The Healthiest Butter Options and Substitutes, According to a Dietitian

Few foods generate as much debate as butter and its health benefits.

Since the 1960s, the American Heart Association has recommended limiting the intake of foods high in saturated fat, such as butter. Fast forward to 2024, and we know a lot more about butter, saturated fat, and heart disease.

So, should you eat butter? And if you don’t want to give it up, what’s the healthiest butter out there? Here’s what the best available research says.

Is butter bad for you?

Butter from cow’s milk contains 7 grams of saturated fat, which is a significant amount. The American Heart Association recommends limiting saturated fat to no more than 6% of your calories, which equates to 13 grams of saturated fat if you’re on a 2,000-calorie diet.

These recommendations are based on the idea that saturated fats are linked to elevated cholesterol levels and a greater risk of heart disease.

But more recently, scientists are questioning whether saturated fat is as harmful as once thought, and whether the saturated fat in butter has the same effect on your cholesterol and heart disease risk as the saturated fats in other foods, such as red meat, chocolate, yogurt, cheese, and more. Newer research suggests that saturated fat by itself may not increase your risk of heart disease or dying from heart disease. So, it’s a complicated topic!

Still, the news for butter remains somewhat bleak. When a 2018 study compared the effects of olive oil, butter, and coconut oil (also high in saturated fat) on cholesterol levels and other markers of heart disease in healthy adults, the results showed that butter significantly increased LDL “bad” cholesterol levels compared to coconut oil and olive oil.

You could argue that butter is more neutral from a health perspective than once thought, but it doesn’t carry the same disease-reducing risk as polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats.

Furthermore, we don’t eat foods or nutrients in isolation. There’s no such thing as a plate of saturated fat or butter without a carrier — maybe toast or a potato or baked goods. So, if you eat less butter (or another saturated fat), what are you eating more of, and how does that affect your health? Fortunately, science offers some clues.

A 2015 study that followed more than 120,000 adults for 24 to 30 years found that people who replaced 5 percent of their calories from saturated fats with whole grains or unsaturated fats had a lower risk of heart disease.

So, is butter bad for you? It depends on what you eat instead. We can definitely say that nuts, seeds, avocados, extra virgin olive oil, and fish fats are healthier than butter.

Which butter is the healthiest?

Sometimes it makes sense to cook with butter, or maybe you prefer to spread butter on your toast rather than dousing it in extra virgin olive oil. For those times when butter alone will do, here are two of the healthiest options.

Grass-fed butter

This type of butter comes from cows that graze on grass, which results in higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids and conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), according to research. This fat profile is healthier for your heart than traditional butter, so I would call it the healthiest butter.

Grass-fed butter is also creamier and softer, making it easy to spread on toast.

Organic butter

If you’re concerned about potential pesticide and hormone exposure, organic butter may be a better option. Additionally, a 2017 study in the Netherlands found that organic butter, like grass-fed butter, also contained higher levels of omega-3 fats and CLA than conventional butter.

Tips for Buying the Healthiest Butter

You’ll typically have a choice between conventional butter, grass-fed butter, and organic butter, and each comes in salted and unsalted versions. Look for butter with minimal ingredients — mainly cream and possibly salt. Avoid butter with added preservatives or artificial ingredients.

Most cooks prefer salted butter for general cooking purposes and unsalted butter for baking.

Whipped butter contains air, which can make it more spreadable. It also means it has 45% less fat per serving than regular butter.

Spreadable butter is sometimes mixed with a seed oil, such as canola oil. This can reduce the saturated fat content from 7 grams to 4 grams per tablespoon, which can be helpful if you’re trying to control your saturated fat intake.

If you’re looking for a dairy-free butter alternative, choose a vegan butter. You can find options made with different types of oils, such as coconut, sunflower, and olive oil. You may also see versions made with cashew milk. When choosing a vegan butter, try to choose one with ingredients you’d find at home or in a restaurant, and limit ones with a long list of emulsifiers and other ingredients.

Are margarine and ghee healthier than butter?

Margarine was originally developed as a healthier alternative to butter, with less saturated fat. However, margarines are higher in trans fats, which are even more harmful to heart health than the saturated fats in butter. Trans fats have been banned in the United States since 2015, and manufacturers have been banned from using the partially hydrogenated oils that create trans fats since 2018. As a result, you won’t find this type of margarine in your grocery store.

Ghee, a form of clarified butter that is an integral part of Indian cooking, removes milk solids, leaving pure butterfat. As a result, ghee has a different fat composition than butter. It contains short-chain triglycerides, CLAs, and omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. While research on ghee itself is limited, studies of these compounds suggest that they may have some health benefits, such as promoting brain and immune health.

Are spreads like Country Crock better for you than butter?

Buttery spreads are usually made from a blend of vegetable oils and some may contain dairy ingredients. Although they are lower in saturated fat than butter, these spreads are classified as ultra-processed foods. They may contain emulsifiers, preservatives, and artificial flavors. Given the many risks associated with highly processed foods, I think it’s best to limit your use or choose versions with the fewest additives.

The healthiest substitutes for butter

All foods fit into a healthy, balanced, plant-based diet, but the healthiest diets limit butter and instead promote healthier sources of fat for use in cooking, baking, and spreading on toast. Here are some of my favorite options.

Olive oil

Olive oil is rich in monounsaturated fats and polyphenol antioxidants. It is the primary fat source in the Mediterranean diet and is associated with numerous health benefits. You can use it in cooking, baking and dipping bread.

Mashed avocado

Mash some avocado and use it as a spread on bread or as a fat substitute in baking. It is rich in monounsaturated fats and fiber, and contains several other vitamins and minerals. Avocados may also increase hormones that suppress hunger, research shows.

Nut and seed butter

Add flavor, fiber, protein, and beneficial nutrients to your toast with nut and seed butters, like healthy peanut butter. I also love drizzling them on pancakes and waffles in place of traditional butter. Additionally, they can be used to replace fat in baked goods, although they do add a nutty flavor that appeals to some palates. One benefit of using nut and seed butter as a butter substitute in baked goods is that it allows you to reduce the added sugar in the recipe.

Greek yogurt or Icelandic skyr

Greek yogurt, or skyr, a dairy product from Iceland, can replace butter in baking recipes and provide protein and gut-friendly probiotics. You can also spread it on toast in place of butter. I like to use Siggi’s Icelandic skyr as a toast topping because it’s strained to make a thicker, creamier yogurt, so it works really well as a spread. You can use any flavor you like, as they all have less added sugar than most flavored yogurts.

Can you eat butter?

Butter may not be as unhealthy as we once thought, but that doesn’t make it a health food. You’re better off replacing butter with a healthier alternative, but if your overall diet is based primarily on whole, plant-based foods and you’re in good health, it’s okay to indulge in a little butter every now and then.

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