Between the standard winter blahs and the pandemic, we at DFC HQ have been leaning heavily on the comfort food. Among them is a childhood favourite that is actually a secret nutritional superstar: peanut butter! Not only is the spread high in protein, it also boasts a good dollop of dietary fibre, vitamin E, and magnesium. (Sticking with “natural” PB — without added sugars — is the key to healthy eating here!)
Also, delving into its history is a fascinating trip through technology and American culture, as Smithsonian magazine shows.
The patent for “food compound” prepared from boiled peanuts or almonds was filed in 1895 by John Harvey Kellogg, a doctor who wanted to give healthy, easily digested preparations to patients at his sanitarium, and whose Seventh-Day-Adventist inflected approach to food science also gave us another breakfast essential, cornflakes. This proto-butter was simple in execution, but complicated in the care required to store it. It took a while to get to today’s common pantry staple.
“Manufacturers sold tubs of peanut butter to local grocers, and advised them to stir frequently with a wooden paddle, according to Andrew Smith, a food historian. Without regular effort, the oil would separate out and spoil. Then, in 1921, a Californian named Joseph Rosefield filed a patent for applying a chemical process called partial hydrogenation to peanut butter, a method by which the main naturally occurring oil in peanut butter, which is liquid at room temperature, is converted into an oil that’s solid or semisolid at room temperature and thus remains blended; the practice had been used to make substitutes for butter and lard, like Crisco, but Rosefield was the first to apply it to peanut butter. This more stable spread could be shipped across the country, stocked in warehouses and left on shelves, clearing the way for the national brands we all know today.”
Commenters on the Smithsonian article have already called out the piece’s American bias, by chiming in that Montreal’s own Marcellus Gilmore Edson patented a roasted peanut paste in 1884. Not only was this significantly earlier than Kellogg, but I also bet Edson’s results were far tastier — as well as being more in line with the peanut butter we know and love.
Whoever claims this stroke of genius, the peanut butter we’ve ended up with has definitely changed North American food habits over the past century. It fills the niche of an easy, cheap, and tasty protein that can be used in sweet and savoury alike. We’ve even adapted the production process to create a whole range of nut and seed kinds of butter, both for taste and allergen-safety! I’m glad this simple invention isn’t leaving our culture — or the surface of my toast — anytime soon.