by sonja thorsvik

Peanuts Are Legumes: The Entrepreneurs Who Made Them An American Staple


Today we’re diving into the deliciously deceptive world of the peanut. This delightful little legume has stealthily snuck into the hearts (and mouths) of millions, captivating taste buds with its irresistible nutty flavor and remarkable culinary versatility.

For many, the peanut is the embodiment of the all-American snack. But hold onto your hats: the peanut has been living a double life. Yes, that’s right—peanuts are not nuts at all. They’re actually legumes, members of the same family as lentils and peas. And are nowhere related to tree nuts like almonds, walnuts, and cashews as the branding would have us believe.

I was interested in researching this topic because I know for a fact that a lot of people do not know about this and I knew there had to be an interesting PR story behind it. Because if you think about it, a tiny little bean that is now in 96% of American households is a pretty damn good trick to pull off!

And I was right. And not only that, I’ve now since become aware of the fascinating human entrepreneurs behind the whole thing as well. Here I’ll highlight some of those people, the timeline of events, and even provide fast-forward updates to the modern era to bring it all full circle.

I first learned of this over 20 years ago when I was looking for higher protein food as a vegan. I Read somewhere that peanuts were actually beans, thought ‘Huh that’s strange – ok’ and then proceeded to carry on thinking that I perhaps was the last person to know about this… 

Peanuts are high in protein (just like all other legumes) and the taste is delicious, especially when you add salt or sugar. So it’s no wonder when entrepreneurs say: back in the day when I was poor I survived on peanut butter sandwiches! I think: well of course you did… One cup of peanuts has 32 grams of protein!

My last encounter with defending the rights of all beans and legumes came up recently to even my own family:  whaaatttttt? Nooooooo they are nuts – an outcome of the phones to prove me wrong, Alexa was called into action – and sure enough the simple innocent world ‘legum’ prevailed, seemingly crushing everything they had ever known to be true in the world. 


So now It’s time to crack open the shell and expose the peanut for the bean it truly is. The peanut’s journey from bean to nut and back again is a fascinating tale of mistaken identity, clever marketing, and a touch of botanical intrigue.

Peanuts are thought to have originated in South America. Graves of ancient Incas found along the dry western coast of South America often contain jars filled with peanuts and left with the dead to provide food in the afterlife. In short, when the Spanish began their exploration they naturally so, found peanuts.  The explorers took peanuts back to Spain, where they are still grown. And then from Spain, traders and explorers took peanuts to Africa and Asia. In Africa, the plant became common in the western tropical regions such as the Congo. The word ‘goober’ comes from the Congo name for peanuts.

When Africans were brought to North America as slaves, peanuts aka goober beans – came with them. Slaves planted peanuts throughout the southern United States.

In the USA In the 1700s, peanuts were then called groundnuts or ground peas, and goober peas.

They go largely unnoticed for a long time…


Peanuts were now being grown somewhat in the South. Before the Civil War, peanuts were not a widely cultivated crop in the United States—Virginia and North Carolina were the principal producers—and were generally viewed as a foodstuff fit for the lowest social classes and for livestock.

When it came to fighting the Civil War, the South may have been rich in military leadership, but the North had superior resources, especially when it came to industrial strength. The Southern states had to import most of their manufactured products, and with a poor railway system, keeping troops well-stocked was a battle in and of itself, especially when enemy blockades interrupted supply lines.

Combined with inflation and scorched-earth military campaigns—such as General Sherman’s march through South Carolina—food shortages were a problem for both military and civilians. 

But even in those hard times, people started to find relief in peanuts.

The goober pea’s status in the Southern diet changed during the war as other foods became scarce. An excellent source of protein, peanuts were seen as a means of fighting malnutrition.

And this is the common thread through this whole story: its nutritional value.


This guy, he’s so cool.

Born on a farm near Diamond, Missouri, the exact date of Carver’s birth is unknown, but it’s thought he was born in January or June of 1864 right before the Civil War ended and Slavery was abolished.

Nine years prior, Moses Carver, a white farm owner, purchased George Carver’s mother Mary when she was 13 years old. The elder Carver reportedly was against slavery but needed help with his 240-acre farm.

When Carver was an infant, he, his mother, and his sister were kidnapped from the Carver farm by one of the bands of slave raiders that roamed Missouri during the Civil War era. They were resold in Kentucky.

Moses Carver hired a neighbor to retrieve them, but the neighbor only succeeded in finding George, whom he purchased by trading one of Moses’ finest horses. Carver grew up knowing little about his mother or his father, who had died in an accident before he was born.

After slavery was abolished, George was raised by Moses Carver and his wife. He worked on their farm and in their garden and became curious about plants, soils, and fertilizers. Neighbors called George “the plant doctor” because he knew how to nurse sick plants back to life which is an enormous deal when, hey you have a food farm and need to eat. When he was about 13, he left to attend school.

In 1894, Carver became the first African American to earn a Bachelor of Science degree. Impressed by Carver’s research on the fungal infections of soybean plants, his professors asked him to stay on for graduate studies.

Carver worked with famed mycologist (fungal scientist) L.H. Pammel at the Iowa State Experimental Station, honing his skills in identifying and treating plant diseases.

In 1896, Carver earned his Master of Agriculture degree and immediately received several offers for work, the most attractive of which came from Booker T. Washington (whose last name George would later add to his own) of Tuskegee Institute (now Tuskegee University) in Alabama.

Washington convinced the university’s trustees to establish an agricultural school, which could only be run by Carver.

credit: Getty Images

This is where it comes to what he is most famed for: Through his work on soil chemistry, Carver learned that years of growing cotton in the south – had depleted the nutrients from the soil, resulting in low yields. But by growing nitrogen-fixing plants like peanuts, soybeans, and sweet potatoes, the soil could be restored, allowing yield to increase dramatically when the land was reverted to cotton use a few years later. Today we call it crop rotation and it’s used on almost every farm.

It worked like a charm. The only downside was the now abundance of peanuts. So just like a good entrepreneur, he set out to find uses for the excess crop… Research would lead him to discover improvements in horticulture and the development of more than 300 uses for peanuts (including shoe polish and shaving cream, leather dye, diesel fuel, lotions, mock-meets, wood-filler, laxatives and on an on – but all of which we use today). But, he is not the inventor of peanut butter more on that later.

Carver died in 1943 after falling down the stairs of his home at the age of 78. Carver was buried next to Booker T. Washington on the Tuskegee Institute grounds. Soon after, and because of his lifelong amazing work, inventions, and discoveries President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed legislation for Carver to receive his own monument, an honor previously only granted to Presidents George Washington and Abraham Lincoln.

One of Carver’s quotes: “When you can do the common things of life in an uncommon way, you will command the attention of the world.”


The phrase ‘For Peanuts’ means to do something for very little or no pay.

Example of Use: “The students had very little money and were willing to work for peanuts.”

The origin of the idiom ‘for peanuts’ is credited to Mr. Harry Mozley Stevens, who is often called the father of sports food service. An immigrant from England, Mr. Stevens began selling peanuts in 1895 when a peanut company called Cavanaros paid for advertising in the New York Giants game programs with peanuts, which Mr. Stevens would then sell to hungry fans. Hello Entrepreneur – Mr. Stevens liked to jokingly state that he was “working for peanuts.”



So up until this point we know about where the legumes originated from, how they got to the States in the South, which eventually lead them to feed troops in the Civil War keeping them alive, and over 300 uses for the bean aside from food from the inventor George Carver Washington. During the 19th century, peanuts were now being eaten as a snack, sold freshly roasted by street vendors and at baseball games and circuses…

But, no mention of peanuts would be complete without the fan favorite: peanut butter.

​​Peanut butter, the everyman staple, which contains neither butter nor nuts originated as a health food of the upper classes. The Aztecs are believed to be the actual first creator of the spread but in our modern lives peanut butter was first created for sanitariums it satisfied the need for protein-rich food. It was the protein, the nutrition, that, just like myself, and the men fighting in the civil war would come to realize that it could keep you going.

The actual origins of peanut butter are a mystery because who couldn’t argue that yes, probably somewhere out there someone mushed up the bean while experimenting in their kitchen at one point too…

However, 2 patents do exist: one from 1884 by Marcellus Edson of Canada for taking roasted peanuts and milling them to liquid. He used this ‘peanut paste’ to strictly make a peanut-based candy.

And the other more predominant player here was patented in 1895 by John Harvey Kellogg. The patent was for a process of peanuts ground from raw peanuts into a spreadable form. Yes, this is the same Kellog as Kellogg’s cornflakes.


He grew up in Battle Creek, Michigan, the son of a family of small shopkeepers and devoted Seventh-Day Adventists. As a youth, he worked with the principal founder of the church, to publish the Health Reformer, a monthly publication for Adventists on health and hygiene, and advocated temperance, vegetarianism, and the use of natural remedies. 

He received a Medical degree in 1875 and later studied surgery in London and Vienna, qualified as a surgeon, and performed 22,000 operations during his career, which lasted until he was 88. In 1876 Dr. Kellogg became the superintendent of Western Health Reform Institute, a small medical institution of 20 patients run by the Adventists. This is where he ‘invented peanut butter’ to help his patients who either couldn’t eat whole foods be able to get enough nutrients and protein without having to chew or wanted an alternative to meat. Bless Him.

By 1900, it had been renamed the Battle Creek Sanitarium and was a health spa that promoted what we know today as ‘wellness.’

By 1920 the Battle Creek Sanitarium had expanded to 1,200 patients, some of them prominent industrialists, and politicians. Kellogg also invented a range of exercise equipment for his patients. On top of Peanut Butter, he developed and patented a variety of new foods including Granola and Corn Flakes. 

Battle Creek Sanitarium where peanuts were turned into peanut butter and ‘mock meats’


The peanut’s botanical classification has done little to deter its nutty charade, however. Clever marketing tactics have perpetuated the notion that peanuts are nuts, with the term “peanut” itself playing a starring role in the deception. After all, it’s easier to sell “peanut butter” than “bean paste,” even though the latter would be more accurate.

In 1902 an ‘oddly satisfying recipe was published in a woman’s home journal magazine for this peanut butter combined with a fruit spread: aka peanut butter and jelly… so now it’s creeping into households and moms making sandwiches… if that isn’t a recipe for taking over the world I don’t know what is!

And It made its first public appearance in 1904 at the World Fair in St. Louis, Missouri as a food from one of the street vendors. 

But the peanut’s nutty masquerade doesn’t stop at its name. Its consistent appearance alongside other nuts in trail mixes, candy bars, and even in the “nut” section of grocery stores has all but solidified its place in the nut family. Even the esteemed Planters brand, with its iconic monocled mascot Mr. Peanut, has been complicit in the peanut’s ruse.


In 1916 the famed mascot came from the drawing of a 13-year-old teenager who received $5 for winning the contest. His sketch becomes the famed “Mr. Peanut”, the trademark for Planters Nut and Chocolate Company. He would remain an iconic figure in almost every American household for the next 100 years.

Ps marketing tactic here: hold a contest to let the masses, and ideas come to you.

Fast Forward: In 2020 planters ‘killed off’ the 104-year-old mascot and introduced their new mascot called ‘Baby Nut’ in a Super Bowl commercial. Do you remember? A part of our nostalgic souls was crushed into somewhere in between extra creamy and chunky – (ahhhhh so this is how it must feel to anyone discovering that peanuts are not nuts but beans right this very second).

A few days after the campaign launched the idea behind it was explained. Mike Pierantozzi, the Group Creative Director at Planters’ agency (VaynerMedia, btw) said they were influenced by Tony Stark’s death in Avengers: Endgame.

“We started talking about how the internet treats heroes when someone dies — specifically, we were thinking about fictional characters, [like when] Iron Man died. When Iron Man died, we saw an incredible reaction on Twitter and on social media. It’s such a strange phenomenon.” And so we copied that.



Also to note that furthering its accent into the American culture was that because it didn’t need to be refrigerated or cooked peanut butter was now included in official war kits. Soldiers in both world wars (WWI 1914-1918), WWII 1939-1945), the Korean War (1950-1953) and Vietnam War (1955-1975) were issued a one-and-a-half ounce can of creamy peanut butter in their rations.


Peanut butter, never traveled well so it was mostly produced for regional markets. It was too oily, too messy.  It was the development of hydrogenation in the 1920s that led directly to the industrialization of peanut butter production.

Enter the Big Three: Peter Pan, Skippy, and Jif

Peter Pan, introduced in 1928, was the first dominant national peanut butter. It used a partial-hydrogenation process patented by Joseph Rosefield, an entrepreneur from Lexington, Kentucky. In 1932, after Peter Pan’s parent company sought to cut his licensing fee, Rosefield ended the partnership and started making his own brand: Skippy. Inventive and obsessed with quality control, Rosefield emerges as perhaps the most important and likable figure in the history of peanut butter.

By the end of his career, he held ten patents relating to food and numerous notable innovations. He set up his own research lab and conceived a new way of churning—rather than grinding—his peanuts to produce a smoother texture. By introducing fragments of crushed peanuts into his butter, he invented chunky. He also instituted the wide-mouth jar that has been standard ever since. And he paid his employees well, to boot.

Five years before Reese’s created its peanut-butter cup, Rosefield brought Choc-Nut Butter to market. He seems to have been a little too far ahead of the curve in combining peanuts and chocolate: the product failed. Nevertheless, Skippy thrived, overtaking Peter Pan in the late forties. Rosefield sold his company to Best Foods (makers of Hellman’s mayonnaise) for six million dollars in 1955.

Also in 1955 entered Jif. Jif is another American brand of peanut butter made by The J.M. Smucker Company, which purchased the brand from Procter & Gamble in 2001.

In 1955, Procter & Gamble bought Big Top peanut butter and its manufacturing facilities in Lexington, Kentucky (is anyone else seeing a Kentucky pattern here?!?). In the ensuing years, the company reformulated and rebranded it to compete with Skippy and Peter Pan. P&G named its product Jif, used oils other than peanut oil in its hydrogenation process, and sweetened the recipe, adding sugar and molasses. The new product was publicly announced in April 1956 and since it didn’t leak from the peanut oils could then be distributed around the globe. 

Fast forward: In February 2020, Jif announced a planned media campaign that uses the Jif brand to try to settle the GIF/Jif pronunciation debate. The company partnered with Giphy to release a special jar of Jif peanut butter that replaces the classic Jif branding on the label with ‘Gif.’ The advertisement tries to settle the debate by showing two jars of peanut butter with the labels Jif and Gif, with the implication of pronouncing GIF with a “hard G”. If you were still wondering – the debate is settled.


We must address the elephant in the room: peanut allergies. If peanuts aren’t nuts, why do those with peanut allergies often avoid all other nuts? The answer lies in the unique proteins found in peanuts and the potential for cross-reactivity.

While peanuts share some proteins with tree nuts, they also contain a unique set of proteins that are responsible for triggering allergic reactions. These proteins are different from those found in other legumes, which is why people with peanut allergies can often consume beans and peas without issue. The confusion arises because some of these peanut-specific proteins are similar enough in structure to proteins found in tree nuts, which can sometimes cause the immune system to mistakenly identify them as a threat.

This phenomenon, known as cross-reactivity, can result in allergic reactions to other nuts for some people with peanut allergies. However, it’s important to note that not all individuals with peanut allergies are sensitive to other nuts. It’s a highly individualized response, and many people with peanut allergies can safely consume tree nuts without any adverse reactions.

In an abundance of caution, medical professionals often advise those with peanut allergies to avoid all nuts, given the potential for cross-reactivity and the risk of contamination during processing. This guidance, while prudent, has only served to further entrench the peanut’s nutty myth in the public consciousness.

So now we know the origins, how they are single-handed responsible for keeping us nourished when we need it most, inventions created because of its oils, its rise as a snack food, it’s then crushed and now spreadable, the death of a beloved mascot, hydrogenation process and how it leads to mass market, war rations, and demystifying the peanut allergy.


  • Asia is the largest producer of peanuts in the world = 34% of global peanut production
  • Market classes grown in the United States are Spanish, Runner, Virginia, and Valencia
  • Best tasting ‘boiled peanuts’ are the Valencia type
  • Today, peanuts contribute over four billion dollars to the U.S. economy each year
  • It takes about 540 peanuts to make a 12-ounce jar of peanut butter.
  • Americans eat around 700 million pounds of peanut butter per year (about 3 pounds per person).
  • An average American child eats 1,500 PB&J sandwiches before graduating from high school.
  • Peanut skins contain resveratrol, which is under preliminary research for its potential effects on humans!
  • Extractable from whole peanuts using a simple water and centrifugation method, the oil is being considered by NASA’s Advanced Life Support program for future long-duration human space missions
  • Only 0.6% of the US population has a ‘reported’ peanut allergy.
  • 96% of American households have a jar of peanut butter in their house (raises hand)

It’s not that we’ve been deliberately misled; rather, it seems that no one has ever thought to question the status quo. And to be fair, the name does have Pea in it!

Kudos to the formidable legume: you’ve certainly mastered the art of looking and tasting deceptively delightful.

While the South Americans were likely well aware of the bean’s potential, thriving just beneath their feet, it took a collaborative effort from farmers, scientists, marketers, and entrepreneurs to make peanuts an integral part of our daily lives.

As we wrap up today’s episode, I’d like to thank you for joining me on this journey, where my ultimate goal is to help you transition from “Working for Peanuts” to “Gigging for Gold!” Until next time, stay curious and keep questioning.





I started my own entrepreneurial career in 2012 scaling up from $0 a year to over $100,000 each and every year. I firmly and wholeheartedly believe there are ways for all of us self-employed entrepreneurs to reach six-figures and beyond and I'm unapologetically here to show you how I do it so you can make your next best move. Let's go.

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