10 Healthiest Butter Substitute Brands, According to Nutritionists
Mean Girls may have taught us to question whether butter is a carb, but some of these seemingly healthy butter substitute brands (think: I Can't Believe It's Not Butter) have us skeptical about whether they're actually better than butter.
If you're reading this, you've probably decided to cut some extra calories from your diet by opting for a low-fat butter. But you might be in for a surprise: finding a healthy butter that's better for you than traditional dairy butter is the kind of thing that's easier said than done.
Why? For starters, it's a pretty big market. There are low-fat butters made from olive or canola oil. There are butter sprays and mists that promise to reduce your serving size without reducing flavor. Then there are margarine brands, plant butter, and low-calorie butter made with ingredients like buttermilk and yogurt.
But are any of these actually good for you… and, more importantly, are they worth buying? We asked the nation's top nutritionists for their takes and what their recommendations are for the best butter substitute.
Why would you want to buy a healthy butter substitute over regular butter?
Diet butter may be a good choice if you're trying to cut back on saturated fats, trans fats, or partially hydrogenated oils, according to Amy Gorin, MS, RDN, a plant-forward registered dietitian nutritionist in the New York City area. Most plant-based butters have removed or greatly reduced these ingredients in their products, resulting in a low-calorie, low-fat option.
"Substitute butters can also work better for certain dietary plans since they can be dairy-free and even vegan, which work for those with allergies and those looking to cut out all animal products," says New Jersey-based dietitian Erin Palinski-Wade, RD, CDE, author of Belly Fat Diet For Dummies.
What are the benefits of switching to a butter substitute?
"Transitioning to a more plant-based diet and opting for a 'butter' spread made from unsaturated, plant-based fats can be a great way to help improve cholesterol levels, promote heart health, and reduce inflammation," says Palinski-Wade.
And before you turn up your nose at butter substitutes because of their bad rap, consider this: your classic trans-fat-laden margarine brands are a thing of the past. Now, healthy butter substitutes eschew partially hydrogenated oils for healthy fats. That's a really good thing because a 2015 review of studies published in the British Medical Journal found that trans fats were associated with an increase in coronary heart disease (CHD) and in the number of deaths caused by CHD.
How to shop for a healthy butter substitute.
Despite how complicated it seems, there are plenty of smart alternative butter options on grocery store shelves if you know what to look for. That's good news for all the people following specialized diets or trying to meet weight loss goals.
Nutritionist shared their three guidelines for selecting the healthiest butter substitute (that won't turn out to be worse for you than actual butter):
- Avoid trans fats. "Diet butters containing trans fats can be more detrimental to health [than traditional butters]. That's because just one to two grams of trans fats per day can have a negative impact on blood lipids," says Palinski-Wade, who adds that one to two grams is much more than what you would get normally from the saturated fat found in a standard butter spread.
- Compare with dairy butter. Gorin says when she chooses a diet spread or spray, she makes sure a one tablespoon-sized serving contains less fat and calories than traditional dairy butter (otherwise, there's not a lot of benefit to opting for an alternative). Aim for less than 100 calories and seven grams of saturated fat per serving, she recommends.
- Look for minimal ingredients. "I like for a plant butter to have an ingredient list made up mostly of whole-food ingredients—so no artificial preservatives or additives," says Gorin. "For example, I Can't Believe It's Not Butter! uses vinegar as a natural preservative."
The best butter substitute brands to buy.
Ready to take the plunge into butter substitutes? Here are 10 of the healthiest butter substitutes nutritionists recommend.
Palinski-Wade says this is a smart choice because it only has three ingredients and is rich in monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, which can have a favorable impact on blood lipids. It's also perfect if you're following a vegan, dairy-free, or gluten-free diet.
Nutiva makes this spread with pureed coconut and nothing else. That's right, it has just the one ingredient!
"This plant-based spread is sodium- and cholesterol-free, which makes it a great replacement for butter and cream cheese," says Palinski-Wade.
What exactly is ghee, anyway? Basically, it's butter run through a clarification process to eliminate all the water (to create a higher smoke point while cooking). The process also eliminates many of the proteins found in dairy, like casein. Palinski-Wade says this makes ghee an alternative butter spread that's easier for people with a lactose sensitivity to tolerate. It's also especially good for your GI tract.
"Ghee contains a fatty acid known as butyrate acid, which may help to reduce inflammation and support digestive health," she says.
This brand is probably most synonymous with substitute butters, and Gorin says it's a perfect plant-based spread for many reasons. For one, it's American Heart Association Heart-Check certified. It also has 70 percent less saturated fat and 40 percent fewer calories than dairy butter.
It may even be better for the environment than dairy butter: "All of the palm oil it contains is sustainable," says Gorin, "and its production creates 70 percent less carbon emissions than dairy butter."
Many of the Olivio alternative spreads are suitable replacements for dairy butter, but the Ultimate Spread really shines: the olive oil-based spread is vegan and non-GMO, plus contains no preservatives and a boost of ALA omega-3s, a type of fatty acid found in plants that may contribute to heart health.
Palinski-Wade suggests using this plant-based spread made from olive oil as a substitute for butter spreads and any butter you need in cooking or baking; it has less saturated fat than butter and only five milligrams of sodium per serving. And according to Country Crock, production of their plant butter produces less than half the greenhouse gas emissions of dairy butter production.
Unlike some other vegan butter substitutes, you can use this brand for baking and cooking. Plus, it's also free of palm oil and is soy, lactose, and gluten-free, says Palinski-Wade, making it a versatile choice for many shoppers.
You might raise your eyebrows at the inclusion of pureed lima beans in this vegan, gluten-free, soy-free, plant-based butter, but Palinski-Wade says the legumes lend a creamy consistency to this spread while keeping overall fat and calories low. This plant-based butter alternative incorporates blended lima beans for a creamy consistency with fewer overall calories and fat.
Looking for a healthy butter substitute that really boosts your nutrition profile? Lainey Younkin, MS, RD, dietitian at Lainey Younkin Nutrition, recommends Benecol, which includes plant stanols—a compound she says are proven to reduce total and LDL cholesterol, but are difficult to come by in a normal diet.
"While plant stanols occur naturally in foods, you'd have to eat 12 pounds of broccoli, 29 pounds of carrots, or 60 pounds of tomatoes every day to get the recommended two grams per day for cholesterol reduction," Younkin says.
Or you could eat Benecol, since four tablespoons contain the recommended two grams of plant stanols. Use it just like you would regular butter, Younkin adds, because it's a one-to-one swap.
Full disclosure: Younkin consults for Benecol.
This spread is dairy-, gluten-, partially hydrogenated oils-, and trans-fats-free. But don't think you're buying an empty tub. Smart Balance lands a final spot as a healthy butter substitute because the brand loaded their spread with heart-healthy oils, omega-3s, and vitamins, so it tastes yummy and is good for you, too.
The diet butters you should skip
If you're in the market for a diet butter, you've got 10 great options to choose from. But not all diet butter brands are worth the investment. Avoid these three the next time you're at the supermarket.
Don't fall for the myth here that anything labeled "light" must be healthy for you. This spread misses the mark on several of the nutritionists' guidelines, particularly when it comes to its ingredient list: it contains soybean oil, a ton of preservatives, and artificial flavors. You're better off with full fat butter, honestly.
Butter you can spray onto your favorite foods sounds like a good idea for portion control, but Palinski-Wade says that's actually the biggest problem with spray butter.
"Although I like the idea of misting food for a buttery flavor rather than slathering it on, I have witnessed many clients use more than the recommended serving size, leading to them take in many more calories and fat than they realize," she says.
Some aspects of this spread (which is made with yogurt instead of creamed butter) are good. Consider the fact that it cuts the fat and calories by half compared with regular butter. However, there are a lot of ingredients in this spread, like soybean and palm oil, plus preservatives, so it's not exactly minimalist.