Monday, May 2, 2022

Why does peanut butter taste so good?

    This morning I had my usual breakfast: a whole grapefruit 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? And if so, how? They don’t add anything. Just peanuts.
     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.
     “It’s been two weeks now. 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 lovely 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? Is this a common corporate problem, or perhaps the result of red state anti-media paranoia? The company is based in Ohio.
     “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?’ That surprise me. I can’t think of a possible explanation why they wouldn’t use that.”
     The best we could imagine was reflexive secretiveness.
     “In a hypercompetitive world, what you regard as mundane operational things may be viewed as tipping their hand to competitors,” suggested Kopulsky.
     I had another theory: could it be that newspapers are so diminished that we aren’t worth the time to communicate with?
     “The relevance of newspapers as an advertising medium is dramatically down,” said 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.”

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  1. Smucker's Natural is my fave too. My wife says it tastes over roasted to her. I can see that but I would say it's perfectly roasted. It's also grittier than other peanut butters. Most others have the consistency of drywall mud. They're just too smooth. I like that Smucker's has more body. Yes, Smucker's Natural is, in fact, the best peanut butter and I'll fight anyone who says otherwise.

  2. This is like living the Charles Reich's The Greening of America lifestyle. Buying natural peanut butter, and fresh milled whole wheat flour at the Treasure Island on Broadway. No matter how much drugs I took, never got beyond Consciousness II.

    1. I read and re-read and even underlined and wrote margin notes in my copy, back in '70 and '71. Much of Consciousness III was merely psychobabble, and Charles Reich turned out to be just another Berserkeley stoner doofus.

      Yes, "natural" peanut butter was fine and dandy, especially the non-commercial kinds found in the "health food stores", but it was also very gritty and too oily. And it had to be mixed before using, because it separated. My wife has bought Extra Crunchy Jif for the last thirty years, and it's been just fine with me.

      Hell, if that puts me back into Reich's Consciousness II, so be it. The older I got, the more I regressed to the "straight" life. Another word for it is "vanilla"...but that usage has other meanings, so I won't go there.

  3. Peanut butter is one of my favorite foods and fortunately (for the health of my pocket book if not for my digestive system) I cannot taste an iota of difference between the brands and therefore always buy what's on sale.


  4. "Why is Smucker’s so bad at this? Is this a common corporate problem, or perhaps the result of red state anti-media paranoia? The company is based in Ohio.

    Ouch. It hurt to read that. When I left Chicago for Cleveland in '92, I left for a blue state...or at the very least, a purple one. By the Two-thousandsies (as Rachel Maddow calls them), it was a red state. By 2016, it was deep red. Cleveland and the other big Ohio cities are now shrinking Blue Islands--in a Red Sea.

    The state song is the lovely and melodic "Beautiful Ohio"--and most of it still is. Ohio is still green,bucolic, and pastoral. But its people and its politics...especially at state and national levels...are something else again. Paranoia strikes deep, especially in southern Ahia, and nobody here needs to be reminded that Wednesday is May Fourth, the anniversary of what Ohioans call The Shootings. The rest of the world knows it as Kent State. We will be there..

  5. I can only imagine that Smucker's can't be too happy with itself right now. Why ignore an very friendly question from a reporter? Even if newspapers have lost their influence, this is just plain stupid. By the way, I don't know about everybody but one reason I don't comment more is I can only do so from my laptop. I generally read most things on myi-pad and it just wont let me sign in to my google account to allow for a comment.

    1. I have the same issue on my iPad, but not on my iPhone.

  6. I cover the food industry for a living, so I can tell you that they are routinely secretive, about everything. It's that "secret recipe" mentality.

    One time I was on the phone to an engineer at a Conagra plant, asking him about some routine thing or other. He was getting more and more uncomfortable talking to me, until he burst out, "Look, we engineers know all about this, but the marketing people think that it's this big voodoo and if I talk about it, the company's stock price will go down. So I better not say any more."

    1. Or as posterior protection...the old CYA maneuver...

    2. You seem particularly concerned with Smuckers, NS, when it seems like you've run up against this type of mentality frequently with regard to many products / companies.

      "'... 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."

      But surely Smucker's is not the only company that roasts its peanuts and uses high oleic acid varieties. I think Bitter Scribe's "secret recipe" response explains it quite well. Smucker's wants the word "natural" to be the "big voodoo" for this particular item. By *not* putting in "Sugar, Molasses, Fully Hydrogenated Vegetable Oils (Rapeseed And Soybean), and Mono And Diglycerides," which their Jif "regular" brand contains, they feel justified in charging a premium price. Are the peanuts different between the 2 brands? Who knows? But it's not in their interest to delve too deeply into the fact that natural peanut butter is not really something that necessitates a premium price.

      This is the same for so many products: "Our coffee beans are hand-selected from precious mountain estates," "This tea comes from only the best tea leaves from the top tea gardens in the world," a Chiquita banana is superior to any other banana, for some reason or another. Etc.

      They certainly should have done a better job in dealing with a satisfied, nay... boosterish, customer who has no ulterior motives, especially one who commands a large audience of readers. But I'm not all that surprised that they'd prefer not to go too deeply into the nuts and bolts (!) of whether their product is actually unique.

  7. Ah, the old "Sherwyn's health food shop on Diversey." I didn't go there often, but when I did... I didn't really like it very much! Maybe, if their peanut butter was so bland, they didn't even use roasted peanuts.

    I'll combine yesterday's EGD topic with today's. The online price of a 16-ounce jar of Smucker's Natural Creamy Peanut Butter at Jewel: $5.99. A 16-ounce jar of 365 Creamy Peanut Butter at "Whole Paycheck", which is pretty good, if not just as good (I'm not a connoisseur): $2.49. Both contain only roasted peanuts and salt as ingredients. You can get an organic version at WF, which is salt-free, for $5.29. Though I'm among the despised minority that prefers Chunky to Creamy, alas. ; )

  8. I thought Smucker’s eventual response was good, “We only buy the best peanut varieties! The peanuts we select provide the best roasted flavor.” Of course, your research provides more detail, which I’m sure your fans appreciate. Sure because I am a big fan of your writing and appreciate it — and you — very much!

    1. It was true enough, for what it was. But simplistic, I felt.

  9. That's my brand too. For me, it's a combination of not being extra-smooth, but leaving larger peanut bits in - what DGC called grittiness - and the amount of salt they use. You said they don't add anything, but they do add salt, and the amount makes a world of difference.

  10. I appreciate the comments from Jakash, and those overly late responses from the Smuckers corp.
    Quality peanuts chosen by professionals.
    And salt.


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