Butter enhances flavor, locks in moisture, keeps food tender and helps improve satiety. Made from cream, salt and lactic cultures, butter has a high smoke point and room temperature melting point, providing the versatility that cooks appreciate. Butter can be creamed, whipped, baked or eaten plain — all giving you that melt-in-your-mouth sensation. However, this creamy dairy product is high in saturated fat and cholesterol and has been associated with heart disease, stroke, obesity and other chronic diseases. So it’s no wonder that a huge swath of butter substitutes and butter alternatives have emerged, touting themselves as healthier options. These include margarine or buttery spreads, ghee and plant oils like coconut or olive oil. So which should you choose, and what is the healthiest butter to eat?
The fat in butter
The USDA recommends a total fat intake for adults of between 25-35% of total daily calorie content (for a 2,000-calorie diet), equating to 500-700 calories — or 56-78 grams (g) of fat.
Because butter is mostly made up of fats, it’s important to distinguish the types of fats within butter products. The nutrition facts panel lists out total fat content along with each of the four types of fat in the product.
- Saturated and trans fat should be limited or avoided completely.
- Both polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats have been shown to improve heart health.
Saturated fats are solid at room temperature. Saturated fats raise LDL cholesterol levels and have been linked to weight gain, obesity and an increased risk of heart disease and stroke. The 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends that saturated fat intake be under 10% of total calories each day, and the American Heart Association suggests that keeping it below 5% is the best option. Assuming a 2,000-calorie diet, 10% equates to 22g of saturated fat per day; 5% equates to 11g per day. One tablespoon of butter contains 7g of saturated fat, about 3% of the calories in a 2,000 calorie diet.
- The USDA recommends substituting plant oils, such as olive or avocado oil, for butter or its high-in-saturated-fat counterparts.
Trans fats are the worst type of fat. They’re linked to an increase in bad LDL cholesterol levels as well as a decrease in good HDL cholesterol levels.Trans fats cause blood platelets to thicken, which also increases risk of heart disease. The Cleveland Clinic suggests that even a small amount of trans fat is a problem. According to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, no more than 1% of your calories should come from trans fats each day. For someone with a 2,000-calorie diet, this means they should only consume 2g of trans fat.
- Accordingly, when shopping for butter, be cautious of hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils on the ingredients label. Many butter alternatives made with plant oils start off as liquids, but manufacturers use hydrogenated oils to solidify them — which produces trans fats.
Polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats (PUFAs and MUFAs) are known as good fats because they help reduce LDL cholesterol.
- Seek out these healthy fats. Mayo Clinic and many other leading medical organizations recommend a dietary plan emphasizing elements of a Mediterranean-style eating pattern in part because it is rich in such monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, which have been shown to improve glucose metabolism and lower cardiovascular disease risk.
How is butter different from butter substitutes?
Margarine and butter spreads
Margarine has recently been replaced on the shelves with butter substitutes called “butter spreads.” (Margarine products have more water than dairy butter and can be less flavorful.) Made from vegetable oils, these butter spreads can be in a liquid or solid form or anything in between. The more solid the product, the more trans fats it likely contains — increasing your risk of heart disease.
Ghee, or clarified butter, is made from heated butter or cream (specifically heated to 212℉ to boil away the water content), resulting in pure butter fat with zero carbohydrates. This gives ghee a nuttier, richer flavor than butter and a higher smoke point: up to 464℉, which is higher than most other animal fats like lard and common plant oils (including coconut oil, corn oil, cottonseed oil, olive oil, peanut oil and sunflower oil). Similar to butter, ghee is mostly comprised of saturated fats but also contains high amounts of short-chain fatty acids (SFCAs) and essential fatty acids such as linolenic and arachidonic acids. Ghee contains the fatty acid, butyrate, which studies suggest promotes digestive health and may reduce inflammation. Ghee happens to be lower in lactose, so it tends to be easier for people to tolerate if they have lactose sensitivities. Ghee degrades over time in storage, which can impact its color, aroma, flavor nutritional contents.
- According to the Cleveland Clinic, the choice between ghee vs. butter simply comes down to preference: typically, the amount consumed is in such small quantities that the nutritional differences are negligible.
How to choose the healthiest butter to eat
Here are some tips on how to navigate the butter section with ease:
- Stick butters are more likely to contain trans fats than softer counterparts in tubs, according to the AHA and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
- “Light” usually signifies a significant decrease in the calories, cholesterol, and saturated and trans fats.
- “Plant-based” or “With oil” signifies that it contains more of the heart-healthy MUFAs and PUFAs (fatty acids).
- “Grass-fed” generally tastes richer and more intensely butter-flavored than conventional butter. Grass-fed products have received significantly higher consumer ratings than grain-fed butter for a variety of characteristics including appearance, flavor and color. Nutritionally, grass-fed butter contains less saturated fats, more PUFAs, and more of the heart-healthy omega-3 and conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) fatty acids than regular butter.
Nutrition Facts Panel
- Calories: Most butters have around 100 calories per tablespoon. Plant oils, such as olive oil, are similar in calorie content but differ in nutrients. To decrease calorie intake, focus on butter products that are made with vegetable oils; usually they are around 20% lower in calories. And, using a spray butter allows you to use less and get more coverage, in addition to getting a more liquid butter at room temperature — decreasing the likelihood or trans and saturated fats.
- Sodium: Aim for products that have 0g of sodium or no more than 3% of the daily recommended value (DRV).
- 0g trans fat is best.
- The smaller the amount of saturated fat the better.
- Lean towards the products with more monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats than saturated fat.
- As a general rule, stick to the products with the simplest ingredients, such as cream and salt.
- Plant sterols and stanols are added compounds that can help lower cholesterol levels.
- Avoid products that list hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils in the ingredients.
- Avoid colorings, additives and gums; these are chemicals added for aesthetic, texture or shelf-life.
The healthiest butter brands
If you’re looking for the healthiest butter brands, these are six healthy butter brands we recommend.
- Smart Balance Original Buttery Spread
- Earth Balance Pressed Avocado Oil Spread
- Carrington Farms Organic Ghee
- I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter Original Spray
- Benecol Buttery Spread (includes plant stanols)
- 4th & Heart Ghee Oil (uses grass-fed dairy)
It is advisable to limit saturated fats as much as possible. So limiting your butter consumption to just a small amount each day is part of a healthy eating pattern. When you do indulge in this tasty food, shop wisely and find the healthiest butter to eat:
- Avoid trans fats, limit saturated fats, and look for healthy PUFAs and MUFAs.
- Look for oil blends and minimal ingredients.
- Find the lowest-calorie, lowest-sodium option.