There was a time when the only choices you had in the nut butter department were chunky or smooth. These days, there's a veritable buffet of nut and seed butter varieties on the market, from sunflower butter to cashew butter.
Peanut butter still far outpaces all the newcomers, but by far the closest competitor is almond butter—and Big Peanut has known this for a long time. In fact, executives at the National Peanut Board (a marketing group funded by farm taxes collected by the government) were very concerned not too long ago about Big Almond's "aggressive" moves into the "spread category," according to meeting minutes obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request by FOIA blog Government Attic.
Minutes from a meeting on March 19, 2008 show that some peanut board members attended the Research Chefs Association conference, an annual gathering of food researchers.
"The Almond Board was present and very aggressive," the minutes read. "It appears that they are looking to take over the spread category as well as ingredients."
This reads a little hand-wringing but things get even more tense by May, when meeting minutes indicate the peanut board was peeved that the almond board was allowed to make certain health claims that they weren't.
"We just want a level playing field," the minutes read.
Because both the National Peanut Board and the Almond Board of California (this is a national group, but most almond farmers are in California) receiving funding through taxes levied by the Department of Agriculture, they have to play by certain rules dictated by the USDA. This includes focusing only on promoting their products and not trying to disrupt competitors' marketing. It also means they can only make certain claims about their products, such as how much protein there is in a serving of peanuts, which have been verified by the USDA.
These minutes don't indicate any ill-will from the peanut board, but definitely seem to capture some frustration over the almond's use of certain claims. Minutes from a 2006 meeting suggest some claims had to do with the heart health benefits of almonds and peanuts, while a 2009 meeting included reference to protein.
"Almonds had recently been caught presenting themselves as having the most protein of any nut," the minutes read. "This is not accurate. Almond Board didn't feel they needed to pull back on the material because USDA had approved. Marie suggested that NPB consider filing a formal complaint to USDA as they continue to give the Almond Board of California an unfair marketing advantage."
Oddly, none of the meeting minutes make reference to any other nut. I reached out to both the Almond Board of California and the National Peanut Board, but they insisted they simply couldn't recall what this beef would have been about.
"I can't speak to any concerns former board members and staff may have had," Lauren Highfill Williams, the marketing and communications manager for the National Peanut Board, wrote in an email. "But I can say that we have a very good working relationship today with both USDA and the Almond Board, and have no issues about language we can use to promote USA peanuts."
But the Almond Board did provide a bit more insight about how tricky it was in the mid-aughts to navigate some of the rules around marketing. It was the beginning of marketing material oversight from the USDA, according to Stacey Humble, the executive director of global marketing for the Almond Board.
"During that time, it was common for groups to question the consistency of the oversight," Humble wrote via email, adding that the rules are often changing. "Just a few weeks ago they issued revised guidance on use of 'healthy,' which resulted in almonds, and most of other nuts, being authorized to use that word. The regulation does not, however, mean all nuts can use this word which underscores the importance of each nut's marketing claims being considered individually, as opposed to assuming all nuts can make the same claims."
So maybe it was just a matter of growing pains as the boards tried to navigate new rules around what they can and can't say to market their nuts. Regardless, if you take a look at peanut consumption in the US—which the board believes will reach 7.4 pounds per capita this year—Big Peanut really didn't need to worry. There's plenty of toast to go around.