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How Butter, Margarine & Other Types of Spreads Stack Up

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If you’ve looked for butter or margarine at the grocery store lately, you may be surprised at the number of options there are now. There’s salted and unsalted butter, ghee and plant-based margarine spreads made with yogurt, oat milk, avocado oil, coconut oil, olive oil and more. How do you find the one that’s right for you?

“When we’re looking at the nutrition profile of butter or margarine, the commonality is they are all made of fat,” says McKenna Parker, a registered dietitian with Good Samaritan Regional Medical Center – Diabetes Education. “There are some differences in the type of fat they contain, but in general fat should be used sparingly in the diet and some are better than others.”

Which Fats Are Healthy?

A small amount of dietary fat is important for your health. Healthy fats like polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats are found naturally in foods like avocados, nuts and seeds. Oils made from these plants, like olive oil, canola oil or flaxseed oil, contain healthy fat and are liquid at room temperature. According to Parker, these fats can improve your cholesterol and reduce your risk of heart disease and stroke.

Another source of dietary fat is saturated fat, which is found in red meat and dairy products like butter. It is also found in tropical oils like coconut oil and palm oil. This type of fat is solid at room temperature. Getting too much saturated fat in your diet can raise your LDL or “bad” cholesterol and increase your risk for heart disease, according to the American Heart Association (AHA).

Saturated fat can add up quickly in your diet, especially in butter. The AHA recommends no more than about 13g of saturated fat a day, so at about 8g of saturated fat per serving, two tablespoons of butter would put you over the limit.

Choosing a Healthy Spread

“Margarine became widely accepted 40 years ago when the popular thought was people should be reducing their saturated fat intake, especially butter,” said Parker. “The early forms of margarine contained partially hydrogenated oils, also called trans fats, which we now know are not good for your health. The good news is that, per the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), food manufacturers can no longer include trans fats in foods as of January 1, 2021!”

Today’s plant-based margarines often contain a combination of healthy oils like canola oil, olive oil or flaxseed oil, which contain some beneficial fats and improve the nutritional profile of the product. They are usually much lower in saturated fat than dairy butter, and nutrition labels make it easy to see if the product contains harmful partially hydrogenated oils or trans fat. However, Parker cautions against considering these products “healthy” or a good way to get healthy fats.

“A plant-based margarine with healthy oils might contain 4.5g of monounsaturated fat in a tablespoon, while a tablespoon of extra virgin olive oil will have about 11g – more than twice as much – without the added preservatives or processing,” she says.

Comparing Butter Options

It can be hard to cut out butter and margarine entirely, so your own health needs can help you decide what kind of spread to use.

Butter

For people who are otherwise healthy, unsalted butter can be used sparingly and it is the least processed. Unsalted butter is usually fresher than salted butter since the salt acts as a preservative. The addition of salt also adds about 90mg of sodium per serving to your diet. However, butter has a higher saturated fat content than other non-dairy spread options.

Examples:

  • Tillamook Salted Sweet Cream Butter:  1 Tbsp, 100 calories, 8g saturated fat.
  • Dairigold Unsalted Butter:  1 Tbsp, 100 calories, 7g saturated fat.

Ghee

Ghee is similar to butter because it is made from milk, but the milk solids have been separated out. If you were to microwave butter until it was liquid and then let it sit at room temperature, the butter would separate into a solid top layer with liquid underneath. The solids on top are the milk solids while the remaining liquid fat underneath is ghee. Since the milk fats are removed, ghee contains no lactose which can be good for those who are lactose intolerant. It also has a high smoke point of 465° F (compared to 350° F for butter), so it can be safely used for frying. However, ghee has more saturated fat than butter and is not a healthier option for regular use, says Parker.

Example:

  • 4th & Heart Ghee:  1 Tbsp, 120 calories, 10g saturated fat.

Margarine & Plant-based Spreads

If you are at higher risk for heart disease, a plant-based margarine can be a good choice. The nutrition can vary widely depending on the brand and the ingredients, and whether the product is in tub or stick form, so be sure and read the label. Don’t buy into the different health claims like “excellent source of omega-3s!” or “made with avocado oil!” suggests Parker. Choose a product that has less than 4g of saturated fat per serving, contains polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats, no hydrogenated oils listed on the nutrition label, and the shortest ingredient list you can find.

Try:

  • I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter (original):  1 Tbsp, 60 calories, 2g saturated fat, 3g polyunsaturated, 1.5g monounsaturated.
  • Imperial margarine:  1 Tbsp, 40 calories, 1g saturated fat, 2g polyunsaturated, 1g monounsaturated.

Light Butter & Margarine

These can be a good choice for those who are limiting calories or fat. However, light products with a lower fat content have been mixed with culinary fillers and often have a longer ingredient list. Parker reports this isn’t harmful, but the extra ingredients have no nutritional value.

Try:

  • Brummel & Brown Yogurt Butter:  1 Tbsp, 45 calories, 1.5g saturated fat, 2.5g polyunsaturated, 1g monounsaturated.
  • I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter Light:  1 Tbsp, 35 calories, 1g saturated fat, 2g polyunsaturated, 1g monounsaturated.
  • Smart Balance Light:  1 Tbsp, 50 calories, 1.5g saturated fat, 1g polyunsaturated, 2.5g monounsaturated.

“No matter what type of spread you choose, you should limit your daily intake to two tablespoons and plan to eat other heart-healthy fats throughout the day,” says Parker.

Nut & Seed Butters

Nut butters like peanut butter and almond butter are easy to find and are a good pantry staple to have on hand as a healthy topping for toast, apples or celery, as examples. There are some very creative flavors available, but check the ingredients to make sure there are no added sugar or oils.

If you’ve ever picked up a jar of peanut butter and seen a thin layer of oil at the top, that’s a good thing. Oil separation is natural in minimally processed nut butters. Beware of palm oil, which is sometimes added to creamy nut butters to keep the oils from separating. This oil is higher in saturated fat than other plant oils, so try to find a brand that doesn’t use it recommends Parker. If you find it too messy or annoying to stir the jar every time, just store it in the refrigerator to keep the oils from separating.

If you have an allergy to peanuts or almonds, sunflower seed butter and cashew butter are available at many specialty grocers. These varieties often have sugar or oil added for improved flavor and texture, so check the ingredients closely and pick the one with the shortest list. Nut butters contain some natural sugars, but ideally you want 0 “added sugars” on the nutrition label.

  Saturated Fat
Healthy Fats Present?
Protein
Peanut Butter 2.5 g Yes 8 g
Almond Butter 1 g Yes 7 g
Sunflower Seed Butter 1.5 g Yes 7 g
Cashew Butter
2.g Yes 6 g

Three Swaps for Healthy Fats

If you don’t want to compromise your healthy fats, Parker recommends these three tips to swap out butter and margarine entirely.

  • Replace buttered toast for breakfast with one tablespoon of nut butter on your toast instead. You’ll get additional protein as a bonus. Topping whole wheat toast with sliced avocado, tomato and a drizzle of olive oil or squeeze of fresh lemon is another great option that adds fresh, whole foods and healthy fats to your diet.
  • Instead of buttery garlic bread, use a heart-healthy olive oil dip for your crusty French loaf. Try olive oil mixed with balsamic vinegar for some kick. Or season olive oil with Italian herbs like thyme, oregano, basil, diced garlic and crushed red pepper or ground black pepper. Fresh or dried herbs work well.
  • When cooking, try a liquid cooking oil like canola oil instead of butter or margarine.

“Healthy fats are very important for your overall health. They help promote fullness, and they usually make food taste really good,” says Parker. “For that reason, it’s still important to practice portion control. Moderation is the key to any diet, even with whole foods.”

Get more dietitian-approved recipes or enroll in nutrition counseling to get personalized advice and education to meet your health goals.