Peanuts Grow, But How? And Wheres the Butter?

A brief overview of the cultivation of peanuts, and the first steps towards manufacturing the paste product.

And the transformation into the can!

Of course peanut butter begins with the nut… but how does the nut become a butter?

Regardless of companies’ diversity all peanut butter production begins very similarly with the cultivation of the peanut.

Peanut butter has historically been associated as an American food and product. Undeniably, it is far more popular in the United States, where over 700 million pounds are consumed annually , than any other country. However the production of peanuts has grown into an international industry and there are 53 nations recorded significant producers of peanuts. China is currently the largest exporter of peanuts in the world, closely followed by India and the United States in third place.

The international use of peanuts has diversified and spread a great deal over the past century and as a New York Times article claimed, peanuts can be found in all realms of cuisine from gourmet to exotic not just in school children’s lunches.

The global availability and use of peanuts is a relatively recent development in terms of crop history. The species of peanut Arachis hypogaea has a very old and interesting history.

It is thought to have originated in the hot arid climate of Bolivia and Peru and has been dated as old as 2500BCE. It spread throughout South America and is documented in numerous cultures from the Aztec to the Incan. European explorers arrived in the 16th century and transported the new crop to similar climates in Africa and Asia. From Africa the peanuts were brought through the slave trade and introduced to British owned territories and to North America. It did not become a common commodity until the mid 1800s and its popularity grew significantly in 1890 when it was used as a replacement crop for the weevil destroyed cotton crops.

The peanut plant is not actually part of the nut family but rather a legume. There are various types of peanuts; Spanish, Runner, Virginia, and Valencia to name a few, however peanut butter is typically made with Runner or Valencia peanuts which have a very distinctive taste.

Runner plants are typical within the United States due to their processed popularity and although peanut production in the United States is far behind that of China it is much more relevant to the production of peanut butter.

Runner Peanut farming in the US is concentrated in the hot South East ranging from Virginia to Florida.

Seeds are sewn in April of each year and plants are left to grow for five months during which the plant will sprout vines that grown back into the ground, burying the peanut pod within the warm soil.

By September the plants have reached a height of approximately 20 inches are ready for harvesting.

Machines pull the plant out of the ground and invert it, leaving the peanut pods above ground to dry and be inspected for the first time by Federal or State agencies. The USDA Standard for Peanut Grades gives more information on the exact inspection of peanuts.

Inspection is important because it is during this drying period and the subsequent storage of peanuts that they are most susceptible to molds such as Aspergillus flavus that is responsible for the carcinogenic aflatoxin and cause peanut allergies. More information on the allergic effects of peanut can be found on the American Peanut Council.

The peanuts are then shipped to shelling plants to begin the first stage of processing. Shells are removed and the nuts are ready for roasting. There are two methods of roasting peanuts, the batch method and the continuous method. Although the continuous method, which is simpler and less labor intensive, is preferred by many large manufactures, the batch method is far more specialized and is associated with a higher quality of roasting.

Old Fashion Peanut Roaster.

Fully roasted peanuts are sent to the blancher machines, which remove the skins of the nuts by rubbing them between to belts and splitting the two halves in order to extract the heart of the nut which is too bitter to be used in peanut butter. The split, heartless peanuts are sent to the grinding machine to be evenly crushed into a peanut paste.

Modern equipment used for peanut production

After the paste reaches the opportune creamy consistency extra ingredients may be added. For example chunks of peanuts can be added to the paste in order to produce chunky brands.

It is during this stage of peanut production that different companies will vary in their production. The United States Department of Agriculture passed a law in 1972 stating peanut butter must contain no less than 90% peanuts, leaving little room for other ingredients to sneak in.

Although regulations are strict, salt, hydrogenated oils, and sugar are often added. Salt increases the shelf life while adding an extra aspect to the flavor of the paste. Hydrogenated oils keeps the peanut butter oil from separating out within the jar, and is often used by brands such in order simplify the consumer’s role.

That being said, many peanut butter companies pride themselves in not including hydrogenated oils that add unhealthy cholesterol producing trans-fat.  For an opinion article about the negative effects of hydrogenated oils Look here.

All ingredients, no matter how minute, must be labeled on the packaging clearly. After the paste is mixed thoroughly and transferred into the jars and sealed they are labeled with the exact expiration date, typically a year after production, (though peanut butter can last significantly longer) as well as nutritional facts.

The peanut butter will be inspected again, this time by the FDA to insure its quality, and is then ready to be shipped to stores and retailers across the globe, purchased and consumed at will!

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