By KD Angle-Traegner / Last Update: October 2019
Do vegans use butter? What about margarine?
They’re common in cooking and baking (and on perfectly toasted bread) but is butter and margarine vegan? These questions are more common than you might think. And it’s easy to see why.
The answers aren’t a simple yes or no.
While margarine isn’t dairy-based like butter is, some contain trace amounts of animal products. Others don’t. Ingredients vary widely from brand to brand, too.
Here’s everything you need to know.
Ask a Dietitian: Is Vegan Butter Healthy?
Vegan butter is delicious but is it healthy? To get answers, I turned to Anya Todd MS, RD, LD. She’s a registered dietitian who specializes in vegan nutrition and sustainable food systems.
First, I asked her if we should be eating butter at all. According to Anya, small amounts are okay.
“The amount of saturated fat we should limit ourselves to is a point of debate. That said, I’m never going to say no to a small pat of vegan butter on my baked potato.”
But which is healthier? Vegan butter or dairy butter? Comparatively, vegan versions contain zero cholesterol while dairy ones contain 31 milligrams per one tablespoon serving. (1) But neither will win health awards she says.
“When it comes to vegan butter versus dairy butter, neither one is healthy. Both are a source of unnecessary saturated fats and calories. While there are many views of saturated fat, research shows that it raises LDL cholesterol even when plant-sourced.” (2)
What about long ingredient lists? Vegan versions tend to have more than dairy butter. Does a simple ingredient list mean it’s healthier than one with eight components? Not really, says Todd.
“Look at the ingredient list of the favorite vegan butter brands; they don’t contain a bunch of weird ingredients. These kinds of butter contain a pretty simple mixture of things like vegetable oil, cashews, cultures, and soy lecithin.”
The Vegan Advantage
It’s important to realize that the most significant advantage that vegan butter has over dairy butter isn’t health related at all. When compared, vegan versions of any product will have additional benefits over non-vegan ones by default.
There are ethical and environmental concerns surrounding the production of animal products. Living vegan addresses these concerns. If we can live without harming others, why wouldn’t we? Vegan products allow us to do precisely that.
Is Vegan Butter Healthier Than Dairy Butter?
When comparing vegan butter to dairy butter, both are a source of unnecessary saturated fat and calories. In this way, neither are healthy. Vegan versions remain the better choice, however. This is due to the ethical and environmental issues surrounding dairy butter.
A grove of oil palm trees / Photo: Thinkstock
Palm Oil Comes from Trees
First of all, the Oil palm tree (Elaeis guineensis) is a member of the palm family of trees. They’re native to West and Central Africa but also grown extensively in Indonesia and Malaysia. Oil palms are an excellent source of oil.
“In total, 50 million tons of palm oil is produced annually, supplying over 30% of the world’s vegetable oil production. This single vegetable oil is found in approximately 40 – 50% of household products in countries such as United States, Canada, Australia, and England.” (3)
Oil palm fruit / Photo: Thinkstock
How Is It Used?
Palm oil comes from the fruit. It’s used to make soap, shampoo, cosmetics, toothpaste, candles, household cleaners, and laundry detergent.
In contrast, palm kernel oil comes from the seeds. Foods like margarine, ice cream, cookies, and bread can contain this oil. Some pharmaceuticals even include it.
Eventually, the left-over solid material after processing is pressed into a cake and fed to cattle. (4)
An overhead view of a large oil palm farm / Photo: Thinkstock
It’s Production Affects Animals
Cheaper than other vegetable oils, another use for palm oil is as a biofuel. As a result, it is more popular than ever. Demand has caused a free-for-all style approach to clearing forests to plant oil palms.
Not shockingly, this is bad for animals.
“According to the World Wildlife Fund, an area the equivalent size of 300 football fields of rainforest is cleared each hour to make way for palm oil production. This large-scale deforestation is pushing many species to extinction, and findings show that if nothing changes species like the orangutan could become extinct in the wild within the next 5-10 years, and Sumatran tigers less than 3 years.” (3)
A bulldozer harvesting oil palm fruits / Photo: Thinkstock
The Many Other Names
Finding out if a product contains palm oil is more difficult than you might imagine. Surprisingly there are many different names for it. Not to mention, it’s in a variety of products. Look at just some of it’s many names:
- Vegetable Oil – #
- Vegetable Fat – #
- Palm Kernel – #
- Palm Oil Kernel – #
- Palm Fruit Oil – #
- Palmate – #
- Palmitate – #
- Cetyl Palmitate – #
- Octyl Palmitate – #
- Palmolein – #
- Palm Stearine – #
- Palmitoyl Oxostearamide – #
- Palmitoyl Tetrapeptide-3 – #
- Palmityl Alcohol – #
- Glyceryl Stearate – #
- Elaeis Guineensis – #
- Hydrated Palm Glycerides – #
- Stearic Acid – #
- Steareth -2 – *
- Sodium Laureth Sulfate – ^
- Sodium Lauryl Sulfate – ^
- Sodium Lauryl Sulfoacetate – ^
- Sodium Lauryl Lactylate/Sulphate – *
- Sodium Dodecyl Sulphate – ^
- Sodium Isostearoyl Lactylaye – ^
- Sodium Kernelate – #
- Sodium Palm Kernelate – #
- Cetyl Alcohol – ^
What Does Palm Oil Have To Do With Vegan Butter?
Notably, several brands of vegan butter contain this oil. Earth Balance created an information page saying their products are responsibly sourced and sustainably produced. Nutiva also addresses the issue in the lengthy article, Organic Red Palm Oil. Melt Organic uses Rainforest Alliance Certified oil.
Unfortunately, not all brands talk about the use of it in their products.
There are conflicting opinions on this subject, too. Technically, palm oil is a vegan product. As shown, it has overlapping ethical, environmental, and humanitarian issues surrounding its production.
Deciding to consume it is a topic that vegans should be discussing. Ultimately any time an animal loses their life or home to a human, it becomes a vegan issue.
Visit the website Say No to Palm Oil for an in-depth look at these issues and more.
Is Palm Oil Vegan?
Palm oil is a common ingredient in vegan butter. While it’s technically a vegan product, there are ethical, environmental, and humanitarian issues surrounding its production. Some brands have taken steps to use responsibly-sourced oil, but not all.
United States Vegan Butter Brands
- Earth Balance
Original, Soy-Free, Organic Whipped, Olive Oil, Organic Coconut Spread
- Ellyndale Organics
Coconut Infusions Non-Dairy Butter
- I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter
It’s Vegan Spread
- Melt Organic
Original, Probiotic, and Buttery Sticks
- Miyoko’s Creamery *
European Style Cultured Vegan Butter
- Nutiva *
Organic Buttery Coconut Oil
- Smart Balance
Light with Flaxseed, Omega-3, Light Omega-3, EVOO, Light with EVOO, Organic
- Wayfare *
Salted Whipped Butter, Garlic Whipped Butter, Sweet Cinnamony Whipped Butter
UK Vegan Butter Brands
You’ll find dairy-free butter at well-stocked grocery stores and larger stores like Tesco. Brands that have at least one palm oil-free product have a ” * ” symbol next to their name.
- Biona Organics
Organic Cocomega Coconut Spread, Olive Extra Spread, Vegetable Margarine
- Flora Freedom
Flora Original, Flora Light, Flora Buttery
Soya Spread, Sunflower Spread
Tomor Vegetarian Margarine
- Suma Spreads
Olive Spread, Soya Spread, Soya Spread Organic, Sunflower Spread, Organic Sunflower Spread
Worldwide Vegan Butter Brands
The brands that have at least one palm oil-free product has a ” * ” symbol next to their name.
- Alfa One*
Rice Bran Oil Spread, Coconut Spread
Original, Olive, Lite
Olivani Olive Oil Spread
Reading Food Labels:
What Kind of Butter is Dairy-Free?
Common names for vegan butter products are “butter substitutes” or “non-dairy buttery spreads.” Dairy butter can contain animal ingredients like whey, casein, and caseinate. Another hidden animal ingredient is vitamin D3 which comes from lanolin (washed lamb’s wool). Instead, look for vitamin D2 made from plant sources.
Easy Vegan Butter / Photo: A Virtual Vegan
Homemade Vegan Butter Recipes
- Cultured European Style Butter
- Coconut Butter
- Soy-Free Banana Butter
- Artisan Vegan Butter
- The Ultimate Vegan Butter
Bryanna Clark Grogan
- Sweet & Simple Vegan Butter
Waking Up Vegan
- Easy Vegan Butter
A Virtual Vegan
- Vegan Butter Substitute
Fork and Beans
- Vegan Aquafaba Butter
Truth in Advertising
I am committed to providing accurate information to the vegan community. Meticulously researched, the topic explored in this guide contains the knowledge available at the time of publishing. Reviews and updates happen when new material becomes available.
Please contact me if you find incorrect data.
- American Heart Association. (2017, June 5). Dietary Fats and Cardiovascular Disease: A Presidential Advisory From the American Heart Association. Retrieved from http://circ.ahajournals.org/content/early/2017/06/15/CIR.0000000000000510
- USDA Food Composition Database. Butter, without salt. Retrieved from https://ndb.nal.usda.gov/ndb/search/list?qlookup=01145
- Say No to Palm Oil. (2018). What’s the Issue? Retrieved from http://www.saynotopalmoil.com/Whats_the_issue.php
- Encyclopedia Britannica. (2016, January 11). Oil palm. Retrieved from https://www.britannica.com/plant/oil-palm
General nutrition information provided by Anya Todd MS, RD, LD
Article Photo Credits
Article Images: KD Angle-Traegner
Oil Palm, South Sulawesi Palm Oil Plantation and harvest: Thinkstock
Recipe photos via recipe author. Used with permission.