A friend recently asked me which is a healthier choice: whipped butter or a buttery spread. Having a master’s degree in
nutrition, I get a lot of nutrition questions, but I hadn’t been asked this one before.
Without looking at the labels, I really couldn’t give her a good answer, so I hit the supermarket to compare products. I
found several shelves stocked with butter and the various spreads you can use in its place. I decided to go all out
and basically analyze the whole category. So if you’re wondering how to make sense of so many spreads, here’s help:
Basically, no matter what brand you pick, butter has the following nutritional profile
per tablespoon: 100 calories, 11 grams of fat, 7 grams of saturated fat. (The grades, which range from AA to B, with AA being
the best, have to do with quality—flavor, color, texture, etc.) It’s a steep calorie count for sure, but heart-healthy oils,
such as olive and canola, pack just as many calories (or more); what makes butter “bad” for your heart is its high level of
saturated fat—which, eaten in excess, can boost blood cholesterol levels.
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To produce a fluffier, lighter product (in feel and calories/fat!),
manufacturers whip air into regular butter. Generally, a tablespoon of whipped butter delivers 70 calories, 7 grams of fat, 5
grams of saturated fat. Definitely a calorie savings if you’re trying to shed pounds—and better for your heart than regular
butter, to boot.
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“Spreadable” butters: Typically, these butters add just a little bit of oil (often canola),
which makes them easier to spread. Their nutritional profiles are very similar to that of regular butter.
Margarine and other spreads: You’ll find all sorts of oil-based spreads falling into this
category. “Margarine” is a product that has 80 percent fat, like butter. Many (but not all) other “soft spreads” or “tub”
buttery products have less total fat as well as less saturated fat and/or calories. Often, these products tend to sport long
lists of ingredients. Most of these ingredients (e.g., maltodextrin, mono or diglycerides) are harmless and help to keep the
product stable. One thing you should scan for are the words "hydrogenated" or "partially hydrogenated." If the ingredient
list includes one of these, then the product is not really trans-fat free (The FDA allows foods with less than 0.5 gram to be
rounded down to 0.)
Stanol- or sterol-containing spreads: These spreads have patented formulas so it’s hard to
tell exactly what’s in them beyond a blend of oils plus stanols or sterols, plant-based compounds that have been shown to
help reduce blood cholesterol. (These compounds are similar in structure to cholesterol and so they compete with it for
absorption in the body.) Generally the “regular” versions of these spreads have about 70-80 calories, 8 grams of fat and
about 2.5 grams of saturated fat. “Light” versions have a little less. As with all spreads, remember to scan the ingredient
list for “hydrogenated” or “partially hydrogenated” oils.
So back to my friend’s question—what to buy, whipped butter or a spread? My answer: If you’re comparing it to traditional
butter, whipped butter will definitely save you calories, fat and saturated fat. A spread might or might not and could also
contain trans fats. If a spread is your preference, you definitely need to read labels!
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