switch to runners, the three major brands are now pretty homongeneous. There are small differences between them, but the majority of that differences are purely branding and not much else.
The only other major innovation in the peanut butter making process came in 1968, when Smucker’s started marketing “Goober Grape,” a pre-made mixture of peanut butter and jelly for the truly, truly lazy.
I guess there’s one other “innovation” but it’s more like a step backwards. As the health food movement started in the 1960s, processed foods like industrially-produced peanut butter were an easy target. On the other hand there’s nothing inherently wrong with peanuts and peanut butter, especially since they are a great source of protein for those trying to live on a vegetarian diet. So health food nuts started making peanut butter without the chemicals, without the hydrogenated oils, without the sugar, sometimes even without the salt, essentially reverting to the “natural” product that people would have consumed at the turn of the 20th century. The first major brand of natural peanut butter was Deaf Smith Peanut Butter, out of Deaf Smith County, Texas — though they had the good sense to rebrand themselves “Arrowhead Mills” right before their national launch.
Today peanut butter is still one of the most popular foods in the United States. The average American eats about three pounds per year, and to meet that demand we use about 25% of our peanut crop to make enough peanut butter to fill the Grand Canyon to a depth of about one inch.
Outside the United States? Not so popular. The average European only eats about one tablespoon per year.
The Taste Test
Okay, so here’s the fun part.
We thought it might be interesting to wrap up the podcast with a tasting flight peanut butters, comparing major brands to natural peanut butters with a variety of textures and tastes; and also trying out some of those unusual tea room flavor combinations.
And then we thought, why not get the opinion of an actual peanut butter expert — which is to say, a six year old? So here’s a (highly edited) recording of a taste test we did with our niece. Enjoy.
[For sanity’s sake I did not make an attempt to transcribe this. You’ll have to go listen to the audio.]
Peanut butter wasn’t the only food introduced at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair — waffle cones also made their debut. The concessionaire was Benton Harbor, MI’s House of David, a Christian Israelite sect headed by the notorious “King” Benjamin Purnell. We talked about Purnell in the Series 5 episode “Exceeding Great.”
- Carver, George Washington. How to Grow the Peanut and 105 Ways of Preapring it for Human Consumption. Tuskegee, AL: Tuskeegee Institute Press, 1918.
- Estes, Steve. “PB&J: The Rise and Fall of an Iconic American Dish.” Gastronomica, Volume 17, Number 2 (Summer 2017).
- Krampner, Jon. Creamy & Crunchy: An Informal History of Peanut Butter, the All-American Food. New York: Columbia University Press, 2013.
- Markel, Howard. The Kelloggs: The Battling Brothers of Battle Creek. New York: Pantheon, 2017.
- McGee, Harold. On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen (second edition). New York: Scribner, 2004.
- Montagne, Prosper. Larousse Gastronomique. New York: Crown Publishers, 1961.
- Rupnow, John et al. “Chemistry in a Nutshell: Applying Chemistry Principles to America’s Favorite Sandwich Spread.” The Science Teacher, Volume 62, Number 9 (December 1995).
- Sheldon, Glenn. “Crimes and Punishments: Class and Connotations of Kitschy American Food and Drink.” Studies in Popular Culture, Volume 27, Number 1 (October 2004).
- Shih, Anna M. “The Patented Peanut Butter and Jelly Sandwich: Food as Intellectual Property.” Gastronomica, Volume 2, Number 1 (Winter 2002).
- Stylianou, Katerina S. et al. “Small Targeted Dietary Changes Can Yield Substantial Gains for Human Health and the Environment.” Nature Food, Volume 2 (August 2021). https://www.nature.com/articles/s43016-021-00343-4.epdf Accessed 11/14/2021.
- Vella, Christina. George Washington Carver: A Life. Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press, 2015.
- The Magic of Peanut Butter: 100 New & Favorite Recipes by Skippy. New York: Sterling Publishing, 2005.
- “SRM 2387 – Peanut Butter.” National Institute of Standards and Technology. https://www-s.nist.gov/srmors/view_detail.cfm?srm=2387 Accessed 1/13/2022.
- “Who invented the peanut butter and jelly sandwich?” National Peanut Board. https://www.nationalpeanutboard.org/news/who-invented-the-peanut-butter-and-jelly-sandwich.htm Accessed 11/2/2021.