History of Favorite American Foods Peanut Butter

About the famous American food peanut butter how it was created and produced.


The peanut was probably 1st found in South America, introduced to Africa by Portuguese slave ships, and later brought to North America from Africa--again on slave ships, as it was a cheap and plentiful food source to take on transoceanic voyages. In the U.S. the peanut was originally cultivated as feed for farm animals, although today more than half of the domestic crop is used for human consumption. As early as 1964 at least 63% of the peanuts eaten by humans was in the form of peanut butter.

North American peanut butter developed independently from the peanut pastes found in Africa or South America. In the latter continent, roasted peanuts are ground and mixed with honey and cocoa. The 1st North American peanut butter was made by chopping the nuts and then beating them in a cloth sack, after the addition of salt. George Washington Carver, in his research at Tuskegee Institute, invented new improved kinds of peanut butter and, while he was at it, he used the peanut to make shampoo, ink, and linoleum.

Around the turn of the century, women made peanut butter in their homes using hand mills, small ovens, and blanchers. The American Museum of Peanut Butter History in Chicago has examples of these devices for the enthusiast to view. Today there are mechanical apparatuses to do everything from planting, cultivating, pest control, and harvesting to shelling, grading, heating, cooling, and transporting the product to the local store. During W.W. II peanuts became an important crop and, as with other industries, there was a shift to fewer but larger plants. The processing includes the stages of roasting, inspecting by high-speed color sorters, 2 millings for smooth texture, cooling, salting, and vacuum-packing.

The shelf life of peanut butter is affected by the natural oils rising to the top where exposure to light or air may cause rancidity. However, a jar of peanut butter typically lasts a year or 2 without severe spoilage, so this is a poor rationalization for adulteration. Separation can be counteracted by stirring the peanut butter or turning the jar upside down. Still manufacturers prefer to add antioxidants to prevent eventual spoilage, hydrogenated vegetable oil or corn syrup solids to prevent natural oil separation, and dextrose or sugar for both sweetening and absorption of some of the oil. There can be an undesirable reaction between the added sugar and the natural protein content of the nut though this is not very common. The heart or germ of the peanut has the most nutritive value but it is also perishable so it is removed by processors, increasing shelf life at the expense of food value. Sometimes vitamins A and C are added to enrich the product. Technically, by federal regulations which have been changed and/or overlooked many times during the past 15 years, peanut butter must be 90% peanuts. The remaining 10% is not supposed to include artificial colors, flavors, or sweeteners; chemical preservatives; or purified vitamins or minerals. The best-quality peanut butter still is the type that comes closest to being 100% peanuts, with only salt added, and is the lightest in color since long roasting (which produces an attractive darker color) decreases the thiamine content. However, color may also be affected by such secret ingredients as malt or ham which probably will not be listed on the labels.

Nutritionally, peanut butter is a good protein supplement to the diet, a fair source of calcium, iron, thiamine, riboflavin, and an excellent source of niacin. Since unadulterated peanut butter has these healthful qualities, many smaller companies are now producing the old-fashioned type of peanut butter for a health-conscious public, and other nut butters such as almond or cashew are growing in popularity as well. But beware of peanut butters which advertise themselves as old-fashioned but don't have oil separation.

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