Peanut butter has long been a favorite American food. If you were a typical U.S. kid, you ate 1,500 PB&J sandwiches before graduating from high school. That’s a lot of peanut butter! In fact, Americans consume between 700-800 million pounds of peanut butter a year, according to Jen Nolander, director of marketing for the SKIPPY® brand, or about three pounds per person – enough to coat the bottom of the Grand Canyon, according to the Texas Peanut Producers Board.
Spreadable peanut paste dates back to the Aztecs, but the peanut butter we know today was patented in 1895 by Dr. John Harvey Kellogg as a nutritious protein source for patients without teeth. In 1922, chemist Joseph Rosefield figured out how to keep the oil from separating from the peanuts (by adding vegetable shortening), inventing smooth peanut butter. In 1932, he began producing his own product under the name “Skippy.”
Beyond the Peanut
Today, nut butters are the go-to food for people who want quick, nutritious protein, whether they’re parents stuffing lunchboxes, vegetarians supplementing their diet or athletes who need a quick energy fix. But while peanut butter is still the king of nut butters (even though technically the peanut is a legume, not a nut), the past few years have seen a phenomenal rise in other types of nut butters — mainly almond, but also cashew, hazelnut, pistachio and whichever other nuts people can grind into a spreadable snack. IRI, a retail data firm, reports that the U.S. market for nut butters totaled $2.3 billion in 2018. And while peanut butter is the largest segment of that market at 78 percent, almond butter has grown 30 percent over the last five years, now representing 7.4 percent of the nut butter market. Where a mainstream grocery used to have few, if any, almond butter products, now the average retailer has 12 varieties.
The spread of almond butter and other nut butters has been partly fueled by concerns about peanut allergies — many schools have banned peanut butter altogether — as well as interest in new vegetarian sources of protein and healthy fats. Interest in ketogenic and paleo diets have also driven up sales.
The interest in natural products has also helped drive the market for new nut butters. In natural or health food stores, almond butter sales now equal those of peanut butter. “People want a good, clean protein source,” says Penny Andino, vice president of marketing, Justin’s, a company that helped drive the market in nut butters. This extends to natural peanut butter spreads: While sales of conventional peanut butter in a jar are flat, natural peanut butter spreads have grown over the past five years, says Nolander. Natural peanut butter spreads, she says, don’t contain hydrogenated oil as a stabilizer, which is part of the definition of “peanut butter.”
Justin Gold founded Justin’s in 2004 in Boulder, Colo., when, as an active vegetarian, he wanted a good energy source to eat while bicycling without all the sugar that energy bars and gels typically contain. He also put nut butter in squeeze packs for on-the-go convenience. The company, which also makes a semi-crunchy peanut butter, has expanded to almond butters and other nut spreads.
“They’ve saved my life many times traveling and running around,” says Andino. “You get stuck with a delayed plane and you have a squeeze pack in your purse, and you’re going to be okay.” Considered liquids by the TSA, these nut butters come in packets that are small enough to take onboard.
The squeeze pack format, aside from being convenient to spread on toast or fruit, has also become an opportunity for consumers to try a product before they commit to buying a full jar. Skippy recently launched its own squeeze packs–1.15 ounces of either regular or creamy peanut butter for on-the-go convenience.
The packs also offer portion control to people who might otherwise go after a jar of almond butter with a spoon. Nut butters are full of healthy fats, but also calories.
Nut butters are no longer just for PB&J (or AB&J) sandwiches, either. “There are a lot more opportunities than ever for consumers to enjoy nut butters in different types of eating situations,” says Andino. Nut butters appear in snack bars, bites, dessert items, stuffed pretzels and protein bars. New products and formats are also creating growth in the traditional peanut butter market as well. “With Skippy Bites and Peanut Butter Jelly Minis, Skippy has spread across the grocery story,” says Nolander. “We’re constantly trying to figure out how to innovate and satisfy consumers wherever they crave peanut butter.”
Skippy has also created reduced fat options for peanut butters, but they have not attracted as broad interest among consumers. “Everybody says they want reduced fat and they want to take sugar out of their life, but at the end of the day, people aren’t willing to give up the taste of something they know and love and choose to reduce fat in other ways.”
Like nut butters, nut milks have made inroads into the market. In the past five years, nut milk sales overall are up 5 percent, almond milk about 12 percent, coconut milk 8 percent, while cow’s milk has declined 2 percent (accelerating the decrease to 3.5 percent in the past year). Non-dairy milks are now 12 percent of total milk category sales; only soy milk is down 10 percent in sales. The one area of growth in the dairy milk category is whole milk, as fewer people are drinking skim. “That speaks to the trend of healthier fats being accepted into diets again,” says Andino.
At the heart of the nut butter trend is an interest in uncomplicated, healthy protein. “People are looking at ways of finding protein on the go, and nut butters solve that problem,” says Nolander.
“Justin’s stands for being real, being simple and delivering on great taste,” says Andino. “At the end of the day, it’s got to taste good.”