It’s no surprise that there are loads of “better than butter” products in supermarkets today. Butter, after all, has 100 calories, 11 grams of fat and seven grams of saturated fat per tablespoon (which is about half the saturated fat you should consume in a day if you’re following a 2,000-calorie diet).
Margarine has the same calorie and fat content as butter, but less saturated fat. However, it can contain trans fat, which is also damaging to your heart. Soft spreads that are low in saturated and trans fats are a definite improvement, says Alice H. Lichtenstein, the Gershoff Professor of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University in Boston.
Here’s the lowdown on the different types of toast toppers.
● Spreadable butter. These blends of butter and vegetable oil have roughly half the saturated fat of butter but a similar calorie and total fat count. Consumer Reports’ tasters gave Land O’ Lakes an excellent rating for flavor.
● Buttery spread. Spreads are typically lower in calories, fat and saturated fat than butter or margarine. Some brands boast that they’re made with olive oil or canola oil, but that doesn’t mean they have the same nutritional profile as the oils themselves. Most are a blend of the featured oil and other vegetable oils. And all spreads — even those made with olive oil (such as Olivio) or yogurt (Brummel & Brown) — have trans or saturated fat. Consumer Reports’ tasters liked Brummel & Brown 35% Vegetable Oil Spread (which contains partially hydrogenated soybean oil) and I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter Light (which has palm and palm kernel oils). Both have 45 calories, five grams of fat and 1.5 grams of saturated fat per tablespoon.
● Spreads with health extras. They may give you a slight nutrient boost, but don’t assume that if a little is good, a lot is better, Lichtenstein says. “Your nutrient intake may go up at the expense of your weight,” she points out. Smart Balance Buttery Spread with Calcium, which has 100 milligrams of calcium and 200 international units of Vitamin D, had a hint of dairy flavor and melted nicely, but it was salty. The omega-3 spreads that testers tasted didn’t fare as well. Smart Balance Buttery Spread with Omega 3 was saltier and artificial-tasting compared with original Smart Balance. The testers also said Earth Balance Omega-3 tasted like salty fish-oil pills.
Cholesterol-lowering sterols/stanols are another spread extra. Two grams a day — the amount in four tablespoons of a fortified stanol spread — might lower LDL (bad) cholesterol by about 10 percent. But at 50 to 70 calories per tablespoon, that can put a big dent in your calorie intake. Consumer Reports’ tasters gave Benecol 55% Vegetable Oil Spread a good rating but said it had an oily residue.
● Coconut spread. Trendy coconut-oil spreads contain coconut oil blended with other vegetable oils. They have 3.5 to five grams of saturated fat, 50 to 100 calories, and seven to 11 grams of total fat per tablespoon. You may have heard that coconut oil contains a “healthy” saturated fat called medium-chain triglycerides. Lichtenstein notes, however, that it contains other types of saturated fat as well. Our tasters liked Melt Organic and Earth Balance Organic Coconut spreads, noting their strong coconut flavor.
You may get more benefits if you keep an open mind about what to spread on your bread.
“It’s important to opt for healthier versions of foods we normally consume; however, we need to step back and decide if there’s something even better,” Lichtenstein says.
Nut and seed butters, such as almond or sunflower, are naturally rich in heart-healthy fats and also contain fiber and protein, which are not found in butter substitutes. You can also try mashed avocado, hummus or extra-virgin olive oil. All have a better-than-butter fat mix.
For further guidance, go to www.ConsumerReports.org/Health, where more detailed information, including CR’s ratings of prescription drugs, treatments, hospitals and healthy-living products, is available to subscribers.