Let’s jump in a time machine and head back to the 1990s: Margarine is back, baby.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” you scoff. “No one is eating margarine.”
But plant-based butter is all the rage. Of course, it’s not butter butter. Can you guess what ill-fated food category plant-based butter does fall under? It’s margarine.
That’s not my opinion: That’s what the law states, per both the Butter Act and the Code of Federal Regulations. The CFR is the bible for any food industry professional who wishes to stay out of legal trouble. It outlines the legal definition of foods, what ingredients must be included, and how the food should be processed.
Not all foods are included here; it’s mostly those that are likely to be mimicked by cheaper versions. Think chocolate, milk, and, of course, butter.
What is butter?
Butter has long been regulated by the Butter Act, which has remained largely unchanged since 1886. It was the rise of margarine that initially forced the government to legally define butter.
Decades of battle between the two industries, as well as some truly bizarre legislation, followed. At one point, many states required margarine to be dyed an off-putting pink color, so that consumers would have no trouble identifying butter versus margarine.
The margarine industry itself was partly responsible for this punishment because it often dishonestly marketed its products as butter.
Does this sound eerily familiar to the debate today? The only difference may be that the fight is now between butter and plant butter. Or is it?
Under United States law, butter is required to be made exclusively from milk, cream, or both, and must have a minimum of 80 percent milkfat.
OK. So what is margarine?
According to the CFR, margarine (or oleomargarine) is the term for a mixture of edible fats and oils from plants, animals, or marine species. Just like butter, the fat content must be 80 percent or higher.
The greater flexibility in sourcing fats and oils makes it easy for margarine to undercut the price of butter. But notice that margarine isn’t necessarily vegetarian and vegan-friendly — for many years, it was common practice for a small amount of butter to be added to margarine to achieve the desired color or flavor.
Amid the rising interest in plant-based foods, the formula for margarine was slightly tweaked to remove all animal ingredients, and plant butter was born. Except it’s not butter. It’s margarine.
Now, more than a third of Americans are trying to incorporate more plant-based foods into their diets, according to a 2017 Nielsen survey. Amid the rising interest in plant-based foods, the formula for margarine was slightly tweaked to remove all animal ingredients, and plant butter was born. Except, again, it’s not butter. It’s margarine.
This makes plant-based butter a mislabeled food, a big no-no in the industry. It’s not following the legal definitions set by the CFR and the various laws that help regulate our food supply.
If it’s illegal, why hasn’t the government stepped in?
I’m sure Big Dairy is asking the same question.
The Food and Drug Administration should be the regulating body to intervene, but so far, there’s only been crickets. It’s likely that recent budget cuts and chronic underfunding mean the FDA doesn’t have the manpower to attack a problem that isn’t actively harming American citizens. Margarine being mislabeled as butter is, for good reason, low on the list of priorities.
Although plant butter products are mislabeled, they do add some variety at the grocery store, greatly increasing the options for vegans and vegetarians.
But are they more nutritious than traditional butter?
Neither butter nor margarine is really “good” for you. After all, both of the foods are at least 80 percent fat.
In one serving of butter (a tablespoon), there are about 11 grams of total fat and 7 grams of saturated fat. Those numbers correspond to roughly 17 percent of your daily total fat intake and 35 percent of your daily value for saturated fats. Saturated fats are the “bad fats” — they’re responsible for forming clots in arteries and associated with the development of coronary heart disease.
Both butter and margarine are high in saturated fat, because this type of fat makes the product solid at room temperature. Without saturated fat, the product would be more of a liquid oil.
Micronutrient-wise, butter provides you with a small amount of both vitamins A and D.
So how do plant-based butters stack up?
Just because a product is labeled “vegan,” that doesn’t mean it’s healthy. Miyoko’s Cultured Vegan Butter is a great example of this. Made from a blend of coconut and sunflower oil, there’s a total of 10 grams of fat and 8 grams of saturated fat (more than butter!).
The “bad” fat is mostly from coconut oil, which is about 90 percent saturated fat. Although coconut oil tends to carry a healthy connotation, the science behind this is somewhat murky.
To add to this, there are also some key deficiencies in the micronutrients vegan butter provides. This product lacks vitamins A and D, both of which are present in butter.
Not only is this vegan butter nutritionally inferior to traditional butter, but it’s also more than double the price, at $6.49 for 8 ounces. A pound (16 ounces) of butter will usually set you back less than $4.
Country Crock’s Plant Butter with Avocado Oil replaces milkfat with a blend of palm kernel, canola, palm, and avocado oil. Avocado oil falls last on the ingredient list, meaning it’s included in the smallest amount, probably because it’s the most expensive.
Although these are all plant-based oils, that doesn’t mean they’re healthy. One serving of Country Crock’s plant butter contains 11 grams of total fat and 5 grams of saturated fat. This is less saturated fat than butter, but still 25 percent of your daily value.
The biggest benefit is the 1 gram of polyunsaturated fat and 4.5 grams of monounsaturated fat. These are the “good” fats from the canola and avocado oil, putting it a step above Miyoko’s vegan butter nutritionally. The micronutrient profile differs slightly from butter, but does include both vitamins A and E.
With its unique fat profile that includes monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, a decent dose of vitamins A and E, Country Crock’s Plant Butter with Avocado Oil seems to rise above the other options in the butter aisle.
But remember: Just because a food is marketed as “plant-based” or “vegan” doesn’t mean it should be crowned with a health halo. Many of these margarines are nearly equivalent to butter’s nutritional profile, if not worse for you, and could come with a higher price tag.
Don’t be fooled by the updated commercials and fresh marketing campaigns: Plant butters are the same thing your mom was slathering on your toast 25 years ago.