Schools help spur Sunbutter company’s growth
FARGO — Dan Hofland once drove around to area grocery stores with cases of Sunbutter in the back of his pickup.
The goal, Hofland said, was to offer an alternative spread for kids with peanut allergies.
“As I talked to these parents who have children with peanut allergies and the issues they deal with and the emotion that goes through it and how much people in the United States love peanut butter, it became bigger than just a job,” he said.
The spread is peanut-free, tree nut-free and made in a nut-free facility. It’s made from sunflowers from North Dakota, Minnesota and South Dakota to further reduce the risk of cross contamination because peanuts can’t grow in this region of the country, Hofland said.
Kelly Everson is a Casselton mom who has three boys — ages 5, 7, and 11— with peanut allergies. She said she and her two younger boys love Sunbutter.
“We love it on sandwiches and toast with jelly,” she said.
Her oldest, she said, doesn’t care for it because it smells like peanut butter.
“I haven’t tried baking with it only because I don’t want my boys to think that they can all of a sudden have a certain kind of cookie but someone else would use peanut butter,” she said. “I’ve heard that monster cookies are awesome with it.”
In the early 2000s, Fargo-based Red River Commodities, in cooperation with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Services, started developing a peanut butter substitute made from sunflower seeds. The company released Sunbutter in 2002.
Sunbutter took off statewide with the help of Pride of Dakota, grocery store demonstrations and the support of schools, Hofland said.
West Fargo Public Schools eliminated peanut butter from elementary schools about five years ago, but since kids love peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, Sunbutter has been a good alternative, said Jan Sliper, West Fargo Public Schools director of nutrition services.
“I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how well the sandwiches go over,” she said. “It’s a nice change.”
They will also offer it in the salad bar with celery and with breakfasts for toast.
Fargo Public Schools has replaced peanut butter with Sunbutter in all of its schools and makes the spread available daily, said Debra Laber, the district’s director of nutrition services.
“It’s very important for us because of the severe peanut allergies we’re seeing,” she said. “They’ve really grown.”
When Hofland started selling Sunbutter, peanut allergies weren’t as prevalent as they are now, and it wasn’t something a lot of schools worried about, he said. But studies show the number of children with peanut allergies tripled between 1997 and 2008, according to the Food Allergy Research and Education organization.
Now, Hofland estimates about one-third of the 13,500 school districts nationwide regularly offer Sunbutter as part of their school meal programs, and it continues to grow.
In 2004, the USDA approved Sunbutter as a commodity, which Hofland said really helped the company take off.
“Parents are looking for a good protein source,” he said. “We get calls regularly thanking us for making this.”
When he gets one of those calls, Hofland said he goes home “just walking on air.”
Sunbutter is nutritionally comparable to peanut butter. It has 7 grams of protein, 4 grams of fiber, 3 grams of sugar and 16 grams of fat. Because it’s a seed instead of a legume, Hofland said Sunbutter has more vitamin E and trace minerals.
The company recently finished a large research project about including Sunbutter in products like candy bars and packaged cracker sandwiches, and is trying to encourage other manufacturers to include Sunbutter in their products.
Sunbutter is also working with a company to make crimped, ready-to-go Sunbutter sandwiches.
“We are a company with a mission, to try to help those kids,” Hofland said. “And people get it.”