Inca in a religious event. The Inca civilization is accredited with the first peanut paste.

Peanut Butter: Who Invented the Tasty Sandwich Spread?

Peanut butter is a popular type of food commonly used as a spread, though it may also be used as an ingredient in various recipes. As many already know, peanut butter is made from ground dry roasted peanuts. Perhaps less well-known is the origin of this spread, in its present form, which may be traced to just less than a century and a half ago - and its more ancient origins in other forms.

The Spread of Peanuts

According to researchers, the peanut plant probably originated in South America, either in Peru or Brazil. There are examples of South American pottery from around 1500 BC in the shape of peanuts, as well as vessels which have been decorated using this legume. Europeans first came across the peanut when they were exploring Brazil. By that time, peanuts were being grown as far north as Mexico. As the explorers returned to their countries, they took the peanut with them and from Europe this legume travelled to Asia and Africa. During the 1700s, African slaves introduced the peanut to North America.

Detail of peanuts in their shells.

Detail of peanuts in their shells. (Public Domain)

Peanut Paste and Drinks

Peanuts have been ground into a paste for many centuries. In central Brazil, for example, indigenous tribes made a drink out of ground peanuts and maize. In Africa, crushed peanuts were added into stews, whilst some sauces in Chinese cuisine require ground peanuts as an ingredient too. As for peanut butter, it seems that the first people to have produced this paste were the Inca of South America.

Harvesting Peanuts, also called Groundnuts.

Harvesting Peanuts, also called Groundnuts. (CC BY 2.0)

Nevertheless, it would not be surprising if the ‘peanut butter’ of the Inca bears no resemblance to the product people are familiar with today. That which is considered peanut butter today was invented during the 19th century. Several individuals have a claim to being the inventor of the tasty spread called peanut butter.

Kellogg’s Peanut Butter

The most prominent of these is Dr. John Harvey Kellogg, best known for his invention of cornflakes. In 1895, Kellogg patented a process for the production of peanut butter, a food that was marketed as a protein substitute for people without teeth. Kellogg promoted his invention by giving lectures around the U.S. on the health benefits of peanut butter, as well as serving it to his patients at the Battle Creek Sanatorium in Michigan. One problem with Kellogg’s claim, however, is that instead of roasted peanuts, his recipe called for steamed ones.

Modern day smooth peanut butter in a jar.

Modern day smooth peanut butter in a jar. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

George Washington Carver, a renowned botanist, is also popularly, though mistakenly, credited with the invention of peanut butter. Whilst Carver may not have invented peanut butter, he did develop a modified recipe of the product, which contributed to its early popularity. Other claimants of the title include a New Yorker by the name of Rose Davis, a Canadian chemist named Marcellus Gilmore Edson, as well as an unknown St. Louis physician and his business partner, the businessman George A. Bayle.

Modernization of the Production Process

When peanut butter was first invented, it was made by grounding the peanuts in a mortar and pestle before putting them through a meat grinder. This was a tedious process, and it was difficult to produce peanut butter with the desired consistency. It was only later on that machines to make peanut butter were invented. One of the earliest peanut butter machines was made by Ambrose Straub, who was granted a patent for it in 1903.

Peter Pan Peanut Butter, old brand in an old can

Peter Pan Peanut Butter, old brand in an old can. (Public Domain)

The use of machines meant that peanut butter became easier to make, and that it could be produced on a large scale. Nevertheless, it was a food that could not be kept for long, as the oil separated from the peanut butter solids, and exposure to light and oxygen caused it to spoil quickly. Therefore, peanut butter remained a regional product at that time.

But this problem was solved during the 1920s, when a patent called ‘Peanut butter and the process of manufacturing the same’ was granted to a businessman by the name of Joseph Rosefield. The process patented by Rosefield involved the use of hydrogenated peanut oil, which prevented the peanut butter from separating. Rosefield would eventually launch Skippy, one of the most recognizable peanut butter brands today.

Two jars of ‘Skippy’ Peanut Butter.

Two jars of ‘Skippy’ Peanut Butter. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Top image: Inca in a religious event. The Inca civilization is accredited with the first peanut paste. Source: Incan Empire

By Wu Mingren


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