When America’s Test Kitchen taste tested peanut butter, it got me thinking: where did this concoction that we use for sandwiches come from?
That trusty Food Timeline has the answer, using information from Peanuts: The Illustrious History of the Goober Pea by Andrew F. Smith. South American indigenous people first used ground peanuts. European explorers brought a few peanuts to the Old World, but no one even hears of peanut butter for a while.
Fast forward to the 19th century, when nut butters are considered a health food and served at spas. Sales were targeted at the upper class, but in the early 20th century, the market became saturated. Add sugar to make it more appealing to kids, and it becomes a staple.
Only one problem: peanut oil. At room temperature, it separates from the butter, oxidizes, and become rancid. Grocers had to stir frequently. The addition of hydrogenated oil in the 1920s solved that problem. (For a thorough explanation, see Food Timeline.)
For those of us who want our peanut butters to have only peanuts and salt, refrigeration today keeps this food in good shape.
And so I must disagree with Test Kitchen. They choose a brand with hydrogenated oil.
In the case of peanut butter, I will gladly proclaim myself a throwback. As much as practical, I like my food labels to have ingredients I can pronounce, and I like the peanut butter with only peanuts and salt just fine.