Why does peanut butter taste so good?

It’s a stickier question to answer than you might suspect.

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A fresh jar of Smucker’s All-Natural Peanut Butter after the requisite stirring to combine oil and peanut butter.

A fresh jar of Smucker’s All-Natural Peanut Butter after the requisite stirring to combine oil and peanut butter. Creamy outsells chunky three to one.

Neil Steinberg/Sun-Times

This morning I had my usual breakfast: a whole grapefruit, peeled and sectioned, and a Bays cinnamon and raisin English muffin with a tablespoon of Smucker’s Natural Peanut Butter.

I really like Smucker’s peanut butter. It tastes great, far better than the natural peanut butter I remember from the 1970s, a bland beige paste found at places like the Sherwyn’s health food shop on Diversey.

And I wondered: Is this a trick of memory? Could natural peanut butter have gotten better? If so, how? They don’t add anything. Just peanuts.

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One way to find out.

“I love this stuff.” I wrote to Smucker’s, asking to talk to a brand manager. “We would discuss, first, why the product is so delicious.”

That was Monday, Dec. 6.

The response: nothing.

I tried again the following Monday.

“It seems to me, that if Smucker’s can’t respond to this, what is it you respond to?” I asked.

And the next Monday: “I’m beginning to lose hope.”

On the one-month anniversary, I wrote to company CEO Mark Smucker, explaining what I had in mind.

He put me in touch with what seemed like a crisis PR firm in New York. We had some friendly conversations. But the question remained unanswered. They were working on it.

As January went by, I reached out to my alma mater. Why is Smucker’s so bad at this?

“Without knowing anything about Smucker’s, that surprises me,” said Jonathan Kopulsky, a senior lecturer on business marketing strategy at Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management. “The marketers’ job is to tell the story of their brand. You’d think, this may be an opportunity. You’d think, ‘Hey, a reporter from a major daily — why wouldn’t we want to use that to tell our story?’”

He thought this might be an example of reflexive secretiveness.

“In a hyper-competitive world, what you regard as mundane operational things may be viewed as tipping their hand to competitors,” suggested Kopulsky.

I had another theory: Could newspapers be so diminished, we aren’t worth the trouble to communicate with?

“The relevance of newspapers as an advertising medium is dramatically down,” agreed Gerry Chiaro, who teaches brand communications at Medill. “I can build up my social media following to hundreds of thousands, even millions. Sometimes it can go viral. I’d rather spend my time on that, if I can find influencers to speak to my community.”

But he didn’t think that was the situation here.

“Sometimes it comes down to personal character,” Chiaro said. “Responsibility to another human being. There are folks that really have a hard time putting their name on a decision. They’d rather put it off. The ‘slow no.’ You really don’t want to do anything, so you just drag it out and hope eventually it’ll just go away.”

That seemed their plan. Only I don’t go away. I kept prodding Smucker’s through February. The company sent me 10 jars of peanut butter, which I considered a failed bribe. Finally, they disgorged an answer:

“The secret at J.M. Smucker is we only buy the best peanut varieties! That is the reason Smucker’s Natural Peanut Butter tastes so delicious. The peanuts we select provide the best roasted flavor, and it’s something we’re very proud of.”

That took the wind out of my sails. Sad. They must think their customers are stupid.

“Forget it,” I muttered, and let it go.

For a few weeks.

But as I tell my boys, quitting is not a success strategy. I figured there are other peanut experts. I tried the National Peanut Board and the Virginia Peanut Growers Association. Nothing.

Finally, at the University of Georgia, I found the hero of this story: Jordan Powers, proud graduate of Roosevelt University, public relations coordinator at the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences and, moreover, a human being who does her job.

“We have a wealth of experts, faculty and researchers who study every oddball topic you can think of,” she replied. “So I am sure I will find someone who can speak to this.”

She came up with Koushik Adhikari, an associate professor in the Department of Food Science and Technology, who pointed to the importance of roasting.

“The roasting develops the ‘roasted peanut’ flavor,” he wrote. “Flavor compounds are formed during roasting via Maillard reaction/browning. The same reaction happens in coffee, baked products and roasted meats.”

Manufacturers select peanuts with the same care wine producers use to select varieties of grapes. There are four types of peanuts: Virginia, Spanish, Valencia and runner, the last being used for peanut butter.

“UGA has developed some very popular and flavorful runner varieties that are used in peanut butter production,” Adhikari wrote. “Dr. William Branch at our Tifton campus was instrumental in developing most of these popular runner cultivars, including runners that have high amounts of oleic acid (the same fatty acid that makes up olive oil, mostly). The advantage is, high oleic acid peanuts are more stable to oxidation and hence can retain flavors better during storage.”

So peanut butter tastes better, in part, because it holds its flavor longer.

Was that so hard?

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