The Weird World of Standard Reference Materials — From Peanut Butter to Whale Blubber

Have you been longing for something better than boring old caviar to put on your crackers? If so, you’re in luck. Now you can spend $761 on a jar of peanut butter. “But what makes this peanut butter so special?” you might ask. Is the butter blended with crushed pearls? Are the peanuts carefully massaged every day as they mature? Is the jar painstakingly handcrafted by Belgian monks? These are all fair and prudent questions to ask, but those descriptions don’t apply — it’s just regular peanut butter. The reason that the product costs approximately 250 times that of grocery store brands is that it is made by the government. The National Institute of Standards and Technolgoy (NIST) is an agency of the Commerce Department that contains ''standard reference material” (SRMs) designed not to be eaten but to be fed into gas chromatographs, mass spectrometers and other analytical equipment. NIST provides a baseline analysis — standards of reference — of the peanut butter's nutritional components so that food manufacturers and testing laboratories can verify that their analyses of other, similar foods are accurate. The peanut butter, which is officially known as Standard Reference Material No. 2387, is the same spread you're likely to find in the supermarket, made from roasted peanuts, sugar, hydrogenated fat and salt. The high price is due to the high cost of analyzing the peanut butter, which is carried out at NIST laboratories around the country. NIST knows precisely how much fat it contains, how much is saturated, how much is unsaturated, even the proportions of certain fatty acids. It knows how much manganese, copper and zinc it contains. It knows all about this peanut butter's protein, down to the individual amino acids. The reason the food industry is willing to pay $761 for a jar of peanut butter is because it would cost them an enormous amount of money to perform the tests that NIST performs for them. It’s just a simple case of supply and demand.