A lunchtime favorite. A picnic classic. An American icon.
Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches do it all.
The sandwich has maintained its popularity for decades. It’s spurred on the creation of products like Uncrustables, a circular, freezable version of the sandwich without – you guessed it – the crust.
According to “Peanuts: The Illustrious History of the Goober Pea,” written by Andrew F. Smith, the first reference to the sandwich was a recipe written by a woman named Julia Davis Chandler in 1901.
Since then, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches have maintained their place as an iconic part of many American school lunches. The protein-rich peanut butter makes it a parent go-to, and kids love the sweet taste of jelly.
But just how healthy is this American classic? We asked experts.
The three ingredient sandwich seems fairly straight forward, but great debate surrounds the PBJ. Crunchy peanut butter or smooth? Grape jelly or strawberry? Crust on or crust off?
Because of this, the exact nutritional details will depend on how you make your PBJ. For argument’s sake, let’s breakdown the typical sandwich.
Two slices of white bread have about 5 grams of protein and 3 grams of sugar. Two tablespoons of peanut butter contain about 7 grams of protein and 3 grams of sugar, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. One tablespoon of grape jelly has 12 grams of sugar. In total, a run-of-the-mill PBJ has about 12 grams of protein and 18 grams of sugar, coming out to around 390 calories.
But ingredients with a lot of sugar and preservatives often don’t have important nutrients.
“They’ve taken out a lot of the nutrients that’s actually going to fuel your body, feed your brain and keep you energized all day,” said Brittany McDonald, an American Fitness Professionals Associates certified holistic nutritionist. “You’re actually going to have a sugar crash and more cravings later.”
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Amy Kimberlain, a licensed and registered dietitian nutritionist, said choosing a whole grain bread can contribute more protein and fiber.
As for the “PB,” choosing a natural peanut butter is just as important as the amount you put on the sandwich, said Kimberlain, who is also a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
“I always tell people to do one to two tablespoons on your sandwich. Because of it having the heart healthy fat, it makes you feel fuller longer,” she said.
And for those allergic to peanuts or other types of nuts, sunflower seed butter can be a healthy and safe alternative.
But how many PBJs is too many? It all depends on who you are and how your sandwich stacks up, said Kimberlain.
“How else you’re building around it is important. I honestly would tell you that it should be part of an option because it’s rotation and variety,” she said.
Even if you make your PBJ with the healthiest ingredients, you may still wonder how other lunch options stack up against the classic go-to.
A serving of Kraft’s macaroni and cheese has a similar number of calories, at 360. It has less sugar, with 9 grams, but only 10 grams of protein.
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And what about another sandwich, like a famous classic ham and cheese?
It’s a little complicated to say exactly because, like the PBJ, everyone makes their sandwich differently. A deli sandwich made with white bread, two ounces of black forest ham, a tablespoon of mayonnaise, and a slice of cheddar cheese is about 380 calories, with 4 grams of sugar and 17 grams of protein.
“No matter what meal someone’s trying to eat themselves, or their children, it should always have a healthy protein, a healthy fat and a healthy carb,” said McDonald.
If the peanut butter and jelly sandwich is made with healthier ingredients, it will check all of those boxes. The same can be said about the deli sandwich.
“You’re going to get healthy carbs from the grains. You’re going to get healthy fat and protein from the peanut butter, and you’re going to get some fruit from the jelly so you have a little bit of a balanced meal,” McDonald said.
The same can’t be said for macaroni and cheese. McDonald said she doesn’t recommend anything “boxed or packaged” with added ingredients.
There’s been some talk about the healthiness of the fluffernutter, a cousin of PBJ, after a Massachusetts state senator tried to ban serving the sandwich more than once a week in schools.
The sandwich sees jelly substituted with marshmallow fluff.
Fluff has less sugar than some jellies, with 9 grams of sugar in two tablespoons, according to data complied by the USDA. But that doesn’t mean you should swap out the beloved classic for the fluffernutter.
Marshmallow fluff just doesn’t have the same fruit content and nutrients that come with it that jelly does, Kimberlain said.