September 2013 Issue

Going Nuts — For Nut and Seed Butters, That Is
By Grace Dickinson
Today’s Dietitian
Vol. 15 No. 9 P. 64

These sandwich and cracker spreads boast abundant nutrients that can reduce cardiovascular and other chronic disease risk.

From cashew to pistachio and sesame to sunflower, seed and nut butters have become popular products that dietitians continue to recommend and that clients enjoy—and for good reasons. Seed and nut butters contain healthful nutrients, come in several varieties, and can be used as a smooth, nutritious sandwich spread.

Unlike jams, jellies, butter, and margarine, seed and nut butters naturally contain healthful fats that benefit heart health, reduce the risk of heart disease and type 2 diabetes, and even lower the risk of obesity despite their high fat content—2 T of a seed or nut butter contain, on average, 16 g of fat.

“Each variety offers something a little different, and all are beneficial in their own way,” says Nancy Clark, MS, RD, CSSD, a sports nutrition counselor, food coach, and author. “None of the nuts in them can be labeled bad for your health, and something positive can be said about every single one of them. I think they’re actually one of the best diet foods around because you can put it on bread or crackers, and they’re really satiating. It stays with you so you’re not looking around for cookies or some other empty-calorie junk food.”

Bad Rap for Fat Content
Nut and seed butters may contain a significant amount of fat per serving, but it’s the types of fat that benefit heart health. The butters tend to be rich in both monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids (MUFAs and PUFAs). Both are known to decrease LDL cholesterol and triglyceride levels, lowering the risk of metabolic syndrome, heart disease, and type 2 diabetes. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Improved control of LDL cholesterol can reduce cardiovascular complications by 20% to 50%.”1

“Thirty-five percent of your diet can come from fat if it’s the healthy kind,” explains Ruth Frechman, MA, RDN, CPT, a national spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “You’re much better off eating nut butter sandwiches vs. something like a prime rib steak. A prime rib steak can have a lot more calories than even a few tablespoons of nut butter and lack all the MUFAs.”

The type of fat, in addition to the fiber and protein found in nuts, leads to greater satiation, Clark says. One or 2 T of almond butter will keep clients feeling fuller longer than a handful of pretzels will, which could explain why nuts, despite their fat content, have been shown to lower obesity rates.

In a study from the Harvard School of Public Health that examined 51,188 women, researchers found that regular nut consumption was associated with a slightly lower risk of weight gain and obesity.2 In a meta-analysis published in the April issue of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, researchers found that, on average, weight and waist measurements changed little among people who consumed a normal vs. a nut-supplemented diet.3 These findings support evidence that nuts and nut butters can be a healthful addition to an individual’s diet, even among people trying to lose weight.

While research regarding the benefits of seeds is lacking, since they have a comparable, nutrient-rich profile as nuts, they should provide similar benefits. Seeds such as flax, chia, pumpkin, sunflower, and sesame are rich in essential fatty acids that the body can’t create and must be obtained through diet alone. Like most nuts, they also generally are high in fiber and protein, making seeds a satiating snack.

Eat in Moderation
The key to gleaning the health benefits from nut and seed butters is to eat them in moderation. “The MyPlate guidelines recommend eating 4 oz of nuts or seeds per week, so you can incorporate nut butters into your diet every single day. Just stick to a couple of tablespoons,” Frechman says.

Dietitians can suggest clients choose natural nut or seed butter varieties to avoid the unnecessary added sugars and trans fat. Manufacturers add trans fat, or hydrogenated oil, to keep the oil from separating during storage, explains Nicole Morrissey, MS, RD, LD, director of nutrition services and diabetes education at South Haven Health System in Michigan. To keep the oil from separating during storage and avoid having to stir the nut or seed butter before serving, recommend clients store the jars upside down when not in use, she says.

While the Nutrition Facts label may list 0 g of trans fat, clients should read the ingredient list. “Products containing less than 0.5 g of trans fat per serving aren’t required to disclose their amounts on food labels,” Morrissey explains.

A wide selection of nut and seed butters lines supermarket shelves. Here, Today’s Dietitian discusses the health benefits of some of the most popular varieties that RDs can share with clients and patients.

Peanut Butter
For many clients, peanut butter was and still is an emblem of youth. But because of the increasing prevalence of peanut allergies among children, parents have had to find alternatives.

Of course, if allergies aren’t an issue, there are health benefits that can come from eating peanut butter. A study in the International Journal of Obesity and Related Metabolic Disorders found that peanuts themselves can increase metabolic rate. When subjects consumed 505 kcal (+/- 118 kcal) of peanuts daily for 19 weeks, their resting metabolic rate increased by 11%, and that was without exercise.4

“There are three principal mechanisms that have been identified for explaining the lack of influence of peanut butter consumption on body weight,” says Richard D. Mattes, MPH, PhD, RD, a professor of nutrition science at Purdue University. “One is a high satiety value, so you offset somewhere around two-thirds of the energy of the nuts or nut butter just by spontaneously eating less at other times of the day. For whole nuts, a second [mechanism] is that we don’t chew them especially well, so we lose 5% to 15% of the energy just in the stool. And then there are multiple studies that report there seems to be a rise in resting energy expenditure rate from daily consumption. The mechanism in that isn’t entirely clear, but it’s intriguing.”

Peanuts also contain one of the highest amounts of protein per serving among nuts and seeds—although it should be noted that despite their name, peanuts technically are classified as a legume as opposed to a nut. However, common usage throws them into the latter category and, according to the USDA, peanuts account for 67% of total nut consumption. When comparing peanuts with the other 33%, the 7 g of protein they contain in a 2-T serving puts peanut butter at the top of the nut butter scoreboard.

Walnut Butter
Despite the healthful benefits of peanuts and peanut butter, some RDs favor walnut butter. “At the top of my list for nut butters would be walnut butter because it contains the greatest amounts of omega-3 fatty acids,” says McKel Hill, MS, RD, LDN, a health and wellness coach at Health to You in Nashville, Tennessee. “These are important in our daily diets, and most of us eating the standard American diet lack omega-3s.” Omega-3 fatty acids have anti-inflammatory properties that make them an important nutritional recommendation for patients suffering from inflammatory and autoimmune diseases, such as Crohn’s disease, lupus erythematosus, multiple sclerosis, and rheumatoid arthritis.

Not only do walnuts contain omega-3s, they’re also abundant in polyphenols, or antioxidant compounds. A recent study published in Food & Function found that walnuts, when compared with nine other types of nuts, were loaded with the highest number of polyphenols.5 That’s good news for both walnut lovers and clients and patients trying to lower heart disease risk. Polyphenols have been shown to decrease blood cholesterol, improve blood flow, and reduce inflammation.

Although walnut butter isn’t always conveniently found in stores, it’s not difficult to make at home, though clients may wonder why they should go to the trouble of making it when the nut itself suffices. Turning walnuts into a butterlike consistency makes it easier to turn them into a healthful, ready-to-go meal. Clients can spread walnut butter on thinly sliced apples or whole grain bread, giving them a layer of manganese and plant-based protein. They also can add a tablespoon or two to a fruit smoothie recipe for breakfast.

Almond Butter
Almond butter has grown in popularity as one of the most nutrient-dense tree nuts eaten today. “One ounce of almonds contains about 50% of the daily value of vitamin E, which studies show can possibly reduce the risk of heart disease, and the antioxidant works to support healthy skin and hair,” Frechman says. Almond butter also contains a significant amount of calcium, magnesium, potassium, phosphorous, and iron, all packed into a 2-T serving.

 The butter may be particularly beneficial for clients at risk of high cholesterol. Researchers at the Clinical Nutrition and Risk Factor Modification Center of St Michael’s Hospital in Toronto found that adding almonds to patients’ diets can significantly reduce coronary heart disease risk factors, which they link to the MUFAs, protein, and fiber that almonds contain.6 “Almond butter is highest in fiber and lowest in saturated fat,” Morrissey says, noting that even the most healthful of nut butters contain saturated fat, which should be limited in the diet. “Calorically speaking, all fats offer the same number of calories per gram, so portion control still should be emphasized.”

Nonetheless, she explains that fats provide flavor and satiety and are essential to good health. “For those that enjoy nut butters, I think there’s something to be said about learning the fact that satisfaction from food can come in small portions,” she says, adding that of all the nut butters, the almond variety serves the most noteworthy nutrition.

Pistachio Butter
Pistachio butter has been found to positively impact blood glucose levels. A study published in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that consuming 56 g (approximately 2 oz) of pistachios along with high-carbohydrate foods significantly reduced postprandial glycemic response.7 For diabetes patients, pistachio butter could help reduce blood glucose spikes.

Pistachios also have been shown to benefit cardiovascular health. A research review published in the American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine found pistachio consumption to be associated with decreased LDL cholesterol and triglycerides and with increased HDL cholesterol, all important for lowering heart disease risk.

Compared with other nuts, pistachios are significantly high in lutein, an antioxidant typically found in leafy greens. Lutein is known to protect against free radical oxidation of LDL cholesterol, which is important for reducing inflammation and arterial plaque buildup. Suggest clients dip apple slices into pistachio butter for an excellent source of copper and vitamin B6 (20% Daily Value), manganese, phosphorus, and thiamin.

Sesame Tahini
Sesame tahini is a seed butter made from lightly toasted, hulled sesame seeds, which contain unsaturated fat and healthful doses of magnesium and iron. Sesame seeds also contain sesamin and sesamol, two unique lignans shown to lower cholesterol.

In a study published in Nutrition Research, researchers asked subjects to consume 40 g (about 1 1/2 oz) of ground toasted sesame seeds per day. By four weeks, average total cholesterol was 6.4% lower than baseline levels, and LDL cholesterol was 9.5% lower than baseline levels. Patients were then asked to resume their normal diets without the sesame supplementation. Four weeks later, the subjects’ cholesterol levels returned to baseline levels.8

These LDL cholesterol–lowering lignans also have been shown to have possible anticancerous effects. Lignans are phytochemicals similar in structure to estrogen, which enable them to bind to estrogen receptors. This gives lignans the qualities that can protect against hormone-related cancers.9

As demonstrated in the study, eating sesame seeds provides healthful nutrients, but the outer layer of the seeds is difficult for the body to absorb. Crushing and grinding the seeds, however, allows the body to absorb the nutrients more easily. This process also yields a paste that can create an ingredient for sauces (see Maple Tahini Blueberry Oatmeal recipe below).

Creamy Goodness
All nut butters are versatile and add creaminess, heart-healthy fats, fiber, and protein that often aren’t found in regular cream sauces and recipes, RDs say. Suggest clients eat them in moderation, as they can serve as a healthful way to add richness to any dish or a satisfying snack on their own.

— Grace Dickinson is a freelance writer and food blogger who creates recipes for


Maple Tahini Blueberry Oatmeal

Serves 2

1 cup old-fashioned oats
2/3 to 1 cup blueberries, washed
3 T maple syrup
1 1/2 T sesame tahini
Salt, to taste
2 T chopped walnuts

1. Place oatmeal and 2 1/2 cups of cold water in a medium pot. Cover and place over low heat. Let cook for 10 to 15 minutes or until water is absorbed and oatmeal is creamy. Uncover occasionally to stir. Add blueberries and let cook for 2 minutes or until the first couple of blueberries begin to burst. Remove from heat.

2. In a small bowl, whisk maple syrup, tahini, and a dash of salt. Divide oatmeal between two bowls. Drizzle maple sesame sauce on top. Sprinkle with salt and chopped walnuts. Serve.

Nutrient Analysis per serving
Calories: 290; Total fat: 9.5 g; Sat fat: 1 g; Trans fat: 0 g; Cholesterol: 0 mg; Sodium: 250 mg; Total carbohydrate: 46 g; Dietary fiber: 5 g; Sugars: 26 g; Protein: 5 g

— Recipe by Grace Dickinson


Sesame Ginger Baked Tofu

Serves 4

One 14-oz package firm tofu, frozen (remove from freezer, thaw, and drain)
1/4 cup roasted sesame tahini
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 1-inch piece ginger, minced
1 1/2 T lemon juice
2 T soy sauce
1 tsp agave syrup
1/2 tsp Sriracha
1/4 cup water
Oil, for greasing
Cilantro, chopped (optional)

1. Wrap tofu in a towel and lightly press to remove excess water. Slice tofu into approximately eight 1/4-inch pieces.

2. In a large bowl, combine remaining ingredients excluding the oil and cilantro, and whisk until smooth to make the marinade. Place tofu slices in a bowl and cover with marinade. Let sit for one hour.

3. Preheat oven to 375˚F. Line a baking sheet with aluminum foil and grease with oil. Spread tofu onto pan and drizzle the remaining marinade on top. Bake 20 minutes. Remove from oven, flip tofu, and return to oven. Bake for another 25 minutes, or until outside of tofu is browned. Top with chopped cilantro, if desired. Serve layered in a sandwich or over rice.

Nutrient Analysis per serving
Calories: 175; Total fat: 13 g; Sat fat: 2 g; Trans fat: 0 g; Cholesterol: 0 mg; Sodium: 500 mg; Total carbohydrate: 7 g; Dietary fiber: 2 g; Sugars: 1 g; Protein: 10 g

— Recipe by Grace Dickinson


1. 2011 National Diabetes Fact Sheet. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Updated March 11, 2013. Accessed July 1, 2013.

2. Bes-Rastrollo M, Wedick NM, Martinez-Gonzalez MA, Li TY, Sampson L, Hu FB. Prospective study of nut consumption, long-term weight change, and obesity risk in women. Am J Clin Nutr. 2009;89(6):1913-1919.

3. Flores-Mateo G, Rojas-Rueda D, Basora J, Ros E, Salas-Salvadó J. Nut intake and adiposity: meta-analysis of clinical trials. Am J Clin Nutr. 2013;97(6):1346-1355.

4. Alper CM, Mattes RD. Effects of chronic peanut consumption on energy balance and hedonics. Int J Obes Relat Metab Disord. 2002; 26(8):1129-1137.

5. Vinson JA, Cai Y. Nuts, especially walnuts, have both antioxidant quantity and efficacy and exhibit significant potential health benefits. Food Funct. 2012;3(2):134-140.

6. Jenkins DJ, Kendall CW, Marchie A, et al. Dose response of almonds on coronary heart disease risk factors: blood lipids, oxidized low-density lipoproteins, lipoprotein(a), homocysteine, and pulmonary nitric oxide: a randomized, controlled, crossover trial. Circulation. 2002;106(11):1327-1332.

7. Kendall CW, Josse AR, Esfahani A, Jenkins DJ. The impact of pistachio intake alone or in combination with high-carbohydrate foods on post-prandial glycemia. Eur J Clin Nutr. 2011; 65(6):696-702.

8. Chen PR, Chien KL, Su TC, et al. Dietary sesame reduces serum cholesterol and enhances antioxidant capacity in hypercholesterolemia. Nutr Res. 2005;25:559-567.

9. Higdon J. An Evidence-Based Approach to Dietary Phytochemicals. New York: Thieme;2007:155-161.