April 25, 2019
Nut allergy concept.

Allergic to Peanut Butter? Try These Spreads Instead

by Erica Ilton, RDN, CDN  

Nut allergies are no joke, as anyone who has ever experienced or witnessed an allergic reaction, particularly an anaphylactic reaction, to tree nuts or peanuts can attest. (Peanuts are not true nuts but rather legumes, though cross-reactions are common.)

This has led some schools and airlines to ban all nuts and nut products, which in turn has prompted food manufacturers to create nut-free alternatives to peanut butter—that most ubiquitous of all childhood sandwich spreads—and other nut butters. Luckily, they didn’t have to reinvent the wheel to do this; some products even have a similar texture and equivalent (or superior) nutritional profile.

One popular product is made from sunflower seeds, but others include pumpkin seed butter (which may appeal or repel kids due to its pea green color), chickpea spread (a newbie), soy nut butter (a source of complete protein), and sesame seed butter (tahini). Before choosing either of these last two options, be aware that soy, like peanuts and tree nuts, is one of the top eight allergens, and sesame seed allergy is fairly common.

There is also trendy coconut butter. Though the FDA confusingly identifies coconut as a tree nut, it is actually the seed of a drupaceous fruit—and according to the American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology (ACAAI), “While allergic reactions to coconut have been documented, most people who are allergic to tree nuts can safely eat coconut.” Still, if you have a tree nut allergy, the ACAAI recommends talking to your allergist before consuming coconut.

  • Chickpea butter spread. A few companies make a spread from chickpeas (garbanzo beans), typically with added oil (olive, palm, safflower, or coconut oil) and a little salt and sugar. It’s lower in calories and fat than thatotherlegume spread, peanut butter, but it also contains less protein (see chart). The Amazing Chickpea comes in creamy, crunchy, and chocolate flavors. The chocolate version has 9 grams of added sugar (about two teaspoons) per 2-tablespoon serving, compared to 21 grams of sugar in Nutella, most of which is added. Chixi comes unsweetened, lightly sweetened, and in vanilla bean flavor.
  • Coconut butter. This is made from coconut meat that has been ground into a paste. Unlike coconut oil, which is extracted from the meat, coconut butter has fiber (4 grams per 2-tablespoon serving) and only a little protein (about 2 grams)—though this spread a poor choice if you’re looking to approximate the protein content of peanut butter. The predominant ingredient in coconut butter is fat, but unlike the fat in other nut butters, it is almost entirely saturated. Despite the recent elevation of coconut oil to near mythic health status, the jury is still out as to whether the typeof saturated fat it contains is as healthful as proponents assert. Studies have been mixed—and the AHA advises against the use of coconut oil. Like Nutella, this spread is best enjoyed only on occasion.
  • Pumpkin seed butter. This green-hued spread has a similar calorie, saturated fat, and fiber content to that of peanut butter, but it’s a little higher in total fat and lower in protein. It shines when it comes to magnesium (30 percent of the Daily Value per 2-tablespoon serving) and it’s an excellent source of iron and a good source of zinc. Pumpkin seed butter is not as widely available as some of these other spreads (and it’s more expensive), so you may want to make your own—there are many recipes and videos on the Internet showing how.
  • Sesame seed paste. Also known as tahini (from the Arabic word meaning “to grind”), this creamy paste is made from either sesame seeds that are hulled and then either lightly roasted or kept raw before grinding.Tahini is commonly used in Middle Eastern cooking to flavor hummus and other traditional dishes, but it can also be used in sandwiches or on toast (topping it with a little honey or jam if you like).
  • Soynut butter. This spread tastes somewhat like peanut butter, and one of the more popular brands, WOW,has a similar fat, protein, and fiber content. It also contains a little soy oil and palm oil (as a stabilizer) and 100 milligrams of sodium per 2-tablespoon serving. Soy has gotten a lot of press over the years—some good, some bad—but no one has ever quibbled with the fact that it’s a great source of protein and heart-healthy fats. And unlike peanut butter, soynut butter is considered a “complete” plant protein source, meaning it contains all nine essential amino acids that the body needs to form proteins.
  • Sunflower seed butter. This spread is also similar to peanut butter in terms of flavor and texture, and it’s relatively easy to find in large grocery stores. A popular brand comes in several varieties, including natural, creamy, crunchy, organic, and no sugar added. Sunflower seed butter contains less total and saturated fat than peanut butter and it’s an excellent source of magnesium.

Also see A Fresh Look at Peanut Allergies.