There’s a reason you’re perplexed at the butter section. Butter was once frowned upon. As doctors became more aware of the dangers of saturated fat, vegetable-oil-based margarine gained popularity.
However, the butter-versus-margarine debate is a tricky one. Some margarine contains harmful trans fats, while others make contradictory health claims. Meanwhile, some argue that butter is an all-natural option.
So that’s the deal with butter and its replacements. Here are some of the best and worst heart-healthy products.
What experts say
Instead of conventional butter or stick margarine, the American Heart Association recommends purchasing soft, trans-fat-free spreads.
Choose a blend with the fewest saturated fats and no trans fats. But, first, examine the ingredients: Even if the label states trans fat free, it still contains some trans fat (less than 0.5 grams per serving) if it indicates partly hydrogenated oils.
If you consume more than one serving, these might add up.
If you like butter better
Regular butter is created from one ingredient: cow’s milk or cream, which is churned or shaken until semisolid. It must contain at least 80% milk fat by weight, and 1 pound of butter requires around 11 gallons of milk.
Butter is traditionally available in salted and unsalted versions and solid stick form or whipped and packaged in plastic tubs. Cultured butter, a creamy butter prepared from cultured cream that is popular in Europe, is also available at your local grocery shop or specialty foods store.
Worst butter: Traditional sticks
Most original butter sticks have 100 calories per tablespoon, a standard serving size. One serving contains 11 grams of fat, 7 grams of which are artery-clogging saturated fat, roughly one-third of your daily value! It also has 30 mg of dietary cholesterol (ten percent of your daily value).
Some have even fatter; Kerrygold Unsalted Pure Irish Butter from Ireland, for example, has 12 grams of fat, 8 grams of which is saturated.
Check the label if you find adjectives like rich, cultured, or European style (or if it’s created in Europe).
Better: Whipped butter
Whipping the butter adds air, making it lighter and less dense. By using whipped butter in a tub instead of whipped butter in a jar, you can save up to half the calories and saturated fat.
Land O’Lakes Whipped Butter, for example, has 50 calories per serving, 6 grams of fat (3.5 grams saturated), and 15 milligrams of cholesterol.
You might even go with an organic brand like Organic Valley Whipped Butter.
Better: Light butter
Light or low-fat butter is a good option if you prefer a stick to a tub. It has half the fat and calories of typical butter and is produced with extra water or gelatin (and preservatives) to give it a firm consistency.
For example, a Land O’Lakes Light Butter serving contains only 50 calories and 6 grams of fat (3.5 grams of which are saturated). Janice Baker, RD, a dietitian, and certified diabetes educator, recommends not using twice as much to compensate for any change in flavor.
Better: Vegetable-oil blends
A butter blend with olive or canola oil will not significantly reduce calories or fat (most contain 100 calories and 11 fat grams per serving). Still, it will lower saturated fat and cholesterol.
Furthermore, these are usually softer and easier to spread from the fridge.
Choose a “whipped” or “light” blend to cut calories. Land O’Lakes Light Butter with Canola Oil (50 calories and 5 grams of fat, 2 saturated) and Shedd’s Spread Country Crock Spreadable Butter with Canola Oil (80 calories and 9 grams of fat, 3.5 saturated).
What is margarine?
Margarine, invented in the 1800s in France when butter was scarce and expensive, has seen its ups and downs, including multiple restrictions and tariffs imposed by the dairy industry in the United States.
It’s been marketed as a healthier, plant-based alternative to butter. Still, it’s also been chastised for being artificial and containing trans fats, which aid in solidifying oil-based products at room temperature.
Margarine is any vegetable-oil-based, butter-flavored spread that comprises 80% oil; soft margarine spread is anything with a lower oil and fat content.
Worst margarine: Sticks with trans fat
Vegetable oils are hydrogenated to keep them solid at room temperature, which produces trans fatty acids, which can boost LDL or bad cholesterol.
The majority of solid margarine sticks contain trans fats and/or saturated fat.
Country Crock Spreadable Sticks (80 calories, 1.5 g saturated fat, 2 g trans fat), Blue Bonnet Sticks (70 calories, 1.5 g saturated fat, 1.5 g trans fat), Land O’Lakes Margarine Sticks (100 calories, 2 g saturated fat, 2.5 g trans fat), and Fleischmann’s Original Stick Margarine (80 calories, 2 g saturated fat, 1.5 g trans fat).
Better: Trans-fat-free sticks
Although a gram or two of trans fat may not seem like much, even small amounts harm the heart. Therefore, Baker advises consuming as little trans fat as possible.
There are trans-fat-free choices if you need hard butter or margarine for baking.
Promise Sticks provide 80 calories per serving and 9 grams of fat (2.5 grams of saturated). Although I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter Sticks and Earth Balance Vegan Buttery Spreads do not contain trans fats, they contain 3.5 grams and 4.5 grams of saturated fat, respectively, as well as the same total fat and fat calories as butter.
Better: Soft spreads
Soft spreads in tubs are generally better for your heart because they have less saturated fat, and many are trans fat free.
Fleischmann’s Original Whipped Tub has 60 calories and 7 grams of fat (1 gram saturated) per serving, Smart Balance Original Buttery Spread has 80 calories and 9 grams of fat (2.5 grams saturated), and Blue Bonnet Soft Spread has 60 calories and 6 grams of fat (1 gram saturated) per serving.
These spreads are ideal for cooking, on bread, or with vegetables; however, Baker advises against using them in baking.
Spreads that are light or fat-free are preferable.
Light or low-fat, like butter, usually denotes that a spread has added water or fillers to minimize the overall fat and calorie content. For example, blue Bonnet Light Soft Spread (40 calories, 4.5 grams fat, 1 gram saturated fat) and Smart Balance Light Original Spread (50 calories, 5 grams fat, 1.5 grams saturated fat) are two popular light spreads.
Whipped spreads, such as Shedd’s Spread Country Crock Churn form (60 calories, 7 grams fat, 2 grams saturated fat), contain less fat and calories than a denser original form.
Better: Butter-substitute sprays
Butter substitutes in liquid form are also available: I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter Spray and Parkay Spray provide a hint of buttery flavor with very little fat and no cholesterol. One serving is labeled as having no calories or fat, but there are trace levels of both—so you can still overdo it!
These are good for seasoning vegetables, potatoes, and poultry but may make your bread soggy.
Toss-up: Fortified spreads
Spreads with added ingredients include cinnamon or garlic-and-herb flavor, calcium, vitamin D, omega-3s, and flax oil, and those promoting the wholesome goodness of natural yogurt or extra-virgin olive oil.
According to Baker, a serving of butter or margarine should be so small, just a thin spread, that you won’t obtain much nutritional value from the goods.
Instead, read the label and consider the calories per tablespoon, total fat, saturated fat, and trans fats to make an informed decision that meets your preferences and budget.
Toss-up: Plant sterols
Benecol, Promise Activ, and Smart Balance are examples of such products. In addition, plant sterols and omega-3 fatty acids in HeartRight have been found to lower LDL levels when consumed as part of a healthy diet.
Baker claims that there is nothing wrong with these items. However, they are typically expensive. Eating enough of these products to make a difference in your cholesterol appears to be a stretch compared to other diet and lifestyle changes a person can make. Consider the big picture for a bigger influence on heart health:
Reduce your intake of saturated and trans fats.
Increase your intake of plant-based foods.
Get adequate exercise.
It’s possible that omitting the butter and margarine is the healthiest option.
Instead, Baker suggests utilizing monounsaturated fat, such as olive oil, for dipping bread or vegetable oil for cooking. If you like the flavor of butter and want to sauté some mushrooms in it, I’m not going to tell you can’t, but you might want to use a little less butter and a little more oil.
On sandwiches, use avocado and nut butter instead of butter. That way, you’re accumulating fat, but it’s healthy. (However, calories from fat add up rapidly, so watch your portion sizes.)
Don’t overdo it
Whatever product you choose, keep your overall consumption to a minimum.
When baking, replace butter with a hard stick of trans-fat-free margarine.
Whatever you use, portion control is essential. For example, using an entire stick of butter when cooking a batch of brownies is not a big problem. As long as you limit yourself to one or two brownies.
Learn more: Elderflower and Coriander Vodka Recipe