Plant-based diets are the talk of the town these days. And clever food manufacturers have been quick to jump on the bandwagon. One of the most popular marketing trends is plant-based butter, which, let’s face it, is just margarine. Or, if you want to make it sound healthier, it’s vegan margarine.
While I think most would agree that eating more plants is a good, healthy guideline, what’s the real deal behind vegan margarine? Is it actually a step in the right direction? Is it better than butter? Or, is it just a bunch of marketing hype?
Is Vegan Margarine Better Than Butter?
Plant-based butter isn’t butter—plain and simple. It’s margarine, which is a bucket term that essentially refers to any butter substitute. Unlike butter, which is made with cream (and often, salt), vegan margarine is made with vegetable oils. Sounds good, right? I mean, it’s got vegetables right in the name, and we all know we should be eating more veggies. Plus, we’ve all been told that butter is bad (or…is it?).
For decades, you’ve probably heard (and believed) margarine is a heart-healthy replacement for butter. After all, advice to substitute polyunsaturated fats (like those found in vegetable oils) for animal fats high in saturated fats (like those found in butter) has been a cornerstone of worldwide dietary guidelines for the past half century. 1
The best example, of course, is the long-standing recommendation to substitute margarine for butter. Unfortunately, this is among the most harmful, misguided pieces of dietary advice we’ve ever been force-fed.
Just how heart healthy is margarine? Glad you asked.
In the Sydney Diet Heart Study, a group of researchers from the National Institutes of Health found this advice heavily misguided. They concluded, “substituting dietary linoleic acid in place of saturated fats increased the rates of death from all causes, coronary heart disease, and cardiovascular disease.” 2
In other words, there is no evidence that replacing butter with margarine is good for your heart. In fact, you could build a very compelling case that the opposite is true!
Is Butter Bad Due to Cholesterol?
What about cholesterol? Of course, that’s a bit of a convoluted topic. Nonetheless, it’s a critical question because that’s essentially the entire crux behind avoiding saturated fat like the plague and instead embracing all those “heart-healthy” vegetable oils (like those rampant in margarine).
Get this: The Sydney Diet Heart Study did indeed find that substituting omega-6 polyunsaturated fats (from vegetable oils) for saturated fats (from animal products) did decrease blood cholesterol levels.
However, that decrease in cholesterol resulted in no evidence of cardiovascular benefit. In fact, it led to the opposite effect—an increase in cardiovascular disease and coronary heart disease.
If that surprises you, you’re not alone. These findings, which flipped conventional “wisdom” upside-down, led scientific researchers and medical doctors to re-evaluate the ol’ diet-heart hypothesis. In fact, in a follow-up statistical analysis, researchers revealed a 22% higher risk of death for each 30 mg/dL drop in blood cholesterol levels. 3
That’s a monumental finding because the hallmark of a “cholesterol-lowering diet” is one that replaces saturated fat (from animal products) with the polyunsaturated fat linoleic acid (from products like margarine).
Vegan Margarine and Vegetable Oil
We’ve talked ad nauseum about the ill effects of the oh-so-healthy-sounding vegetable oils found in margarine as well as the cascade of negative outcomes associated with overconsumption of their omega-6 fatty acids (linoleic acid). As a refresher, the following vegetable oils, found abundantly in processed foods like margarine, are best to avoid as they not only provide little to no nutritional value, there’s also ample evidence to believe they can be health-ravaging:
- Safflower oil
- Sunflower oil
- Corn oil
- Cottonseed oil
- Soybean oil
- Canola oil
- “Vegetable oil,” which may be an anonymous reference to any one or more of the above-referenced oils
It’s also important to point out that, up until recently, margarine was also a major source of trans fatty acids. You see, clever manufacturers realized they could chemically alter polyunsaturated fats, which are normally liquid oils, into solid fats through a process called hydrogenation. This process resulted in what many of us know as partially hydrogenated oils.
This process of hydrogenation led to an explosion in popularity for margarine (and shortening) because they were inexpensive and stable. To the end consumer, they gave margarine, shortening, and the baked products they were made with a longer shelf-life, tempting taste, and buttery texture. Cha-ching!
But here’s the deal: Research indicates any intake of trans fatty acids will increase your risk for heart disease and various other negative health outcomes, including obesity and metabolic impairments. In fact, the FDA has determined that partially hydrogenated oils are not safe for human consumption.
While you won’t find these fats in any margarine on store shelves today, keep in mind they were a backbone of this supposed heart-healthy food product for years.
Plant-Based ≠ Healthy
When Michael Pollan provided the sage dietary advice, “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants,” I guarantee you he wasn’t talking about using more margarine (or consuming more industrial vegetable oils in general). While the oils used in dairy-free, buttery spreads (aka, vegan margarine) are plant-based, they’re typically from the list of no-no oils I mentioned above, with canola, soybean, and sunflower oils being the most probable suspects.
Here’s a handful of examples among the most popular “buttery spreads,” “plant butters,” and “vegan butters”…
For a few other important notes…
- The polyunsaturated fatty acids that make up these commonly-used vegetable oils are liquid at room temperature. Since manufacturers can no longer use artificially-created partially hydrogenated oils, they have to come up with other ways to solidify the margarine. Typically, they will add palm and/or palm kernel oils, which contain saturated fats that are solid at room temperature. While I think critics of these oils are misguided from a nutritional perspective, I understand that many folks are extremely sensitive to their use for environmental reasons.
- Additionally, manufacturers will add any number of emulsifiers and stabilizers to enhance shelf-life and sensory characteristics (e.g., taste, texture, mouthfeel, etc.).
- You’ll often see additives—sometimes artificially derived—to give vegan margarine a buttery look (colorings) and taste (flavors).
- Manufacturers are also catching on that people are looking for healthier oils, like olive oil and avocado oil, for example. As such, they’ll add an undisclosed amount to their “vegetable oil blend” so they can tout their product as containing these oils that may actually have some health benefits. But I can all but assure you they’ll be the last ingredients listed in said blend. And since ingredients are listed by weight, there’s a good chance they’ve just been fairy dusted into the recipe for marketing purposes.
There’s a Butter Option
The take-home point here is that vegan margarine—or whatever you prefer to call it—is a heavily-processed product being masqueraded as food. It’s a far cry from the whole, minimally-processed plant-based foods Mr. Pollan had in mind when he said to eat mostly plants. Like we’ve said before, processed junk is still junk—vegan or not.
Having said all that, as the trend toward plant-based eating continues to rise in popularity, there’s a small contingent of companies doing a better job of creating plant-based butter alternatives, replacing cheap, poor-quality vegetable oils with healthier options, and using fewer undesirable additives. But overall, the surge in heavily-marketed plant-based butter is a country crock of something, alright. (Pun intended.)
As Registered Dietitian Mike Roussell says, “I think this is just another example of minutia marketing. Plant based is the new high protein, which was the new gluten free, which was the new fat free. I have trouble with the claim that this is a product with simple, natural ingredients, as it isn’t, and compared to butter, which would be cream and salt—it would definitely lose that comparison.”
If you’re not a committed plant-based eater, I don’t see any reason why switching to one of these so-called plant-based butters would provide much, if any, meaningful health benefit. In fact, one could contend the opposite. If you are a plant-based eater, I’d think twice before giving into the marketing hype. Instead, I’d suggest opting for the least refined versions of added fats and oils you can. And I’d always put the emphasis on extra-virgin olive oil, as it has the most robust body of scientific support.