My coworker Valerio is all about brand loyalty. When we talked about a canned chickpea taste test, he was sure that Goya would win. Actually, a lot of my coworkers were sure that Goya would win. And it did. Later, when we talked about a peanut butter taste test, he was just as confident: “Smucker’s!” he declared. “Incredible texture.”
This wasn’t super surprising. Some people keep mugs or flowers or picture frames on their desks. Valerio keeps a jar of Smucker’s peanut butter. But could he pick his favorite out of a lineup? Would his favorite actually be his favorite? And could humble Smucker’s really beat other, more expensive brands? Let’s find out.
The original concept was: Which natural peanut butter is best? Think sandwiches and apple slices, noodle-y sauces and, you know, spoons. Fast-forward a few supermarkets later, though, and things got complicated.
I assumed that natural peanut butter meant unsweetened peanut butter. I mean, didn’t you? Like, peanuts ground into butter, maybe some salt, maybe some oil to smooth things out. Many cookbooks assume the same—specifying in recipes to not use natural peanut butter, due to separation, which could become problematic in certain baked goods. Sweetened peanut butters, meanwhile, stay perfectly emulsified, like shelf-stable frosting.
But some “natural” peanut butters stay perfectly emulsified, too. Because they contain sugar! When it comes to food products, natural doesn’t, actually, mean any one thing. The Food and Drug Administration currently defines the term as: “nothing artificial or synthetic (including all color additives regardless of source) has been included in, or has been added to, a food that would not normally be expected to be in that food.” Which means sugar is fine. But hydrogenated oil is not. That’s the difference between original Skippy and Jif and their “natural” counterparts—the former have hydrogenated vegetable oils, the latter have palm oil.
Hence, our peanut butter taste test concept took a pivot—from natural to unsweetened. Salt and oil are both fair game. All were tasted blind (so brands were hidden) and at room temperature. For what it’s worth, I always keep unsweetened peanut butter in the fridge; stir it once, to emulsify the oils, then keep it cold and you’ll never have to stir it again. Here, we wanted a clearer sense of the butters’ consistency and fattiness.
These are listed from least to most favorite. Each taste tester tried all six peanut butters, shared feedback on the flavor and texture, then ranked from worst to best. I averaged those numbers to determine our final list, and...we had a tie. A tie! The bottom two were neck and neck, middle two, also neck and neck, and the top two, same exact score. To make this even more suspenseful: Smucker’s was one of them. The next day, we conducted a dramatic tiebreaker (meaning I carried around the jars and asked my coworkers to please try the peanut butter—again). The winner prevailed by only two votes.
This peanut butter had a tough day at the office. Testers described the flavor from “bland” to “very chalky” to “very ‘natural’ (like peanuts when they’re a bit old).” One went so far as to say it “didn’t even taste like nuts!” Worth noting: The ingredients are dry roasted peanuts and palm oil. But no salt, which many also noticed. When it came to texture, people were a fan, complimenting the thickness and grind.
This brand also forgoes salt. Which many, again, didn’t like, the complaints ranging from “really bland, watery almost” to “tastes like cheddar Goldfish.” Some noted how similar it was to Justin’s. One loner declared this butter the best of the bunch: “really like the salt level and texture.” Most disagreed: “Chalky in texture,” one said. “Texture coats too much,” said another. The words “goopy” and “gummy” appeared. But the raccoon label is very cute! (Taste testers couldn’t see this label. Would that have helped? Another experiment for another day.)
Almost every taste tester remarked on this peanut butter’s saltiness. “Just peanuts and a pinch of salt,” the label reads. Hmm! We’re not so sure about that. For some, the salt amplified its toasty, roasty, peanut flavor. For others, it was too much: “more salty than peanutty” and “too salty for me.” Several also remarked on its relatively loose texture, as well as its curious sweetness: “Sweeter,” said one. “Is there sugar in here?” asked another. Hmm!
Somewhat ironically, considering the name, many remarked on this brand’s “bigger, roastier peanut flavor,” its “deeply roasted flavor,” its “strong peanut flavor,” its “nice savoriness.” One summarized it as “solid,” then underlined the word one, two, three times. Does less roasting mean more roasty flavor? One person totally disagreed: “Raw? Kinda bland.” Overall, taste testers agreed that it was a distinctly sticky peanut butter, which some liked (“nice sticky texture”) and others didn’t (“extremely sticky, coating mouthfeel”). Note to self: For future nut/seed butter tests, supply water and/or milk.
The runner-up! Trader Joe’s almost took the cake, but not quite. In the original test, taste testers applauded its “overwhelming notes of peanut butter!” In the tiebreaker, almost everyone remarked that it’s saltier than Smucker’s (Smucker’s also contains salt), with a darker color, and smoother, runnier texture. One noted that this “would be awesome for peanut noodles,” with an exclamation-points smiley face. If we’re being totally transparent, this was my brand loyalty going into the test. But I ended up voting for...
Winner! On Valerio’s blind taste test, he described this one as: “SMUCKER’S. Slightly crunchy.” This standout texture was most people’s favorite part: teeny-tiny, itty-bitty crunchies from a slightly coarser grind. Think creamy butter that wants to be crunchy. Or crunchy peanut butter that wants to be creamy. Or, as one person put it: “Pleasantly crunchy without being ‘crunchy.’” One person even marked Trader Joe’s as her favorite, then tried Smucker’s, then changed her vote: “Wait! This is nice, too,” she wrote. “Nice bits of peanuts.” But the feedback that sums up the whole thing wasn’t even a word, just: “Mmmm.”
Are you loyal to a particular brand of peanut butter? Which one? Tell us in the comments!