In the early 1920’s a young American entrepreneur named James Rosefield, seeking to overcome the troubling problem of oil separation in peanut butter, took advantage of a new development in oil chemistry, called hydrogenation, in which he squeezed a fraction of peanut oil out of peanuts, hydrogenated the oil, and added the hydrogenated peanut oil back into the peanut butter.
The process was patented in 1932 and the product, which he called Skippy, soon became one of the best selling peanut butters in the United States.
Thirty years later Procter & Gamble (P&G), hoping to develop a competitor to Skippy and other peanut butters, took advantage of further advances in oil chemistry. They came up with a blend of vegetable oils that, when hydrogenated, not only succeeded in containing oil separation but also improved the plasticity of peanut butter, which meant that it would spread easily. And the new blend could spread easily at a range of temperatures, which meant that it would spread well whether it had just been taken out of the refrigerator or removed from a pantry shelf. In 1958 P & G introduced the product to the American market with a catchy new brand name, Jif.
With the development of the hydrogenated vegetable blend P&G soon faced a legal hurdle that it did not – in fact could not – anticipate. This new ingredient, when added to peanut butter, was sufficiently foreign to traditional peanut butter production that the U.S. government could not see how such a product could properly be called “peanut butter”.
In 1938 Congress, concerned about widespread fraudulence and adulteration in the food industry, had invested the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) with the power to establish a standard of identity for foods. The standard of identity would provide the ingredients, and their minimum, that would be required in a given food. Jams and jellies, for example, were determined (based partly on the evidence of 200 years of recipe books) to be about 50 percent fruit or fruit juice and half sugar. Products that violated this recipe – that substituted, for example, cheaper ingredients for fruit or fruit juice — would be considered misbranded and therefore illegal.
Although the FDA had established many standards of identity in its first few decades, no standard of identity for peanut butter existed in 1958, the year Jif was introduced. In 1959 the FDA began to take action against inferior peanut butters that, they had found, contained as much as 20 percent vegetable oils. In 1961 the commissioner of the FDA issued a proposal (already refined from an original 1959 draft) that contained, essentially, the following points:
a) Peanut butter is the food made by grinding shelled, roasted, and blanched peanuts…Peanut butter may contain one or more of the optional ingredients specified in paragraph (b) of this section, but the quantity of such ingredients does not, in the aggregate, amount to more than 10 percent by weight of the finished food.
(b) The optional ingredients referred to in paragraph (a) of this subsection are:
- Salt for seasoning
- Hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated peanut oil
According to this standard peanut butter had to have at least 90% peanuts, which would mean that grossly inferior peanut butters would have to be relabeled “peanut spread” or taken off the market. But the more critical point, at least for P & G, was that the only hydrogenated oil permitted in peanut butter was hydrogenated peanut oil. The FDA operated with a concept of peanut butter that allowed, besides salt and sweetener, only peanuts or peanut products. By permitting hydrogenated peanut oil the proposal favored Skippy, which used (other than salt and sweetener) only hydrogenated peanut oil in its process. Jif, which used hydrogenated vegetable oil, could no longer be called “peanut butter”.
Lawyers for Jif then made the following argument to the FDA Commissioner, which is so ingenious that it inspired, at least partly, this entire IAR dispatch: once peanut oil is hydrogenated — that is, chemically modified – it is the same, virtually, as hydrogenated vegetable oil. Hydrogenated vegetable oil is similar to hydrogenated peanut oil both in function and content. Therefore, the lawyers argued, once hydrogenated peanut oil is considered acceptable, hydrogenated vegetable oil should also be considered acceptable.
The FDA agreed to this argument. In a further embodiment of the proposal, the standard provided that the “oil products used as optional stabilizing ingredients shall be hydrogenated peanut oil or other vegetable oils in hydrogenated form…” Although important details, such as the percentage of hydrogenated vegetable oil that would be permitted, continued to evolve in still further amendments to the standard, an important victory for P & G had been won. And what had made Skippy unique and even, in a sense, true peanut butter – its patented process for making a stabilizer purely from peanuts – was no longer valued as such by the FDA.
In the end, it took the FDA 11 years to come to a final ruling on the standard of identity for peanut butter. And, according to the final ruling, Skippy, which in the minds of Americans had been synonymous with “peanut butter” for over thirty years — had too much hydrogenated peanut oil — a substance that had been conceptually divorced from its source — and not enough actual peanuts to be called “peanut butter”. Presumably, Skippy changed its formula to cohere with the new standard.
All peanut butters in the U.S. market have – or should have – 90 percent peanuts. That may not be how G-d made them, but that’s how man has perfected the process.
- Richard Collier, Jr. and Earl Merrill “Like Mother Used to Make: An Analysis of FDA Food Standards and Identity” Columbia Law Review, 1974
- Junod, Suzanne White (historian, U.S. Food and Drug Administration) “The Rise and Fall of Federal Food Standards in the United States: The Case of the Peanut Butter and Jelly Sandwich” reprinted on FDA website