Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Battle of the "Butters"

With the holidays fast approaching, I've been getting super excited about the prospect of baking tons of delicious cookies and cakes.

If ever there was a time to splurge in the health department, the holidays would be it.

Inspired by my friend Sherry's refusal to use butter substitutes in her baking and my geeky desire to learn the healthiest way to go about "butter" usage, I began to ponder:

Is genuine cow's milk butter really that bad for you?

I give you:

Battle of the "Butters"

In the Ring:

REAL butter

Non-dairy buttery spread Earth Balance


We'll look at each one individually, starting with...


Sure, Fabio swept us away with those memorable "I Can't Believe it's Not Butter" commercials but long gone are the days of Fabio's fame and the MYTH that those margarine tubs actually hold the key to heart health.


Simple: the presence of hydrogenated oils, aka trans fats.

"What exactly is a trans fat," you ask?

All chemistry talk of artificially adding hydrogen bonds to a fat aside (read the details here if you're interested), trans fats prolong shelf life and act as a cheap and easy solidifier to some of our favorite junk foods. Incidentally, they're a gold mine to big food companies.

In addition to finding trans fat in fast food, twinkies, oreos and other gas station fare, it's also a large component of many big name margarines you find on conventional grocery store shelves.

On the website margarine.org, I found an interesting FAQ: "Is it better to eat butter than margarine because of the trans fat?" The answer says NO, lamely arguing that "the total trans and saturated fat content is always less in margarine than butter."

Umm, nice way to sleazily tiptoe around the issue, guys.

In truth, it's widely known and believed throughout the scientific community that trans fats- no matter how much or how little- are the one of the worst things you can do for your heart. Excess saturated fat is certainly not ideal (more on that in a sec), but those naturally occurring animal fats don't hold a candle to the trans fat that are quite literally poisoning consumers around the world.

Another important thing to remember when checking nutrition labels is that, by law, food companies are not required to list trans fat content on the nutrition label if there is a presence of >.5 grams per serving... even if the company deems a single serving to be a measly teaspoon.

Pret-ty freaky law, if you ask me.

All this goes to show how important it is to check your nutrition labels before buying. If a product label claims "0 g trans fat," double check the ingredient list for anything that contains the word "hydrogenated." That means bad news bears.

I did a little covert grocery store operation of my own (since I'm not about to purchase a tub) and ended up being [sort of] pleasantly surprised. Two of the most recognizable names in margarine DO NOT have hydrogenated oils listed under their ingredients... there is also no mention of trans fat on the label... Still sounds fishy to me but that's for a later post I suppose.

I found one generic brand that lists "partially hydrogenated oil" in the ingredients, but still deems their product "trans fat free."

Another bigger brand name also lists hydrogenated oil but (thank God for their decency) has apprpriately listed trans fat content on the label.

Moral of the story: stay away from margarine and instead find a healthier, less processed alternative.

With that, we'll turn our focus to the non-dairy spread adored by devout vegans and new age hippies alike... Earth Balance.

A staple in my personal kitchen, this earth-friendly butter-like substance comes in many forms, ranging from tub to stick and soy free to whipped.

While I had to drive to a grocery store to find a nutrition label for margarine, Earth Balance's user-friendly website allows you to easily access all their products' nutrition facts and ingredient lists.

(I still took a photo for easy reference sake)

What sets these spreads apart from margarine is their "patented vegetable oil blend"- again, a very technical process that can be read about on their website if you'd like to know more.

Some important stuff to know about Earth Balance?

  • it contains 0 trans fat- and this is for real... no hydrogenated oils will be found ANYWHERE in their products
  • there are no GMO's (genetically modified organisms) used to increase shelf life
  • it's a great source of Omega 3 fatty acids, which are known to protect against heart attack, stroke, cancer and arthritis

The downside of this tasty delight is the fact that it seems pretty processed- compared to butter... I'm yet to find one Earth Balance nay sayer in the health community at large, but it's something to keep in mind.

Which brings us to the real, simple and original:


The French love it, most of us grew up with it. So what's the big deal? Why the modern day need for substitutes?

The most obvious reason is it's high natural fat content. The fear of real butter arose out of the late 20th century "no fat diet" craze. Lucky for us, we now know that fat in our diets is essential to survivin' and thrivin'.

"Sure, Maddie, minimal doses of healthy fats (unsaturated) are good for us but look at all that saturated fat found in 1 tablespoon of butter..."

Believe it or not, saturated fats in low doses are actually good for us- as long as you don't go overboard and make sure to incorporate them into a balanced diet high in healthy fats, omega 3's and antioxidants.

While perusing butter's official website (I was bummed it wasn't www.butter.com), I found
a question regarding the link between butter and heightened heart disease risks answered with a diplomatic "Yes, but..." answer which rightly points out that the USDA recommends a daily intake of 65 grams of fat, with 20 of those grams coming from saturated fats.

Like the experts say, budget your saturated fat intake wisely. If you see a heavily buttered dish in your future for dinner, leave the sharp cheddar off your sandwich at lunch.

It's great to realize that you can enjoy the little pleasures in life without all the worry- as long as you're smart about your intake and eat it all in moderation.

I'll leave you with this breakdown to make your own decision:
  • Margarine and any hydrogenated oil-containing products are a NO NO. Once you look at the facts about trans fats, this is a no brainer question.
  • Earth Balance seems to be an excellent butter substitute if you're vegan, lactose intolerant or just looking for something that is slightly lower in saturated fat without all the crazy additives.
  • Butter is okay in small doses. Don't be so scared of it, guys. It tastes great and, if you look at the above food label, all it contains are 2 ingredients: pasteurized sweet cream and lactic acid. Like I've said before: the shorter the ingredient list, the better it treats your system.
I hope this has given you something to think about whilst planning out your holiday grocery lists in the coming weeks. I know I plan on using real butter in a couple of classics you'll no doubt see recapped here on the blog.

'Cause like the song says: "Ain't nothin like the real thing, baby."

I better get to steppin'

See you tomorrow with a Thanksgiving Eve farmers' market recap :)


  1. I love how the FDA allows companies to list 0 trans fats for anything that contains less than .5 g of trans fats per serving.... with a little trickery (changing the serving size on the label such that .5 or less of trans fat are per serving) they place big fat 00000000000's !!!! so wrong.

  2. Yes I cannot believe that your product in just three weeks has gone up from $4.39 - $7.96 at our local Safeway chain, and to $6.37 at Our WINCO chain here in Oregon can anyone explain the dramatic shift in price because I am a disabled vet on a fixed income and have used your product for years due to my diabetes, but you have lost a loyal advocate of your product just due to this obscene jump in price and I have had to switch brands also.
    sincerely unsatysfied