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Peanut butter has none of the enchanted power of ice cream. It's a workaday food, a lunch-box food--and an irresistibly delicious food. The allegedly pedestrian nature of the supermarket is perfectly captured in the mainstream, brand-name, decidedly nongourmet peanut butters lining the shelves. But here again, what you're often seeing is a source of quality nutrition disguised as indulgent junk.
Peanut butter does have saturated fat, but 80% of its total fats are unsaturated. That's as good as olive oil. It's also high in fiber and potassium. But many brands stuff in salt and sweeteners as flavoring agents, so read the labels. Sometimes supermarket brands turn out to be the best.
And guess what? Preserves and jams without added sugar can be great sources of dietary fiber, vitamin A, vitamin C and potassium, and whole-wheat bread is high in fiber, selenium, manganese and more. So by shopping right and being careful with portions, we have fully redeemed that great, guilty American staple: the PB&J.
Snack foods are a different kind of peril, but if there's one thing Americans have gotten right, it's our surpassing love of salsa. Year after year it ranks near the top of our favorite snack foods, especially during football season. I think salsa is a spectacular food because it's almost always made of nothing more than tomatoes, onions and cilantro and usually has no preservatives. And remember, those tomatoes contain lycopene, a powerful antioxidant that helps battle disease and inflammation.
Another great south-of-the-border staple is guacamole. Its principal ingredient is, of course, avocados, which are loaded with the happiest of fats: the unsaturated kind that help prevent heart disease. They are also rich in vitamin K (over 50% of your recommended daily intake from just half an avocado) and vitamin C. But keep portions in check to hold the line on both calories and sodium.
Finding something to scoop up those dips is a problem. Tortilla chips fried in lard and covered with salt are simply not a good idea. Baked pita chips (ideally unsalted) are great, but there's no way around the fact that they're pricier than tortilla, potato and corn chips.
The Beauty of Simplicity
Pretty much any aisle in any supermarket has foods that you might think mark you as a culinary primitive but are worth considering. Pickles? Sure, they're loaded with salt, so read labels and exercise care, but they're high in vitamin K and low in calories, and the vinegar in them can improve insulin sensitivity. Baked beans? Pass up the ones cooked with bacon or excessive sweetening, but otherwise, they're a great source of protein and fiber.
Meanwhile, the condiments section has mustard--extremely low in calories, high in selenium and available in a zillion different varieties, so you'll never get bored. Popcorn? Absolutely, but go for the air-popped, stove-top variety instead of the microwavable kind covered in oils and artificial butter flavorings. And chocolate! Ah, chocolate. Stick with dark--65% cocoa--and don't overdo the portions. I know, that's not easy, but do it right and you'll get all the antioxidant benefits of flavonols without all the calories and fat.