Spread a little nuttiness

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 18 October, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 18 October, 2011, 12:00am


Probably the most famous nut butter is peanut butter, which is actually not a 'butter' in the traditional dairy sense, or made from nuts (peanuts are classed as legumes). Yet for many, especially those with children, peanut butter has long been a kitchen cupboard staple.

The creamy texture and sweet taste is a proven winner with young taste buds and one helping packs a beneficial punch of heart-healthy monounsaturated fats, fibre and protein. It also contains niacin, vitamin B and iron, so this spread isn't just for kids. 'Sometimes, it is useful for vegetarians who are taking note of their protein intake,' says Wendy Ma, dietitian and a programme director at HKU Space. Peanut butter can make a good afternoon or pre-workout snack and is great sandwiched between crackers or spread on an apple.

While most supermarkets stock jars of the famous Skippy and Planters brands, more international supermarkets and health food stores are introducing all-natural varieties. The difference between them, says Ma, is in saturated fat levels and added sugar or salt. Joseph's Creamy Valencia Peanut Butter (HK$39.90, available at ThreeSixty) has just one gram of sugar and no salt - good for those watching their sodium intake - compared with three grams of sugar and 150 milligrams of sodium per two tablespoons of Skippy Creamy.

But these days there are a growing number of alternatives to peanut butter and, experts say, many are healthier. Almond and cashew nut butters are popular, but almost any nut can be made into a butter - from Brazil nuts and walnuts, to pistachios, hazelnuts and pecans. City'super IFC, for example, stocks the brand Artisana, which has cashew, walnut and pecan butters, and Meridian's hazelnut and almond butters.

Dr Kenneth Chu, a naturopathic doctor and director of the Redwood Natural Health Centre in Central, says that the arrival of more nut butters on the market has coincided with consumer concern about the quality of protein intake coming from meat. 'People are eating a lot less red meat. Chemicals and drugs that are used in the meat industry, and whatever else they are doing in farming and agriculture to increase poundage, is a worry. Alternative proteins like those found in nuts, beans and seeds are being sought.'

For Chu, peanuts pale in comparison to some other nuts when it comes to nutritional value. Brazil nuts contain the antioxidant selenium and walnuts have essential fatty acids. Pumpkin seeds are high enough in zinc to affect prostrate health. Almonds contain trace minerals good for brain development, vitamin E and more calcium than other nuts.

Nut butters can also be used as a dip with chunks of pear and banana, or red peppers and mushrooms. Apple sauce with almond butter is a good snack topper to try, Chu says.

Environmental concerns over the way peanuts are grown and harvested may sway others to avoid peanut butters altogether, says Hong Kong Boot Camp founder Nathan Solia. He says legumes are an acidic food, whereas nuts will keep the body alkaline. 'Once your body is acidic it is open to the effects of stress. The more stressed your body is, the more open it is to a lowered immune system and infection,' he says. Solia is a fan of almond butter, which he spreads thickly on slabs of grainy bread in the morning.

You don't have to rely on pre-made jars if you have an oven and 20 minutes to spare. Nut butters are surprisingly quick and simple to make. First, spread nuts thinly on a baking tray and toast on high heat for about 10 minutes until brown. Once cooled, whizz them in a blender or food processor. For a few moments the blades might hack and choke over the nuts, but a wonderfully smooth paste should soon emerge. Transfer this to a jar and refrigerate. Because it's all-natural, it's common for the paste to separate slightly, leaving a layer of oil at the top, but simply stir to blend before each use.

In America, nut butters come in an exotic medley of flavours. Illinois-based Futters Nut Butters, for example, makes an organic almond butter with orange oil and a chocolate pecan spread. Marilyn's Nut Butters, made in Seattle, has hazelnut walnut spice with cardamom. You can spice up butters at home easily using inspiration from cookbooks or the internet - chef Mollie Katzen recently listed a walnut butter and cinnamon recipe on her Twitter page that would surely pep up a breakfast sandwich or a stick of celery come late afternoon.