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 simple yes or no.
Ingredients vary widely from brand to brand, too. While margarine isn't dairy-based like butter is, some contain trace amounts of animal products. Others don't.
Luckily, getting a dairy-free version of that creamy taste you love has never been easier. This guide will introduce you to all the plant options and give you everything you need to know.
First, I'll talk to a dietitian about butter nutrition. Then we'll talk briefly about palm oil and why it matters. Next, we'll go shopping. I'll tell you the brands to look for at the store. Finally, we'll head into the kitchen with plenty of vegan recipes to inspire you.
Are there health benefits to vegan butter? Is it healthier than the dairy version? Does it belong in a healthy vegan diet? I talked to an expert in vegan nutrition for answers.
Quick section summary:
Is vegan butter healthier than dairy-based 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 reason is due to the ethical and environmental issues surrounding dairy butter.
Nutrition advice from an expert
Plant-based butter is delicious, but is it healthy? How does it compare to its dairy-based counterpart?
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 Todd, 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.”
Is plant-based butter healthy?
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)
Neither will win health awards, she says.
“When it comes to vegan versus dairy, neither butter 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 plant-based 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 vegan butter's most significant advantage 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. When we live vegan, we address these concerns.
If we can live without harming animals, why wouldn’t we?
Vegan products like plant butters allows us to do exactly that.
You might be asking yourself what palm oil has to do with vegan butter. Good question. First, let’s talk about what it is. Then, I’ll explain why you should care.
Quick section summary:
Is palm oil vegan?
Palm oil is a common ingredient in vegan butter. While it’s technically a vegan product, ethical, environmental, and humanitarian issues surround its production. Some brands have taken steps to use responsibly-sourced oil, but not all.
First, 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)
Palm oil comes from the fruit. It makes 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 is pressed into a cake and fed to cattle after processing. (4)
An overhead view of a large oil palm farm / Source
Its 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 approach to clear 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)
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. 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.
Sustainable palm oil
Why sustainable palm oil? Because it helps animals.
The fact is, the demand for palm oil has never been higher. Because of this demand, we'll see it in more vegan products. Creating a demand for sustainable palm oil effectively conveys to brands that we won't contribute to deforestation and biodiversity loss with unsustainable palm oil.
Saving the orangutans and their forests means addressing the catastrophic impacts of conventional palm oil production. We can start by making sustainable palm oil the norm.
Here’s what you need to know before you head to the store.
Quick section summary:
What kind of butter is vegan?
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. Common names for plant-based butter products are “butter substitutes” or “non-dairy buttery spreads.”
Find vegan butter in stores
Let's talk butter basics. You probably know butter is a dairy product made with milk from animals like cows, goats, or sheep. But what about margarine? Is it a suitable butter replacement for vegans?
Well, yes and no.
Margarine is merely a blend of vegetable oils. Some brands add whey or lactose to it, both animal-based ingredients. Not all brands do, though. As a result, some margarine is vegan-friendly.
A grove of oil palm tree / Thinkstock Oil palm fruit / Thinkstock An overhead view of a large oil palm farm / Thinkstock A bulldozer harvesting oil palm fruits / Thinkstock Recipe photos via recipe creators and used with permission.