On the Jewish food scene: Peanut butter, Israel and food allergies

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

I never ate peanut butter as a child. Yep, my poor mom could never get me to eat a peanut butter and jelly sandwich for lunch. The only exception was one summer at a Jewish overnight camp when the food was so bad even I was willing to eat bread with peanut butter rather than choke down the main meal. But that quickly stopped once I was safely home.

Fast forward more years than I want to count and my ear doctor placed me on a medically restricted diet that required me to eat more protein. (I was not a vegetarian, but I rarely cooked meat.) One good protein (at least for breakfast and lunch) was... you guessed it! Peanut butter! That meant, by the way, peanut butter that was 100 percent peanuts – meaning no sugar, no oil, no salt, no preservatives, etc. Yep, just ground peanuts. Since then I’ve had bread – first whole wheat and then seven-grain bread – and peanut butter for breakfast almost every day. Sometimes on Shabbat, I’ll add fruit-juice sweetened jam as a treat, but mostly it’s just bread and peanut butter every morning. 

That made life difficult when I spent 10 months in Israel during the 1990s. At that time, peanut butter was not a major part of the Israeli diet. I know I managed to find a store – probably the same place I bought my herbal tea – that sold peanut butter I could eat. However, the fact that peanut butter wasn’t popular then doesn’t mean that peanuts themselves were not part of the Israeli diet: Bamba, which was originally cheese flavored, became a success when its peanut flavor was released in 1966. (For those who have never eaten Bamba, think of a crunchy corn snack that is flavored with peanuts. It can be found in many local grocery stores if you want to try it.)

Now, however, peanut butter has become more popular in Israel. During a Google search, I even found a company called Holy Butter that makes peanut butter and almond butter with nuts grown in the Negev. I wasn’t able to find statistics on its consumption compared to that of the U.S., but I did find one interesting detail: Israeli children are far less likely to have peanut allergies – about one-tenth the rate of that in Western nations. Scientists posit that it’s because they begin eating Bamba at an early age. 

By the way, I am now a big peanut butter fan. If I’m really tired and have no desire to cook, I’ve been known to take the peanut butter out of refrigerator – yes, I keep mine in the frig because my mom always did – and put it on rice cakes or matzah as my main course. I usually pull a few veggies out of the frig to make sure it’s part of a balanced diet, but it doesn’t bother me to have peanut butter more than once a day. I try not to think about how much easier life would have been for my mom if I had eaten peanut butter when I was young, but she would probably say it wouldn’t have made that much of a difference: I was a really picky eater and generally a very contrary child. My not eating peanut butter was the least of her problems.