Daily Footprint, #19 – The Evolution of Peanut Butter Cups

You know the phrase, third-wave coffee? Yes, it’s kind of irritating, but it’s a useful concept. You could represent the three waves of coffee with the examples of Nescafé instant coffee (first wave), Starbucks (second wave), and a roaster like Counter Culture (third wave), covered in the post on direct trade. This evolution of coffee also brought social and environmental improvements – which is reassuring in many ways. So I’m going to take a look at peanut butter cups and see if the same applies. Why not, eh?

Peanut Butter cups - phylogenetic tree
Phylogenetic tree of peanut butter cups. The root of the tree is probably an ancestral peanut butter cup made by Harry Reese, although it is possible that several progenitors arose through convergent evolution. The cup in the bottom right corner is one that I made last week.

Is Hershey / Reese’s an ethical choice?

First up is one of the best-loved mass-produced chocolate products made in the US (I know, the bar is pretty low there. Zing! ) – Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups. I liked them too, but it was only after tasting better versions of the PB cup that I realized that they are not without some issues. One of these issues is that I’m never really satisfied eating just one or two of these. That’s great news for the Hershey Co., but not so great for me (or my waistline!) and it reminds me of the book by Michal Moss, Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us, which I covered in an earlier post, Do It Yourself.

Extensive corporate research into what addicts us to food has led to the discovery that avoiding any one predominant flavor will encourage more consumption (Moss gives the examples of Doritos and Coke), and also the importance of formulating food to achieve an optimum trifecta of salt, sugar, and fat.

There’s no question that the tastier PB cups also contain salt, sugar, and fat. But because of the higher quality, one (or two) of them satisfies my chocolate craving, while it would take several Reese’s PB cups to deliver the same amount of cacao. That might seem off topic, but I think it’s important to consider that cheaper products often come with the cost of higher consumption as well as a negative social or environmental impact.

It’s common to feel a sense of loyalty to older brands out of familiarity and nostalgia, but it’s also healthy to question that loyalty. It has been almost a century since since Harry Reese (born in 1879 in Frosty Hill, Pennsylvania) came up with the idea for PB cups. After his death, Reese’s sons sold their business to Milton Hershey, a philanthropist known for his trust fund that still enriches many aspects of life in Hershey, PA., aka “The Sweetest Place on Earth.” But that was all a long time ago and it’s necessary to put aside our nostalgic images of Reese and Hershey and take a look at the company as it stands today.

Social and Environmental Impact of Peanut Butter Cups

I won’t get into it in detail on each of the companies here, but click on the brand names below to go to detailed Green Stars reviews that explain my reasoning behind the scores. Here are a few of the points that I considered:

  1. Peanuts can be a good food choice since they fix their own nitrogen, saving on fertilizer (more on fertilizer here).
  2. Working conditions and child slavery are big issues in the chocolate industry.
  3. Conventionally grown cacao entails heavy pesticide use, including some nasty ones.
  4. Like coffee, shade-grown cacao is beneficial to forest ecosystems and biodiversity.
  5. Some PB cups contain dairy, so there are animal welfare conditions to consider.

Considering these factors, here are my Green Stars ratings for three popular PB cups:

Reese’s: 4/5 gold stars, 1/5 green stars.

Justin’s: 4/5 gold stars, 4/5 green stars.

Theo: 5/5 gold stars, 5/5 green stars.

There’s also one drawback that none of the products overcome – a plastic wrapper. So, this week I tried out a fourth option that avoids this issue – homemade PB cups.

Homemade vegan peanut butter cups

I followed this recipe from Siobhan Scarlett, with a couple of small modifications: Instead of a microwave I melted the chocolate in a bowl over a saucepan of barely simmering water and I used the seed method to temper it (not complicated). Also, instead of dusting with icing sugar, I added a few flakes of finishing salt on top.

The nice thing about the recipe is that after you’ve mixed icing sugar into the peanut butter it becomes drier and easy to handle, like cookie dough. I was able to form it into little discs with my fingers and then drop these onto the lower layers of chocolate.

4 stages of making PB cups.jpg
Four stages of making PB cups: 1) Spoon about 1 tablespoon of melted chocolate into the cup. 2) Add a disc of the sweetened peanut butter. 3) Add enough chocolate to cover the PB. 4) Sprinkle some finishing salt over it. If you work with chocolate that’s quite cool (barely molten) there’s no need to refrigerate after each stage – just once at the end.

The key, of course, is to use good quality ingredients, and not to overheat the chocolate – warm it just enough to melt it. I genuinely thought that these homemade cups were better than the Reese’s and Justin’s products and at least as good as the Theo cups.

PB cups with both salts 2.jpg
Peanut butter cups topped with fleur de sel (left) and Hawaiian alaea salt. Apologies for the smudge on the lower cup – my fingers got in the way, resulting in finger-licking and consumption of the subject.

18 thoughts on “Daily Footprint, #19 – The Evolution of Peanut Butter Cups

  1. The samples you gave me were lovely! The chocolate was perfect. The only thing that would have made them better would have been to make them in smaller cups, so that each layer would be a little thicker. I also liked them with the finishing salt!

    1. Love your enthusiasm 🙂
      I agree – Theo’s are the best. A bit pricier but worth it. Was surprised though that homemade could be just as good.

      1. Thank you! Omg Theo’s are my total weak spot LOLOL – just scarfed 2 packages of 2 a couple hours ago. You’re probably going to laugh; we have a standing order at our local health food store for these lol 😂👍🏼💖

  2. Wow!! These homemade PB cups look so delicious! Thank you for sharing the idea and the history of commercial peanut butter.
    P.S. As a fellow biologist, I loved the phylogenetic tree of PB cups! 😉

      1. PS: they are delicious, and so easy to make! I used Endangered Species dark chocolate, organic peanut butter, powdered sugar and salt – that’s it, just 4 ingredients and yet much better than any of the brands (even Theo, which do taste really good too) – and cheaper too!

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