While many of us are staying home during the coronavirus pandemic, any food that lasts a while and provides solid nutritional content is a staple. Lately, you might find yourself staring down the various nut butter options in the pantry — cashew, almond and peanut — and thinking, “Should I be refrigerating that?”
Nut butter keeps you full for hours and fulfills your healthy fat needs, but it’s not uncommon to feel uneasy about the way you store it. Some labels clearly state the product should be refrigerated, but then the nut butter hardens to an unusable texture. Other labels are less clear, making you wonder how to keep it food-safe.
In order to get some clear answers, we reached out to a food safety expert and a nutritionist. Here’s what they had to say.
Natural and non-natural nut butters have different rules
Whether it’s suggested that you refrigerate nut butter doesn’t depend on the type of nut used, but the method in which it’s prepared.
Natural nut butters — the easiest way to make this distinction, other than the label, is to check if there’s a layer of oil on top — are generally suggested to be stored in the refrigerator. You don’t want that layer of oil to go rancid and ruin the flavor of your nut butter.
If you opt for a non-natural, “no stir” type of nut butter (think popular peanut butter brands like Skippy or Jif), storing them in the pantry is completely fine.
“For maximum freshness, I would recommend refrigerating natural-type nut butters, as the oils can go rancid after a while, especially if they’re exposed to warm or hot temperatures,” explained Maggie Michalczyk, Chicago-based registered dietitian. “For nut butters that don’t have the layer of oil at the top, it’s perfectly fine to store them out of the fridge in your pantry with the lid closed. Always store all nut butters in a cool, dry area.”
According to food safety expert and attorney Marc Sanchez, there’s a reason we refrigerate food in the first place: Because keeping foods chilled at proper temperatures is one of the best ways to prevent or slow the growth of bacteria. There are stabilizers used in non-natural nut butters that extend shelf life and make them safe to keep outside the refrigerator for long periods of time. “A natural type nut butter typically doesn’t contain stabilizers, and there’s a risk the oil could spoil if left at room temperature for more than three or four weeks,” he said, adding that rancid oil tastes terrible but generally doesn’t pose any serious health risks.
Take taste and texture into consideration
If you put your natural nut butter in the fridge, you’ll notice it’s usually chunky and nearly impossible to spread. So while the guidance tells us to refrigerate natural nut butters to prevent them from going rancid, keep in mind what Sanchez said ― rancid oil will taste bad, but it won’t make you sick. So if you’re aiming for a smoother, more spreadable texture, you can keep your natural nut butter in a cool, dry pantry.
Along with texture, Michalczyk recommends taking temperature into consideration. “Taste-wise, there is no difference between nut butters that are stored in the fridge versus the pantry,” she said. “It’s more of a temperature thing. If you don’t like your nut butter cold but you’re storing your oil-at-the-top nut butter in the fridge, you can always take it out for a few minutes before you plan on having it to help bring it to room temperature.”
While you’re at it, you probably shouldn’t eat your nut butter straight out of the jar
While we’re on the topic of how to be safe with our nut butters, you might want to reconsider the habit of consuming nut butter by the spoonful. According to Sanchez, multiple mouthfuls of nut butter from the same spoon could spread bacteria and moisture that could cause the nut butter to spoil sooner. If the idea of kicking that habit is heartbreaking, Sanchez has a suggestion. “If someone in your household has this habit, then refrigeration is best.”
While your natural nut butter will no doubt last longer if you refrigerate it, it’s comforting to know that as long as you’re responsibly storing your oil-topped nut butter in a cool, dry place and eating it within a few weeks (and let’s be real, who isn’t these days?), everything will be just fine.