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Are Plant-Based Spreads Better Than Butter?

Ask a nutritionist if you should be eating a plant-based diet, and the answer is likely to be yes. Consuming more vegetables, more fruits, more nuts, seeds, legumes and whole grains–it’s all good for you. For some people, this just means cutting back on meat and adding an extra veggie to the plate. Others may embrace a wholly vegan approach to eating, with no animal-derived products whatsoever. That includes dairy products and eggs. As a result of the popularity of vegan eating, there are now non-dairy cheese and butter substitutes on grocery shelves. Are the plant-based spreads better than butter?

Nutritional Qualities of Plant-Based Butter-Like Spreads:

Q. What are the benefits and shortcomings for plant butters? I have been using a product with avocado oil because I like the taste and I thought it was better for my health. However, I have not seen any studies. Are plant-based spreads good for the heart or am I fooling myself?

Where’s the Fat?

A. Cardiologists have been warning about saturated fat for decades. It is found in butter as well as cream and cheese. Plant-based margarine that relies on hydrogenated oils contains trans fats, which are harmful. The newer plant-based spreads often contain coconut oil or possibly palm oil to help them be solid at room temperature. They may also have avocado oil, sunflower oil or some other type of oil. Note that both coconut oil and palm kernel oil or palm oil are quite high in saturated fat. Nutrition experts usually discourage consuming them.

Saturated fat may not be as bad as doctors once thought, however. A study (EPIC) published in the Journal of the American Heart Association (Nov. 19, 2021) found no link between saturated fat consumption overall and heart disease. Butter itself raised the risk slightly. Unfortunately, the paper contains no data on the safety of plant-based spreads. Because they are relatively recent, we may need to wait for information on whether or not they truly are safer than butter.

Olive Oil for Your Bread:

The Italian practice of dipping bread in olive oil may be a healthier approach than using a solid spread. Like olive oil, avocado oil is rich in healthy monounsaturated fatty acids. In one study, people who consumed an avocado a day lowered their LDL cholesterol more than those on a fat-restricted diet (Journal of the American Heart Association, Jan. 2015). To learn whether you would enjoy dipping your bread in avocado oil, you will have to do the experiment.

Butter Versus Margarine:

You might assume, as many people do, that a study comparing butter to margarine would show a clear edge for margarine. Au contraire, such a study was conducted more than 40 years ago in Sydney, Australia, but the results were published less than a decade ago (BMJ, Feb. 5, 2013). The results are nothing short of shocking.

The Sydney Heart Study:

The Sydney Diet Heart Study was conducted in Australia between 1966 and 1973. The scientists recruited 458 men who had recently had a coronary event. (This put them at high risk for a second heart attack.)

Half the men carried on with their usual diet containing saturated fat during the study, while the other half were given safflower oil and margarine made of safflower oil to use instead of butter. The expectation was that the polyunsaturated fats (PUFAs) in safflower oil would help lower cholesterol and ward off second heart attacks.

The data were partially analyzed and published, but key questions were never answered. Apparently the researchers ran out of money and the data languished in a box in a Sydney garage for decades. They have now been resurrected, re-analyzed and published. The results challenge conventional beliefs about a heart-healthy diet.

Even though the men consuming omega-6 PUFAs such as linoleic acid did lower their cholesterol as the investigators had hoped, this did not save their lives. The men who had been provided with safflower oil were 60 percent more likely to die during the study (17.6 percent of them died compared to 11.8 percent of the men on their usual unsupervised diets). In addition, they were 75 percent more likely to die of coronary heart disease (16.3 percent of the men on the PUFA-rich diet compared to 10.1 percent of the men eating butter and other saturated fats).

How Does Margarine Compare to Plant-Based Spreads?

These results don’t condemn current plant-based butter substitutes. After all, the safflower oil margarine was made of hydrogenated oils, and few of the current crop of spreads contain those. (Read the label, though! You definitely want to avoid them.)

As we mentioned above, we don’t currently have data to evaluate the health consequences of spreads based on coconut or avocado oil. Ideally, scientists will set up a study at least a year long and provide people with butter, a plant-based spread or even olive oil for dipping bread. If the trial is large enough, it would tell us how these various ways of making bread tastier affect our blood cholesterol and triglycerides. Ultimately, we would want to know if there is an impact on rates of heart disease, stroke and death. But for now, the best advice is to apply your fat of choice somewhat sparingly.

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About the Author
Terry Graedon, PhD, is a medical anthropologist and co-host of The People’s Pharmacy radio show, co-author of The People’s Pharmacy syndicated newspaper columns and numerous books, and co-founder of The People’s Pharmacy website. Terry taught in the Duke University School of Nursing and was an adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology. She is a Fellow of the Society of Applied Anthropology. Terry is one of the country's leading authorities on the science behind folk remedies..
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  • Steur M et al, "Dietary fatty acids, macronutrient substitutions, food sources and incidence of coronary heart disease: Findings from the EPIC-CVD case-cohort study across nine European countries." Journal of the American Heart Association, Nov. 19, 2021. DOI: 10.1161/JAHA.120.019814
  • Wang L et al, "Effect of a Moderate Fat Diet With and Without Avocados on Lipoprotein Particle Number, Size and Subclasses in Overweight and Obese Adults: A Randomized, Controlled Trial." Journal of the American Heart Association, Jan. 2015. doi: 10.1161/JAHA.114.001355
  • Hornstra G & Diekman C, "Use of dietary linoleic acid for secondary prevention of coronary heart disease and death: evaluation of recovered data from the Sydney Diet Heart Study and updated meta-analysis."
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