Vegan Butters Are Taking Over the Dairy Aisle—Here’s the Verdict on If They’re Healthy or Hyped Up

Photo: Getty Images/milan2099
It was only a matter of time before the alt-dairy revolution expanded beyond milk. Yogurt got the glow-up next, with Well+Good naming non-dairy yogurt as a Wellness Trend in 2018. As for what's on the horizon for 2020, another dairy-laden staple is getting reimagined: butter.

It's worth pointing out that the concept of vegan butter substitutes is nothing new. OG vegans have long known about Earth Balance, which makes vegan butter out of soybean, palm fruit, canola, and olive oils, among other ingredients. But as plant-based eating continues to dominate the healthy food space, more options are cropping up from traditional dairy butter brands, like Country Crock, to cult favorite plant-based brands like Milkadamia and Miyoko's.

Whipping up vegan butter is a bit more complicated than just subbing out dairy for alt-milk. Here, brands making the newest ones share exactly what goes into their products—and how they're different from other competitors in this space. Plus, a registered dietitian weighs in on whether vegan butter is legitimately healthy or if it's just hype hitched to the alt-milk bandwagon.

What exactly is "vegan butter," anyways?

Country Crock recently launched a whole line of dairy-free butters (promoted by Queer Eye's Antoni, no less), made with olive oil, avocado oil, and almond oil, respectively. They also use palm kernel oil, canola oil, palm fruit oil, pea protein, faba bean protein, and sunflower lecithin. "Our blend of plant-based oils creates the taste, texture, and performance of dairy butter," Brian Orlando, the chief marketing officer for Upfield North America (Country Crock's parent company) says. He also adds that the combination makes the end product lower in saturated fat than dairy butter.

Milkadamia's new butter is oil-based too, made with macadamia nut oil, coconut oil, and canola oil. "The blend that we use was formulated for taste and consistency. It's easy to melt when needed, but doesn’t melt immediately—macadamia oil is liquid at room temperature," says Christina Downey, the brand's CMO.

If all of these sound like fancy margarine...well, that's because they kind of are. However, it should be noted that not all margarines are completely dairy-free. Per the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), margarine can technically still contain some milk in it and still be considered margarine. Thus, consider vegan butter as essentially a dairy-free subcategory of margarine.

Brand reps also argue that they have some other subtle tweaks that make them different from margarine. Downey argues that margarine contains palm oil while Milkadamia's plant-based butter does not. Orlando of Country Crock (which does use palm oil in its plant-based butters) says the difference is in the taste. "Margarine has a very specific taste profile that differs from traditional dairy butter," he says. "We have done an extremely robust taste test to confirm that consumers think Country Crock Plant Butter tastes like dairy butter."

Other new vegan butters have tried to stand out from the crowd by tapping in on other trendy ingredients. For example, Miyoko's makes its plant-based butter with coconut oil, sunflower oil, cashew nuts, and probiotic cultures. Founder and CEO Miyoko Schinner says ingredients like these help make the brand's vegan butter more accurately mimic butter's taste profile. "We tried to replicate dairy butter in both ingredients and process by first making cashew milk, then inoculating it with dairy cultures, which turns the milk into something akin to buttermilk, then churning it with coconut oil," she says. Similarly, vegan butter brand Melt Organic has a line of plant-based butters infused with probiotic cultures.

What a registered dietitian thinks

Karen Collins, RDN, a registered dietitian specializing in cancer prevention and heart health, says plant-based butters aren't any better or worse than dairy butter overall; it depends on what's in the plant-based butter you're reaching for.

The biggie on the nutrition panel she says to pay attention to is the saturated fat content. The FDA recommends that saturated fats make up less than 10 percent of overall calories. Otherwise, you're running the risk for for chronic diseases such as high blood pressure, stroke, and heart disease. "County Crock and Melt Organic plant butters come in several varieties built around different oils. All of them, and to a lesser extent the Milkadamia spread, are lower in saturated fat than butter [which clocks in at seven grams per tablespoon]," Collins says.

Collins is generally okay with most of the ingredients used in these products, with the exception of coconut oil. "Coconut oil has a reputation as being more healthful than it really is," she says. "Coconut oil alone doesn’t raise LDL blood cholesterol as much as butter, but studies—as well as insights from registered dietitians working with people with heart disease—indicate that it can have unhealthy effects on blood lipids." The theory behind this, she explains, is that the lauric acid in coconut oil acts in the body more like the longer chain saturated fats that are known to raise blood cholesterol.

Here's the 411 on coconut oil, straight from a registered dietitian: 

She also says it's important to think about how much you're using vegan butters. "If you really enjoy the taste of dairy butter and eat a mostly plant-forward diet, then enjoy it," she says. "But if you are considering what to choose as the primary fat you use all day, then finding an alternative to dairy butter would be smart." For example, she says a serving of olive oil is healthier (with more straightforward health benefits) than a processed plant-based butter.

Where sustainability comes in

If you've prioritized a plant-based diet in an effort to better the planet as well as your body, you might think that vegan butter is an automatic win on the environmental front. After all, it uses plants, not animals, to make butter, which in many ways results in an inherently smaller carbon footprint than traditional dairy butter.

However, there is one ingredient commonly used in vegan butter that is far from eco-friendly: palm oil. "Palm oil is a major contributor to deforestation, resulting in the loss of habitat for animals, displacement of native populations, and incredible loss of old growth rain forests," says Downey. "There is no such thing as sustainable palm—although companies are trying to rebrand this way. The loss of habitat, the displacement of people, and a monocropped farm stands where there once was diversity."

It should be noted that the palm oil industry is trying to address these concerns; currently, 20 percent of the world's palm oil supply is certified by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO)'s sustainability standards. But considering how ubiquitous palm oil is (more than half of all packaged products in the U.S. contain it), much more progress needs to be made.

The bottom line: Most vegan butter substitutes are nutritionally similar to butter, which means they should be consumed in moderation. But with careful label reading and mindful intentions on your side, it can fit into your life—and fridge—as a plant-based tool to use. And that's intel worth, well, spreading.

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