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Real Food: Deconstructing the PB&J

January 6, 2011

The holidays have come and gone and all that’s left are memories and bits of wrapping paper in the corner. If your house is anything like mine, the children are still reeling from all the excitement. For two weeks we were fortunate enough to have had the entire family home together, enjoying long lazy days of cooking and playing. Monday morning, however, was a huge wakeup call for all of us. Now, instead of being able to sleep in to the late, late hour of 6:00 a.m., we are up at 5:00 with one of the blessed cherubs and 5:30 with the other. Once again our mornings are back to juggling breakfast and packing lunches, getting kids dressed, breaking up fights, reminding them to brush their teeth and hair, and getting everyone to their respective school/daycare/workplace on time.

As may be the case for you, I often find myself turning to the classic peanut butter and jelly sandwich as a lunch option for my kids. So today, as I was making lunch for the one with the peanut butter fancy, my mind drifted and I thought about all the different peanut butters on the market. Of course before I could give too much thought to it, my attention was quickly brought back to reality when my youngest started to hammer on my leg with his new toy ‘boom boom’ (that’s hammer in toddlerese).

But now that I can return to thinking about this without the threat of losing a leg, I have decided to dedicate this post to the deconstruction of the average PB&J sandwich. Advertising tells us that the classic peanut butter and jelly sandwich is a quick and healthy kid (and adult) favorite. But is it really as healthy as we think? For decades mothers have been told that for a quick, easy, and healthy meal they should smear some peanut butter and jelly on bread and off to school their children can go. And on the face of it, this is indeed a good option. But there is more to a peanut butter and jelly sandwich than meets the eye.

While peanut butter is a good, healthy choice for a food, not all peanut butter is created equal. Take for instance the ingredient list of Skippy Creamy Peanut Butter: peanut butter, sugar, hydrogenated vegetable oils (cottonseed, soybean and rapeseed (which is canola oil)) to prevent separation, salt. Or how about what choosy moms choose, Jif: roasted peanuts and sugar, contains 2% or less of: molasses, fully hydrogenated vegetable oils (rapeseed and soybean), mono and diglycerides, salt.

And now compare that to fresh ground peanut butter at your local food co-op: peanuts. Or my personal favorite, 365 Everyday Value Creamy: peanuts and salt. Either way you look at it, there are fewer ingredients, and that is important because those extra ingredients have been proven to be harmful to both our physical well-being AND our emotional well-being.

Of course, peanut butter is but one of a triad in the PB&J. What about jelly? A comparison of ingredients will show that most jellies and jams are really just a lot of sugar mixed with some fruit. Take Smucker’s for instance. Their ingredient list for grape jelly contains not one, but two added sugars and no actual fruit: concord grape juice, high fructose corn syrup, corn syrup, fruit pectin, citric acid. In addition to the sugar in the fruit, you are also getting a lot of added corn syrup. In fact 1 tablespoon has almost half of what is thought to be the acceptable daily limit for adult women. Again there other alternatives available; ones with no added sugar. My personal favorite is Bionature Organic Fruit Spread which has no added sugar.

Of course, I would be remiss if I didn’t talk about the bread. Most bread sold in supermarkets, regardless of color, is made from white processed flour. And because it’s processed, nutrients have been added back in (actually it’s a federal requirement that this happens) in order to make it more closely resemble the wheat from which it came. The bottom line is that refined carbs, like white processed flour, enter our blood stream in the same way that sugar does and will likely result in a sugar crash not too long after.

So what does that mean for the standard peanut butter and jelly sandwich? It means that if we choose the traditional PB&J we are consuming 21 grams of sugar in one sandwich. The National Heart Association states that adult women should not get more than 25 grams of sugar a day. With 21 grams coming from one “healthy” peanut butter and jelly sandwich, that doesn’t leave much room for the rest of the day!

My final point is this, food choices matter and it’s not always clear what the best choice is. But if you’re going to think about food in relation to both physical and mental health, try to read the ingredient list first. Think about how many different ingredients you want to be putting into your body and how they might affect your health. Ask yourself if there is an alternative that might be less processed. You can still enjoy your peanut butter and jelly sandwich, but by changing the quality of the ingredients in the sandwich you can end up with something that doesn’t compromise your physical and mental health.

I’m going to go now and attend to the bruise that was left after I was boom-boomed.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. January 16, 2011 4:16 am


    Ezequiel bread is delectable and truly wholesome. When on sale it’s just $2.59 (at least down in FL). Found in the frozen foods section.

    What most PBs have is disgusting. The best option is just peanuts or peanuts+salt, like you said.

    Tahini, also, is delicious with strawberry jam! And consider trying other nut butters as well, such as almond and cashew. If you can afford the raw ones, they’re worth trying too. Some believe they’re healthier because they conserve the foods’ natural enzymes and they supposedly aid in digestion.

    Sugar and its derivatives are very tricky, so one must read labels in a painstaking fashion to stay on top of what’s in our food and not consume a ton of sugar, which not only causes mood swings and crashes, but also suppresses the immune system (I only learned this recently) and generally causes weight gain. I have a hard time with this because my sweet tooth is vicious and I overeat out of anxiety, regularly. I’m working hard to resolve this, also because I am prone to depression. Sugar, you are the devil!

    I don’t know why anyone ever thought pb+j is healthy. It’s not too bad, but it’s not healthy. If you want healthy, give me a vegetable sandwich. Actually, get a big leaf of cabbage/etc to use as bread, and inside smear some hummus and roasted/raw vegetables and feed me that. Pb+j is delicious, but I don’t know who you could fool into thinking it’s a health food… I wish!

    P.S. I love the mix of therapy and everything a kitchen entails. Sweet!

    • The Therapist in the Kitchen permalink*
      January 16, 2011 8:49 pm

      Thank you for the thoughtful comment. I appreciate your comments and hope that you will continue to give feedback. By the way, Ezequiel bread has been one of our favorites, especially the cinnamon and raisin.

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