February is National Heart Health Month and National Snack Month.

If you’ve taken a good look at the snack offerings on supermarket shelves, you’re probably wondering if the term "nutritional value" is an oxymoron. But I’m going to let you in on a well-kept food secret: One of the world’s most popular and inexpensive snacks also occupies a prominent place on the list of heart-healthy foods. 

And that snack is peanuts. Especially in the guise of peanut butter. Admittedly, it’s hard to believe anything that tastes so good and is so popular among kids can actually be good for you, but it’s true.

Ordinary, everyday peanut butter is quite a nutritional cocktail. There’s a dash of Vitamin E, which is a powerful antioxidant, and a nice bit of magnesium, an important bone builder. Then there’s a generous portion of potassium, which plays a role in the transmission of nerve signals, muscle contractions, fluid balance and maintaining a healthy digestive system, all of which make it one of the most important electrolytes in the body. Another ingredient is Vitamin B6, which supports the immune system, promotes normal brain function and development and helps the body manufacture chemicals that send out signals between nerve cells. 

With all that going for it, it’s not surprising that research shows that eating peanuts — or peanut butter — can decrease the risk of heart disease, diabetes and other chronic health conditions. In fact, a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association indicates that eating 1 ounce (about 2 tablespoons) of peanuts or peanut butter at least five days a week can lower the risk of diabetes by almost 30 percent. 

So go ahead and encourage your children or grandchildren to celebrate National Snack Month by indulging in peanut butter with a clear conscience, and peanut butter sandwiches are a good place to begin. 

Most people consider adding jelly as the natural way to begin fancying up a peanut butter sandwich, but I think the process begins with using something besides white bread as your sandwich base. Seeded and multi-grain breads are good, as well as English muffins and sourdough bread.

You can also add a whole new dimension by using toasted bread — hot from the oven — so the peanut butter melts slightly as it spreads. 

Then, and only then, is it time to think about additions. The most commonplace, I believe, are grape jelly and strawberry jam, but don’t hesitate to experiment with some of the other jams, preserves or marmalades.

There are two major schools of thought concerning the proper way to build a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Some people spread one slice of bread with peanut butter and the other with jelly or jam. Others, and I suspect we are in the minority, believe in mixing the two elements together before spreading them on.

I also suspect that kids today are less inventive than those of past generations when it comes to peanut butter sandwiches. My older brother once decided that peanut butter and mayonnaise was a felicitous partnership, and my younger brother and I joined him in eating peanut butter and mayo sandwiches until the enthusiasm waned. 

During summer when a bumper crop of cucumbers inspired my mother to indulge in a pickling frenzy, I experimented blissfully with peanut butter sandwiches made with all the various pickle types, except for dill, which I did not appreciate in those days. I have since come to enjoy dill but have yet to try it as an adjunct to peanut butter.

Of course, sandwiches are only the beginning of peanut butter snacks. Short lengths of celery can be stuffed with peanut butter for a tasty and crunchy combination. Cut a banana (not too ripe) into lengthwise strips two or three inches long, and spread them with your favorite peanut butter. I like crunchy peanut butter for bananas, because of the texture contrast. Apples slices also combine gracefully with peanut butter. I’m partial to McIntosh or Rome apples, sliced about a quarter-inch think and spread with honey-roasted peanut butter.

Mary Ryder is a food columnist for the Daily Commercial. Email her at practicalpotwatcher@cfl.rr.com.