Peanut Butter Obsession Spreading Across Country

Times Staff Writer

Every other day as part of his personal fitness program, Frank Beltran dons his running gear and jogs home after work from his downtown law office.

He used to fortify himself for the 7.5-mile jaunt with honey. But six months ago, he switched to peanut butter--something that up to then he had dismissed as “kid stuff.”

Now, he says, he cannot get enough of the sticky spread. He eats it with crackers before setting off on his run and then snacks on it again with a spoon out of the jar after arriving home. “I’ve gone nuts over peanut butter,” said the 38-year-old trial attorney.


He’s not the only one. Americans have long had a love affair with peanut butter, slathering it on bread for sandwiches, spreading it on crackers for snacks or mixing it with other ingredients to make cookies, cakes, sauces and souffles.

“Peanut butter is right up there with mom and apple pie,” says Don Koehler, executive director of the Georgia Peanut Commission.

But now, in a phenomenon sweeping the nation, that love affair is turning into an obsession as Americans have gone on a peanut butter binge unprecedented in the 99 years since the product was invented by a St. Louis physician as a protein substitute for his elderly patients who had trouble chewing meat.

In the first eight months of the current peanut marketing year, which began last August, Americans have consumed a record 575 million pounds of peanut butter--an astonishing 18% increase over the amount consumed in the same eight-month period a year ago, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

That is enough peanut butter to make more than 8 billion average-sized sandwiches, with enough left over to spread on a few million saltines.

Suddenly, it seems, peanut butter is not just kid stuff any more. Americans of all ages and throughout the country are part of this new burst of peanut butter’s popularity. And their appetites seem to be insatiable.


“I eat more peanut butter than Jimmy Carter,” said David Novak, 34, purchasing agent for a textile importing firm in New York City, referring to the former President whose family was noted for growing peanuts in Georgia. “I like peanut butter better than I do meat.”

On the Cutting Edge

Novak, like Atlanta lawyer Beltran, is typical of those on the cutting edge of the trend: health-conscious baby boomers who exercise regularly and watch their diets, avoiding foods high in saturated fats, cholesterol and sodium.

Along with those who are turning to peanut butter largely for health reasons are those who are rediscovering peanut butter as a “comfort food,” one that brings back warm and wonderful memories of childhood.

“I get sweets cravings and . . . I’ll go foraging (in the kitchen) and get out the peanut butter,” said Lisa Paikowski, Houston editor of Adweek. “I take a piece of bread and slap it on. Sometimes it’s peanut butter with jelly.”

Also bolstering the trend are the legions of unabashed peanut butter lovers who have never been able to do without the product and are happy to see so many others discovering what they have long known.

40-Ounce Containers

Robert Reed, 58, a retired school teacher in Redding, Calif., buys his peanut butter in 40-ounce containers and says that he keeps a half-dozen in stock on his kitchen shelf. “Just in case we have a peanut blight in our country,” he joked.


“I eat it in the morning on toast or muffins or pancakes; in the afternoon on crackers, graham or saltine; and in the evening, usually right after dinner, I like a piece of white bread with peanut butter and butter,” he said.

The only way Reed doesn’t like peanut butter is mixed in milkshakes: “It’s really yuk!” he said.

Rob Stridde, grocery manager at Alfalfa’s Market in Boulder, Colo., says sales of peanut butter at his store are up 20% over last year. “I’ve noticed that as more and more people are learning about natural foods, peanut butter is one of the first they learn about as a good, all-around food,” he said.

Producers Happy

Perhaps no one is happier with the peanut butter mania than the nation’s peanut growers and processors, who have been faced with a relatively slow growing market for years.

“It tickles me to death,” said Derris Jones, a peanut farmer in the rural, southern Georgia agricultural community of Chula. “It’s the best food anywhere to eat if people only realized it.”

That may be a slight exaggeration. Although peanut butter is high in fats and, therefore, high in calories--about 188 calories in the average two-tablespoon serving--it has no cholesterol, plenty of protein, lots of vitamins and minerals and a fair amount of fiber.


But even most of the fats in peanut butter are of the monounsaturated or polyunsaturated variety, which some researchers say may help to reduce cholesterol in the body, said David Haytowitz, a U.S. Department of Agriculture nutritionist.

On Cancer List

(Peanut butter also contains minuscule amounts of aflatoxin, a naturally occurring chemical that appears on California’s list of cancer-causing substances under the state’s Proposition 65, but this obviously has not deterred the food’s fanciers.)

Moreover, peanut industry spokesmen are fond of pointing out, peanut butter is still a bargain. According to the latest consumer price index, an average 18-ounce jar costs $1.79--which the Georgia Peanut Commission’s Koehler says is cheaper pound for pound than “bologna or hot dogs or almost any other protein source.”

Capitalizing on peanut butter’s new-found acceptability among adults, Skippy peanut butter launched an advertising campaign in May that is a radical switch from previous ads showing mothers drawing hearts in the peanut butter on their children’s sandwiches.

Dipping Snacks

The fun of “Skippy Dippin’ ” is the new theme, and the commercials show people dipping snacks, such as pretzels, in peanut butter.

Until five years ago, according to Advertising Age, Skippy was the leader in the $959-million-a-year peanut butter market. Now it is second, with a 17% market share behind No. 1 Jif’s 32%.


One of the industry’s most successful promotional campaigns has been the Adults’ Peanut Butter Lovers’ Fan Club, sponsored by the Atlanta-based Peanut Advisory Board, an organization of peanut growers from Georgia, Alabama and Florida--the heartland of the nation’s “peanut belt.”

“We started the club about four years ago,” said Mitch Head, the board’s executive director. “We printed up 5,000 membership cards and said: ‘That ought to hold us for a few years.’ But four months later we were out, and now we have more than 40,000 members.”

The federal government also has played a role in the upsurge of peanut butter consumption through food programs for the poor and needy as well as for schoolchildren.

“We produce about 1 million pounds a week when we’re successful on the bids,” said W. P. Smith, vice president of Stephens Industries in Dawson, Ga., a peanut processing company dealing exclusively in government contracts.

The dramatic 18% increase in peanut butter consumption for the first two-thirds of the current marketing year was accompanied by an impressive 7.2% jump in snack peanuts consumption and an encouraging 1.2% rise in peanut candy consumption.

“At that kind of growth rate, we could be looking at $85 million in added sales for producers nationwide,” Koehler said.


Less Bar Consumption

He added that the increased consumption of snack peanuts appears to be taking place in the home--and not in bars, where, for various reasons, peanuts have become a kind of endangered species.

“They used to think that salty peanuts sold more beer,” said Genevieve Clark, manager of the Union Bar and Grille on Chicago’s fashionable North Side. “Now they think hot spicy chicken wings do it.”

But in Denver, the Boiler Room restaurant and bar that opened last August to overwhelming success, peanuts are an integral part of the atmosphere--from the giant barrel inside the front door from which customers scoop up their own, to the mounds of empty peanut shells that litter the floor.

Good Times and Fun

“Peanuts help our beer consumption,” said Gary Kortz, one of the Boiler Room’s owners. “They’re synonymous with good times and fun. . . . “

How long Americans will remain on this binge of peanut butter and other forms of the humble legume is a big question. Peanut industry spokesmen say that they do not expect future increases to be so dramatic.

However, as Koehler sees it: “I think we’ve reached a new threshold and, while it’s not likely that we’ll see increases of the magnitude in the 1988-89 marketing year, I think we can maintain the high side and will have a strong market for years to come.”


Contributing to this story were researchers Edith Stanley in Atlanta, Lisa Romaine in Denver, Rhona Schwartz in Houston, Tracy Shryer in Chicago and Aleta Embrey in Washington.