Which is better, butter or margarine? I’m sorry to say the answer is neither. They’re both terrible for different reasons. Without getting too deep into the weeds on the nutritional “why,” it’s because depending on the brand and the particular ingredients they both contain unhealthy fats like saturated and trans. And they’re high in calories…about 100 calories per tablespoon. You may feel like butter is more “natural” or that margarine has the benefit of being plant-based, but we shouldn’t be striving to get more of either in our diet.
Whichever one you choose, try to minimize your intake of it; less is better. That’s the bad news in this blog post. The good news is there are all kinds of other options for spreading opportunities. Let’s talk about some of my favorites including liquid fats, slightly better tub spreads, nut butters, seed butters, fruit-based spreads, and bean spreads.
OK, this technically isn’t a spread. It’s more of a dip. But if you absolutely must have fat on your bread, liquid fats are a better choice because they contain unsaturated fats which seem to be healthier for us in the long run. Just think…what do you get with your bread at an Italian restaurant? That’s right, a dish of olive oil for dipping! There’s no reason you couldn’t do the same at home. You could even jazz it up by pouring in a bit of balsamic vinegar for a classic flavor combination.
Slightly Better Tub Spreads
Dipping olive oil is great, but Americans have a desire to spread. In that case I’d recommend a compromise product. Brummel and Brown Original Spread is a margarine that’s mixed with nonfat plain yogurt. Tablespoon for tablespoon you get less junky fat because it’s been replaced by a little virtually unnoticeable dairy product. I hear from families that this is the product that wins the taste test with kids most often.
Another spread that gives you the best of both worlds is a tub butter product like Land O Lakes Butter with Olive Oil and Sea Salt or Land O Lakes Butter with Canola Oil. They’re essentially butter blended with oil; nothing weird, just real food ingredients. And remember liquid fat is a good thing. With a product like this, tablespoon for tablespoon you get less saturated fat and cholesterol and replace it with a bit of cholesterol-free, unsaturated liquid fat. You could absolutely do the same thing at home on your own. Just blend some salted butter and olive oil in the food processor.
Natural Peanut Butter
The classic. You pretty much can’t go wrong with this childhood favorite, unless of course you’re partial to the brands that add hydrogenated fats or palm oil to keep the peanut butter from naturally separating like Jif and Skippy. These familiar big-name brands typically add extra sugar too to make them friendly to kid palates. I’m partial to Adam’s Natural Peanut Butter or Kirkland Signature Organic Creamy Peanut Butter. There are a few other peanut butters out there that meet my nutritional criteria as well, but be aware that “natural” does not always signal a good product. Just look at the ingredients list. All you want to see are peanuts and possibly salt.
My trick for dealing with the messy mess of the runny oil that needs to be stirred in? Simply turn the jar upside down when you get home from the store and put it in the fridge. As the oil attempts to migrate its way to the top again, it will get cold and firm up, trapping the oil along the way. Voila!
Natural Almond Butter
Almond butter must be mainstream now, because you can buy it at Costco. It’s similar in nutrient content and taste to peanut butter, but some people like its mild flavor profile a bit better. The benefit of either of these workhorse spreads is that in addition to providing healthy, liquid plant fats they also pack a bit of protein and fiber: 4 grams per tablespoon and 2 grams per tablespoon, respectively. You can’t say that about butter or margarine.
Mixed Nut Butter
I just recently picked up my first jar of Trader Joe’s Mixed Nut Butter after seeing it recommended by a dietitian as one of her favorite TJ products. It’s got almonds, cashews, walnuts, Brazil nuts, hazelnuts, and pecans. The flavor is much more complex than plain old single nut butters.
Nut and Seed Butter
The only brand I’ve seen that’s throwing nuts and seeds in the same jar is NuttZo, but I’m sure there are others. This company makes several flavors including the jar of NuttZo Organic Power Fuel Crunchy in my pantry which is made with cashews, almonds, Brazil nuts, flax seeds, chia seeds, hazelnuts, pumpkin seeds, and sea salt. It’s more interesting than plain peanut butter, with a unique crunchy texture that I’ve grown to love.
I’m sure you know that Nutella isn’t a health food, but good gracious if it doesn’t taste delicious. My solution to this tasty conundrum is to just make my own. It’s got sugar in it, that’s for sure, but it actually qualifies as a nut butter. Hazelnuts should predominate in the ingredient list, compared to Nutella which is mostly sugar and palm oil with a few nuts thrown in. The internet is loaded with homemade chocolate hazelnut spreads but I’m partial to my own: Homemade Nutella with Olive Oil and Dark Chocolate.
You know tahini, right? The rich, creamy sesame seed butter used to make hummus or a lemony sauce for falafel? Well one crazy company has gone and made chocolate tahini. I know! And it’s got just three ingredients: ground sesame seeds, powdered sugar, and cocoa powder. It’s a sweet treat, but it also offers up protein, fiber, calcium, and iron, and is a step ahead of Nutella nutritionally. Soom Chocolate Sweet Tahini Halva Spread is also vegan and peanut-free and tastes marvelous paired with raspberries or strawberries on top of toast or rice cakes.
I’m sure I’m not the first person to tell you about avocado toast. This is one crazy eating fad I can completely get behind. Avocado is a source of the healthy monounsaturated fats so if it replaces mayonnaise or butter on your sandwich or toast, it is a step in the right nutritional direction: swapping an animal fat for a plant fat. (And, yes, avocado is officially a fruit.)
Apple butter sometimes seems like an old-fashioned food, but it’s really fantastic. If you’ve never had it before it’s sort of like someone was trying to make applesauce, but they forgot about it and left it on the stove too long. And then decided to add cinnamon and cloves. It’s dark brown, thick, spreadable, rich with spices, and typically has no added sugar. It’s divine spread on top of peanut butter on a matzo cracker. Trust me.
100% Fruit Spreads/Jam
Jams and jellies don’t have the unhealthy fat problem so much as a sugar problem. So, if you can find an all-fruit spread without added sugar, it’s a fine substitution for butter or margarine. Even better would be to make your own fruit spread with naturally gel-forming chia seeds.
This traditional chickpea spread is so versatile and flavorful that it can be used as a dip or it can stand in as a flavor-packed spread on your favorite sandwich in place of traditional condiments. Compared to butter or margarine it’s a nutritional superstar bringing protein and fiber to the top of your favorite (whole grain) bread, cracker, or English muffin. Dietitians are always looking for ways to get folks to eat more beans and this is a convenient, spreadable one.
I can’t remember where I found this unique addition to the spreadables category; maybe Facebook? It’s called The Amazing Chickpea. It’s made from roasted chickpea flour, roasted sunflower seeds, olive oil, cane sugar, palm oil, shortening, sea salt, and natural flavor. So, it’s not perfect. I could do without the shortening and sugar, but it’s got a very unique butterscotch flavor and it might be nice to have in your spreading arsenal for occasional use. (Maybe I should figure out how to make it myself with dietitian-approved ingredients.)
While all of these are reasonably healthy options, it doesn’t mean you can spread them on 3 feet thick. Portion control still matters, even with healthy foods. The standard serving size on the nutrition label for most of these products will be 1 or 2 tablespoons. And yes, I actually use a measuring spoon…because calories, you know, matter.
While margarine and butter both taste marvelous, we should expand our view of what constitutes a good spread; it goes far beyond pure fats. Nutrient density is important, along with taste, so protein and fiber should join the party too. And once you change up your basic spread you can get creative by adding another layer of color, nutrients, and texture with creative toppings. Look no further than Instagram for toast inspiration: cherries, berries, hemp seeds, cacao nibs, hazelnuts, banana slices, radish slices, pomegranate arils, fresh figs, kiwi, granola, asparagus, shredded coconut or Greek yogurt. But that’s probably a topic for a whole other blog post.
My advice is to forget the argument about which is superior, butter or margarine. Strive to get less of each of them and instead work on getting more of the creamy, savory, sweet, hearty, and nutritious spreads I shared today. Your bread (and your diet) will be all the better for it.
What’s your favorite spreadable substance? What tasty stuff have I missed on my list?