Peanut butter.

Peanut butter. Credit: iStock

What is natural peanut butter spread?

Perusing the peanut butter aisle at the supermarket, I noticed that all the major peanut-butter players -- Jif, Skippy and Peter Pan -- also offered something called natural peanut butter spread. (Bear in mind that it is definitely made with peanuts, so stay away from it if you or your child has a peanut allergy or if you were planning to pack it in a lunchbox going to a peanut-free school.)

What is natural peanut butter?

"Natural" on a food label usually means next to nothing, but in the case of peanut butter, it has come to denote a "traditional-style" peanut butter that contains only peanuts and salt, but no sugar and no stabilizers. The oil that separates out of natural peanut butter must be stirred back in before serving and, even when vigorously stirred, natural peanut butters are looser and oilier than their unnatural counterparts.

How about regular peanut butter?

Regular peanut butter avoids the oil-separation problem by whipping in a small amount of hydrogenated vegetable oil. This also makes the texture thicker and creamier.

Isn't hydrogenated vegetable oil a major source of trans fats?

Indeed it is, but it is the only stabilizer permitted by the FDA. The federal definition of peanut butter is a mixture that contains at least 90 percent ground peanuts, the other 10 percent made up of "safe and suitable seasoning and stabilizing ingredients." Sugar and salt are examples of safe and suitable seasonings; hydrogenated vegetable oil is the only safe and suitable stabilizer. If a peanut butter product contains less than 90 percent peanuts, or if it uses a stabilizer other than hydrogenated vegetable oil, it must be labeled "peanut butter spread."

Is there a more natural alternative to hydrogenated vegetable oil?

That's where palm oil comes in. Most vegetable oils must be industrially manipulated to be solid at room temperature; that's exactly what hydrogenation is. But palm oil, made from the fruit of an oil palm tree is, like coconut oil, is naturally solid at room temperature.

Is palm oil healthier than hydrogenated vegetable oil?

Perhaps, but probably not by much. Right now, it is perceived as a healthier alternative, but it's a saturated fat and it is also highly refined. In the coming years, we may well learn that it's no better for us than hydrogenated vegetable oil. But bear in mind that where peanut butter is concerned, we're talking about small amounts of either added fat. Most of the fat in peanut butter comes from the peanuts. In a 2-tablespoon serving of regular peanut butter, there are about 16 grams of fat. Less than 0.5 grams of it comes from hydrogenated vegetable oil -- which is why manufacturers can round down and put on the label that there are zero trans fats.

How does palm oil perform in peanut butter?

Like a charm. It does almost as good a job as hydrogenated vegetable oil -- the result is a hint looser and shinier, but still smooth and creamy. But, because it is not one of the FDA's "suitable" stabilizing ingredients, manufacturers who use it instead of hydrogenated vegetable oil must label their products "peanut butter spread," even if the product in question contains 90 percent peanuts.

And that's what Jif, Skippy and Peter Pan natural peanut butters spreads are: peanut butters that use palm oil instead of hydrogenated vegetable oil.

How does the spread taste?

I actually preferred Jif natural creamy peanut butter spread to Jif creamy peanut butter. It had a slightly softer texture, a nuttier flavor and a bit less salt.