Who would have thought that such a simple, ancient and enjoyable food like butter could cause so much consternation among nutritionists?
For decades we’ve been told that butter was the bad guy, lurking on the countertop or skulking in the fridge waiting to pounce and fur up our arteries on contact. But in the last few years the horror of butter has begun to recede.
Butter makes you fat? Not according to all of the low carb dieters who’ve lost weight eating butter, even going to extremes like adding it to their morning coffee to make sure that they get enough healthy fat in their diet.
Butter increases the risk of heart disease? Not according to studies and reviews of the evidence it doesn’t.
Butter contributes to type 2 diabetes? Once again the evidence says no.
All of this kind of leaves nutritionists with egg on their face. All of these years telling us that butter was bad and vegetable oil based spreads were good, when it turns out the common vegetable oil spreads were full of harmful trans fats and artificial additives. Thankfully spreads are much healthier today.
Researchers are now even finding that there is a good type of saturated fat and a bad type.
Do you remember when all cholesterol was bad (even though it’s your body’s repair kit), and then researchers discovered HDL and LDL cholesterol?
Well, the same thing has happened with saturated fat. Saturated fat is composed of chains of carbon molecules. Different fats have different chain lengths.
Common saturated fats like palmitic acid have 16 carbon molecules in thier chain, and stearic acid has 18.
Early research indicates that it’s these chains with even numbers of carbon molecules that cause problems. Having higher amounts of 16 or 18 carbon fatty acids in the blood increases the risk of heart attack and type 2 diabetes. While having higher numbers of odd numbered carbon chain fatty acids decreases the risk.
And that higher level of odd numbered chains is associated with eating dairy, making butter a good guy!
There’s one more thing to more to say about these differing kinds of fatty acids too. When your body turns all of the excess carbohydrates (sugars) that you eat into fat, it makes fatty acids with even numbers of carbon molecules.
The fat you carry around certainly has an impact on your risk of developing chronic diseases. The little bit of butter that you saute your vegetables in though, well that is probably pretty good for you.
In fact butter from grass fed cows is rich in vitamin K2, and we know that vitamin K2 is an important nutrient that appears to prevent, reduce and even counteract arterial plaque buildup. It also helps the body to use calcium properly.
While we think of calcium as a good thing that gives us healthy teeth and strong bones, it can only do that when other nutrients are present. Two of those are magnesium and vitamin K2.
Without sufficient quantities of either nutrient, calcium doesn’t go where we need it to go, it accumulates in the soft tissues of our arterial walls, making them rigid and friable. It contributes to arterial plaque and cardiovascular disease, at the same time that its depletion in bones and teeth causes tooth loss and bone fractures.
Butter from cows fed an industrial grain based diet isn’t a very healthy kind of butter. Cows are meant to eat grass and foliage not grain.
So, if you’ve been scared away from butter because you think it will make you fat or give you heart disease, you can relax, just make sure that you buy grass fed butter. Kerrygold butter from Ireland is excellent, as is Anchor butter from New Zealand.
But what if you can’t eat butter? Many people have an allergy to the proteins in milk, and the trace amounts found in butter can be a problem. Perhaps you don’t want to eat butter for ethical reasons. Or maybe you’re following a calorie controlled diet and you don’t want to spend calories on butter.
In these cases, you won’t care how healthy butter is, you can’t or won’t eat it, and you need healthy alternatives.
So let’s take a look at your choices.
We generally use butter for 3 things, spreading, baking and cooking. When you substitute other things for butter, it’s rare to find one product that can cover all 3 bases really well.
Butter Substitutes For Spreading
If you’ve been used to spreading butter on your bread and now need to make a switch, then you’ll need to test a few different brands to find something that you enjoy. I always found the entire “I can’t believe it’s not butter” marketing message to be an enormous exaggeration. It tastes nothing like butter to me. But your mileage may vary!
I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter
I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter is a Unilever brand. For spreading, it’s available in sticks or in a tub.
The Original Soft Spread contains no trans fats and gives 60 calories and 6 grams total fat (2g saturated fat) per one tablespoon serving. It also contains 295mg of omega-3 ALA per serving which is 18% of the 1.6g daily value for that nutrient.
- Purified Water
- Soybean Oil
- Palm Kernel and Palm Oil
- Palm Kernel Oil
- Palm Oil
- Lecithin (Soy)
- Natural Flavors
- Vitamin A Palmitate
- Beta Carotene (Color)
Olivio is a brand of spreads and olive oils produced by Olivio Premium Products, of Boston, Massachusetts. The spread is available in tubs, in an original or a light version. The original version has 80 calories per one tablespoon serving, 8 grams total fat (1.5g saturated).
- Vegetable oil blend (canola oil, palm fruit oil, olive oil)
- less than 2% of salt
- vegetable mono & diglycerides
- soy lecithin
- natural & artificial flavor
- potassium sorbate
- lactic acid
- dl-alpha tocopherol acetate (vitamin E)
- vitamin A palmitate
- beta carotene (color)
- vitamin D3
- citric acid.
Brummel & Brown Original Buttery Spread with Real Yogurt
Brummel & Brown is a Unilever brand. The spread is made with yogurt and vegetable oils, and contains no trans fats. It provides 45 calories and 5 grams total fat (1.5g saturated fat) per one tablespoon serving.
- Purified Water
- Soybean Oil
- Nonfat Yogurt
- Cultured Nonfat Milk
- Palm Kernel and Palm Oil
- Palm Kernel Oil
- Palm Oil
- Modified Tapioca Starch
- Mono And Diglycerides
Smart Balance Original Buttery Spread
Smart balance is a Boulder Brands product. The spread is dairy free, non GMO and contains no hydrogenated, partially hydrogenated oils or trans fats. It’s gluten free and provides 90 calories, 10 grams total fat (2.5g saturated) and 350mg of omega-3 ALA per one tablespoon serving.
- Natural oil blend (soybean, palm fruit, canola, and olive oils)
- Natural and artificial flavor
- Vegetable monoglycerides and sorbitan ester of fatty acids (emulsifiers)
- Soy lecithin
- Vitamin A palmitate
- Vitamin B6
- Vitamin B12
- Vitamin D
- dl-a-tocopheryl acetate (vitamin E)
- Lactic acid
- Beta carotene color
- Potassium sorbate, and calcium disodium EDTA
Barney Butter Smooth Almond Butter
Barney Butter is an independant brand from California. They’re an ethical brand and seem to be doing everything right. From producing great tasting almond butter, to protecting the environment and supporting local almond farmers.
They remove most of the phytic acid (anti nutrient) from their nuts, and the nut butter is produced in a certified peanut free and organic facility. And with the exception of Honey + Flax, all of their butters are certified vegan.
Almond butter is great for spreading on bread, toast, bagels, muffins, pancakes, etc.
- Blanched Roasted Almonds
- Organic & Fair Trade Cane Sugar
- Palm Fruit Oil
- Sea Salt.
California Olive Ranch Extra Virgin Olive Oil
- Extra virgin olive oil
A one tablespoon serving of olive oil contains 120 calories and 14 grams total fat (2.2g saturated fat)
Olive oil makes a great alternative to butter on bread. It’s hard to beat the flavor combination of a good extra virgin olive oil, drizzled onto rustic bread like ciabatta, with a small amount of fresh garlic and juicy sun ripened tomatoes.
Olive oils works well in a variety of meat based sandwiches too.
A lot of olive oil brands that claim to be extra virgin could be fakes. Analysis of common brands shows that they failed the IOC sensory standards for extra virgin olive oils.
Research carried out by UC Davis on 186 extra virgin olive oil samples, found that, 73 percent of the samples they tested from the top five imported extra virgin olive oil brands failed IOC standards. The failure rate ranged from a high of 94 percent to 56 percent depending on the brand.
A failure on the sensory standards test means that the oils are oxidized (damaged), of poor quality, and / or cut with cheaper oils.
None of the Californian or Australian brands tested failed the tests.
Butter Substitutes For Baking
You have a little more leeway when it comes to butter alternatives in your baking. Commercial baking rarely uses butter (it’s too expensive for their bottom line), and many people’s palates are used to a lack of butter in their baked goods. So if you’re taking up baking and aren’t used to the flavor and texture that butter produces, then you won’t miss it.
Your butter substitute does need to hold up under high heat though, which makes olive oil based spreads unsuitable. Low fat spreads have too much water content for baking, so stay away from those too.
Because all spreads contain water, you should check out manufactures websites for specific recipes using their products. These recipes have been developed to get good results using their spreads. Once you’re familiar with the differing quantities used, you’ll be able to successfully tweak baking recipes that call for butter.
Country Crock Regular Sticks
Country Crock is made by Unilever. It contains no artificial preservatives or flavors or trans fats, and contains 80 calories, 8 grams total fat (1.5g saturated fat) per one tablespoon serving.
- Purified Water
- Soybean Oil (100% sustainably sourced by 2017)
- Palm & Palm Kernel Oil (100% certified sustainably sourced)
- Lecithin (soy)
- Vinegar – natural preservative
- Natural Flavors
- Vitamin D3 & A Palmitate
- Beta Carotene (color)
It’s nice to see that they source their palm oil sustainably, and if you’re a vegetarian or vegan concerned with animal welfare, then you’re no doubt already of the numerous species being driven to extinction by the deforestation that makes way for the palm oil plantations.
Blue Bonnet Original Vegetable Oil Sticks
Blue Bonnet is a Conagra Brand. This butter substitute is made with some artificial additives, and contains 80 calories, 9 grams total fat (2g saturated), per one tablespoon serving.
- Liquid Soybean Oil
- Partially Hydrogenated Soybean Oil
- Dried Whey
- Vegetable Mono- and Diglycerides and Soy Lecithin
- Potassium Sorbate and Sodium Benzoate
- Natural and Artificial Flavor
- Phosphoric Acid
- Vitamin A Palmitate,
- Colored With Beta Carotene (Source of Vitamin A)
There are some concerns over sodium benzoate. When sodium benzoate combines with potassium benzoate and ascorbic acid (vitamin C) it produces benzene which is a carcinogen. Many foods use sodium benzoate as a preservative and the amount allowed is controlled by regulations which allow no more than 0.1% by weight.
The majority of sodium benzoate consumed by the average person comes from soft drinks. While the majority of benzene exposure comes from the environment, including cigarette smoke, car exhaust and industrial waste. I don’t rate is as a concern in this product.
Butter Substitutes For Cooking
Butter for cooking is used to saute vegetables, pan fry meat, to add a delicious flavor and texture to scrambled eggs and more. Most vegetable based spreads don’t produce a nice result when they’re used as butter substitute in this way.
Kirkland Signature Extra Virgin Organic Olive Oil
- Extra virgin olive oil
Olive oil adds a lovely flavor to vegetables and it’s totally healthy. It’s a monounsaturated fat with no health concerns at all, and it’s a staple of the healthy traditional Mediterranean diet.
Costco stocks two signature brand extra virgin olive oils. One is Toscano (in the slimmer bottle) which is the better choice if you want to use it on your salads or on bread, but for cooking the olive oil in the fatter bottle is just fine.
A one tablespoon serving of olive oil contains 120 calories and 14 grams total fat (2.2 grams of saturated fat).
Earth Balance Organic Coconut Spread
Earth balance is a brand owned by Boulder Foods.
Coconut oil spreads are another great choice for sauteing vegetables. It adds a nice flavor that isn’t overpowering and it works well for stir fried veggies to go with any Thai dishes that you like to cook.
The medium chain triglycerides that coconut oils contains are considered to be very healthy too. This spread can also be used for baking and general spreading. A one tablespoon serving has 100 calories, 11 grams total fat (5g saturated).
- Tropical Oil Blend (extra virgin coconut, palm fruit, and coconut oils)
- Canola Oil
- Filtered Water
- Natural Flavor
- Sunflower Lecithin
- Lactic Acid (Non-Dairy)
Carrington Farms Coconut Oil
Carrington Farms is an independent brand that has been producing healthy GMO free products since 2000. Their coconut oil is organically sourced and cold pressed. Cold pressed oils aren’t damaged by heat and retain their health benefits. Coconut oils don’t contain any trans fats or hydrogenated oils.
Coconut oil is a tasty alternative to butter that can be used for sauteing, frying, roasting vegetables, making popcorn, added to a baked potato or even mixed in with your eggs. You can bake with it too.
A one tablespoon serving of coconut oil contains 130 calories and 14 grams total fat (12g saturated).
- Coconut oil
If you don’t want the coconut flavor, then you can find refined coconut oil that has no flavor at all, but refined oils aren’t as healthy.
Ultimately the best way to get a buttery taste is to eat real butter. There hasn’t been an alternative product on the market to date that comes close to a good, grass fed butter. But if butter is a no go area for you then your healthiest alternatives are olive oil, almond butter or coconut oil, and then the butter substitute spreads.
Just be aware that the oils used to make the spreads are often extracted using high heat methods which damage the oils. Soybean and canola oils are often GMO.
The color used in spreads is usually beta carotene and while there’s nothing wrong with that at all, if you saw the spreads that hadn’t been colored, you wouldn’t eat them. In the factory before the color is added, the spreads are a distinctly unappetising gray color.
Does it sound like I’m trying to steer you toward butter?
Unless butter is off your list because of allergies or ethical concerns, it’s a perfectly healthy choice. It’s a staple in my kitchen along with olive oil and coconut oil. And unlike spreads, you can make it in your kitchen from cream.
One ingredient in your food mixer, and a minute or two later you’ve got fresh butter. You could never produce a vegetable oil spread in your own kitchen. It’s an industrial food and all industrial foods have their downsides.