A dietitian explains whether PB&J is healthy — and offers tips for elevating this kid-friendly favorite.
Chances are you’ve had more than a few peanut butter and jelly sandwiches in your childhood — or perhaps it’s not a staple among your cultural foods.
For many, this classic sandwich draws up nostalgic images of brown paper bag lunches and cafeteria giggles. If you have children of your own, you may also pack this classic pairing for an easy lunch.
We know PB&J is tasty, but the question remains: is it healthy?
This article covers the nutritional value of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and offers suggestions for elevating this kid-friendly favorite.
In order to assess its nutritional value, first we must discuss the breakdown of this sandwich.
Typically, there are three main ingredients — bread, peanut butter, and jelly — each with different nutritional values.
Nutritional value of bread
Bread can be a part of a balanced diet. The nutritional value of bread depends on the type chosen.
For starters, whole-grain bread is the best option, because it provides a higher amount of nutrients. Whole grain kernels have three parts: the bran, endosperm, and germ (
Because whole grain bread retains all three parts, it’s higher in protein and fiber compared with other breads. These nutrients slow the absorption of sugar into your bloodstream and keep you full longer (
Whole grain bread is also richer in key nutrients, like B vitamins, iron, folate, and magnesium. Look for the word “whole” as part of the first ingredient in bread’s nutritional label (
Choosing sprouted grain bread, like Ezekiel bread, is also an excellent choice. The sprouting process increases digestibility and bioavailability of nutrients. Studies show sprouted bread has more fiber, vitamin E, and vitamin C, and beta-glucan (
Sourdough bread is fine, too. Although it’s not as high in fiber and protein, it has a lower glycemic index than white bread.
Glycemic index measures how quickly food increases blood sugars. In general, foods with a lower glycemic index better support your overall health.
But keep in mind that glycemic index doesn’t tell the whole story. We must look at the meal as a whole — for example, what we add to the bread. Nutrients, like protein and fats, can help lower the overall glycemic load of a meal, and serving sizes also play a role (
As a guideline, look for whole grain breads that offer at least 2 grams of fiber per slice. We also suggest using bread that contains 3 grams of protein or more per slice.
If that’s not available, sourdough bread may be your next best option.
Choose breads that are higher in fiber and protein, like whole grain bread or sprouted grain bread. These varieties help slow absorption of sugars and keep you full longer.
Nutritional value of peanut butter
Many people find peanut butter delicious.
Nutritionally, it also delivers. Peanut butter is a good source of protein and healthy fats, important for all stages of life, especially growing children. Plus, it’s a good source of fiber.
Two tablespoons (32 grams) of smooth peanut butter contain 7 grams of protein, 16 grams of fats, and 2 grams of fiber (
Importantly, the majority of fats in peanut butter are unsaturated fats. Research consistently indicates that replacing saturated fats found in animal products with more unsaturated fats (like those in peanut butter) may lower cholesterol and improve heart health (
For growing kids, healthy fats are vital for healthy development. Plus, fats help absorb the vitamins A, D, E, and K, all of which play a synergistic role in supporting immune and brain health (
Contrary to popular belief, conventional peanut butter doesn’t usually have more sugar than 100% natural peanut butter. However, it may have more salt (
When shopping, check the nutrition labels to ensure it doesn’t contain additional ingredients other than peanuts.
When enjoying natural peanut butter, the oil will separate from the peanut butter. Not to fret — just give it a good stir! This helps mix the oils with the solids.
Pro tip: You can store peanut butter upside down in the fridge to keep it from separating again!
When available, choose 100% natural peanut butter, as it’s lower in salt. Remember to stir the peanut butter before eating to mix the oils with the solids.
Nutritional value of jelly
The PB&J sandwich isn’t complete without jelly or jam. What’s the difference, anyway?
Well, while jellies and jams have similar nutritional value and taste, there’s a slight difference: Jellies are made with fruit juice, while jam is made with the fruit juice and pulp (
Both jellies and jams contain pectin (artificially added to jelly), which has prebiotic effects that may improve gut health (
However, both are naturally high in sugar, so enjoy them in moderation. To have more say in the ingredients used, you can try making your jelly at home.
If you’re buying from a store, look for jellies with no added sugar in the ingredients list. Alternative names for added sugars include glucose, sucrose, dextrose, and fructose.
Jellies are high in natural sugars and contain pectins that may have a beneficial effect in promoting gut health. Try to choose jellies with no added sugars.
Depending on the type of bread, peanut butter, and jelly you use, a PB&J can be nutritionally balanced.
Here are some health-promoting swaps for your peanut butter and jelly sandwich:
- Try to choose a nutrient-packed type of bread. Whole grain or sprouted grain is best.
- Choose natural peanut butter, if available. Or, try alternative nut or seed butters, like almond, sunflower seed, or pumpkin seed butters.
- Choose better jam. Look at the ingredients list and pick one with less added sugars (or none at all). These are often labeled “no added sugar” or “reduced sugar.”
- Add fresh fruit slices, banana slices, strawberry slices, or mashed raspberries in the sandwich. This also adds more textures for kids to learn about different sensory experiences.
- Try making homemade jelly.
- Think of “nutrition additions” you can incorporate. Sprinkle in chia seeds, ground flax, or hemp seeds to boost the protein content. Plus, it adds a nice crunch.
- Pair the sandwich with veggie sticks. You can even add some hummus or bean dip for more protein.
A peanut butter and jelly sandwich can be a nutritionally balanced meal filled with protein, healthy fats, fiber, and key nutrients. However, the nutrient value of your PB&J depends on the types of bread, peanut butter, and jelly chosen.
Look for whole-grain or sprouted grain bread, 100% natural peanut butter, and jelly with no added sugar. Any combination of the above is a great way to boost the nutritional value, as well.
Finally, you can boost the nutritional profile of this tasty sandwich by adding nuts and seeds or serving fresh fruit slices or vegetable sticks on the side.
Just one thing
Try this today: Stock up on nuts and seeds, like sliced almonds and chia seeds, to add to your next peanut butter and jelly sandwich!