The TSA Has Bad News For Peanut Butter Lovers

The airport security agency confirms that peanut butter is a liquid. But is it?

From the people who brought you such philosophical queries as "Is a hot dog a sandwich?" and "Is cereal soup?" and "Are Twizzlers still Twizzlers without the twists?" comes the next question that starkly divides us: Is peanut butter a liquid?

This question is more relevant now than ever due to a viral tweet by Patrick Neve, who recently had to surrender his peanut butter before getting on a plane. Neve's indignation (which matches our own), and the 150,000 likes the tweet received, prompted the TSA to post to Instagram, confirming the agency's rule that peanut butter is prohibited as a carry-on item as it is considered a liquid. Even The New York Times is reporting on the revived question of peanut butter on airplanes.

First question: What is liquid?

The TSA's Instagram post displays a jar of peanut butter with the words, "a liquid has no definite shape and takes a shape dictated by its container."

The public outcry was immediate. Many people started naming other similar substances they wanted the TSA to advise on, such as canned cranberry sauce (holds its shape) and human beings (60% liquid). Someone cheekily asked if the TSA will also take the jelly or jam if they plan on confiscating the peanut butter. Through a series of cutesy replies on Instagram, the TSA confirmed to the public that if a substance can spread, it is a liquid, and therefore it must stay under 3.4 oz. or go in a checked bag.

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I conducted an informal poll of those in my immediate vicinity, which happened to be several children who wandered into my house asking for snacks and to play with my children. One of these children is allergic to peanuts. All of my survey respondents said they believe peanut butter is a solid, because peanut butter holds its own shape. Clearly choosy moms choose Jif and these children have never had to stir a jar of the 100% natural stuff in their young lives.

The smart folks of Instagram came up with a great counterexample to the TSA restrictions: cats. It's widely understood that cats take the shape of their container vis-a-vis the "If I fits, I sits" rule. Therefore, cats are considered a liquid by TSA standards—and yet, you can bring a cat on board. So why not peanut butter?

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Some people might say the cat argument only proves that both cats and peanut butter should be banned from flights, but those people are just traumatized from having to sit next to me on the delayed flight from Philadelphia to Portland in 2009 when my cat meowed for seven hours straight.

To determine if peanut butter is a liquid, we must determine if it is one of the states of matter that liquid is not.

Is peanut butter a gas?

Encyclopedia Britannica says gas, which often once was liquid, is distinct from liquid because it "has no structure at all" and "completely fills any closed container." While the structure of peanut butter is up for debate in the TSA's Instagram comments (many argue that "a dollop is a shape"), we can agree that a peanut butter jar can be half-full and is rarely completely full. Therefore, peanut butter is not a gas.

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Is peanut butter a solid?

The children I polled all seem to think so. Solids have a stable shape, one that is not determined by its container, and the ability to resist force. Peanut butter, especially the creamy, non-natural variety, has a stable and definite texture, but, according to the TSA's secondary "spreadable" argument, it does not have a definite shape capable of resisting force (from, say, a knife and some toast). A globe is shaped like a globe. A house is shaped like a house. But peanut butter, much like cats, is ever changing.

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Is peanut butter plasma?

What is plasma? I forgot most of science because I was a theatre kid, but MIT says plasma is what happens when you boil gas. This means nothing to me. MIT also describes plasma as a "soup" of particles, so now I have a follow-up question: Is peanut butter soup? 

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Britannica notes that "a plasma will act collectively much like a fluid," which confuses things further. Plasma is a gassier gas, but also a soupy, liquidy grouping of particles. I can't figure out whether any of this relates to peanut butter. Let's just assume it doesn't.

Conclusion: The TSA wins this round

The TSA continues to ostensibly keep us safe with these restrictions, and so if the agency declares peanut butter a liquid, we have no choice but to accept it if we want to board our flight and get where we're going. Besides, you might be seated next to someone with severe peanut allergies.

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While I was texting about cats on planes in my therapist's waiting room in response to this TSA news, a friend (who I promise is not a psycho and who does own two alive cats) pointed out, "Anything can be liquid if we try hard enough."

At that, I made a strangled laughing/crying/choking noise into my mask and the entire waiting room stared at me. In response, I—like peanut butter, cats, and plasma all have the potential to do—melted into a liquid puddle of embarrassment. Then I evaporated and floated away into the cosmos, where I will presumably remain until one day being reconstituted as peanut butter in a security line trash can.

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