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Peanut butter: A medical, military marvel

by SHOLEH PATRICK
| February 23, 2021 1:00 AM

What unites Meatless Monday, the coronavirus, and a sanitarium? Peanut butter.

Once upon a time in South America, the ancient Incas ground peanuts into a paste. Brilliant move, but it didn’t migrate north until the late 1800s — appearing in a sanitarium.

A fascinating article in the current issue of Smithsonian Magazine tells the story of peanut butter, and how a dedicated doctor named Kellogg — yeah, that Kellogg — started what became an American staple. Or two.

But first, peanut butter’s latest application: A COVID-19 smell test.

Because loss of smell is an early sign of the virus in some people, a Canadian neuroscientist developed a smell test, using peanut butter. Its strong smell, availability, and near-universal familiarity make peanut butter perfect.

It was another scientist who made it so well known.

Doctor, nutritionist and cereal pioneer John Harvey Kellogg ran the Battle Creek Sanitarium, a wildly popular medical spa in the 1890s and early 1900s. Kellogg, unfortunately also a eugenicist, used some unconventional treatments, such as electricity to the eyeballs, 15-quart enemas and vibrating chairs. But he was also a passionate advocate of plant-based nutrition, keen to come up with better, more digestible food sources for his patients (who included two U.S. presidents and Amelia Earhart).

That’s what led him to invent Kellogg’s corn flakes and the peanut butter prototype. According to Smithsonian, Kellogg, a Seventh Day Adventist and vegetarian, advocated a meatless diet as essential to optimum health. He believed meat wreaked havoc on the digestive system (and overstimulated sexual urges), so he used nuts as a substitute.

He simply boiled peanuts and ground them into an easily digested, rather plain-tasting paste, for which he filed a patent in 1895. By 1896, Good Housekeeping encouraged homemakers to make it with a meat grinder and spread it on bread. By 1901, cooking magazines suggested pairing with jelly.

Voila, the quintessentially American PB&J was born.

Government rationing in World War I and promotions of “Meatless Mondays” led to more reliance on peanuts in all forms. Soon tubs of peanut butter appeared in local shops, but there was a problem: Oil tends to separate and spoil.

Manufacturers simply advised frequent stirring, until 1921 when Joseph Rosefield applied a process called partial hydrogenation, which makes the oil stay solid at room temperature, to peanut butter. Rosefield later founded Skippy, which supplied military rations in World War II. Peanut butter remains a standard MRE.

Its popularity spread like wildfire, reaching across the planet. While China and India produce more peanuts, Americans still out-eat everyone in peanut butter. The average American kid, estimates the National Peanut Board, eats 1,500 PB&J sandwiches before graduating high school.

Why stop then? I’m hungry.

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Sholeh Patrick is a portly columnist for the Hagadone News Network unashamed of her peanut butter habit. Email Sholeh@cdapress.com.