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The best ‘buttery’ spreads for your health – and the ones to avoid


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Are you Team Butter or Team Spread? The relative merits of each have been the subject of slippery debate for decades. And with a wider range of spreads available than ever, it’s difficult to know which ones, if any, make healthy choices.

Spread has certainly come a long way since it was first made in France in 1869 from rendered beef fat churned with milk. By the 1970s, the popularity of spreads was growing, as we dutifully followed health advice to avoid saturated fat, the kind abundant in butter. As we entered the 2000s, spreads boomed; cheaper than butter, they were increasingly thought of as healthier, too.

Today we glide through more than 120 million kilograms of spread each year in the UK, according to consumer analysts at Mintel, not far behind the 147 million kilograms of butter we buy. 

Our spread options are now many and varied, from spreadable butters right through to those designed to lower cholesterol. But what are we actually slathering on our toast when we reach for butter alternatives? And are they any good for us? 

What are spreads?

Not so long ago, spreads were made by hardening vegetable oils into a butter-like consistency using a process called partial hydrogenation. This created trans fats, now known to be bad for heart health, so these days manufacturers of spreads sold in the UK use a different technique called interesterification to harden the oils.

“This method can harden vegetable oils to give them a butter-like consistency, making them suitable for spreads, while avoiding the health risks associated with trans fats,” says Alex Ruani, a doctoral researcher at University College London and the chief science educator at The Health Sciences Academy.

‘Margarine’ tends to be used as a generic term for any type of spread. Technically, it can only be used on packaging if the product has been fortified with vitamins A and D.  But ‘margarine’ has fallen out of use; the term still carries connotations of unhealthy trans fats, and manufacturers now prefer to promote the healthy aspects of their products.

Different kinds of spreads

“There’s a broad spectrum when it comes to the healthiness of spreads,” says Nichola Ludlam-Raine, a registered dietitian and the author of How Not to Eat Ultra-Processed

Some spreads contain a high percentage of healthy unsaturated fats, as well as added vitamins such as A, B12 and D, so they make good choices. “However, many commercial spreads are ultra-processed due to the presence of additives designed to alter flavour, texture, or shelf-life,” Ludlam-Raine explains. “Choosing less processed options often means selecting spreads that offer some health benefits, such as those with heart-healthy oils, without as many additives.” 

Red flags that a spread is an ultra-processed food (UPF) are the presence of emulsifiers, preservatives, colours and flavours (whether natural or not) or other substances you don’t recognise on the ingredients list.  Spread that contains just butter, water, oil and salt may not be a UPF, but it’s hard to know for sure. If the manufacturer has used interesterification to harden the oils, the product is a UPF.  “The problem is, manufacturers don’t disclose whether the vegetable fats used are fluid or hard (interesterified).”

Generally, the shorter the ingredients list the better, Ludlam-Raine says, although this isn’t always the case.  “Some spreads contain added vitamins, which would lengthen the ingredients list, but this isn’t a bad thing.”

We asked our experts to score a range of popular spreads for their healthiness, particularly how good they are for heart health. They took into account the amount of saturated fat and salt they contain,  and whether they contain monoglycerides and diglycerides of fatty acids, kinds of emulsifiers. “These have been associated with higher heart disease and stroke risks,” Ruani says. However, she stresses that more research is needed into these substances. The amount of omega-6 fats have also  been taken into account. “Too much omega-6 in the diet, in relation to omega-3, increases heart risk and inflammatory markers,“ she adds.

Buttery spreads

Spreadable butters contain butter (sometimes listed as cream or milk on the label) blended with rapeseed and/or other oils, water and salt. Their texture is soft enough to use straight from the fridge and – in theory at least – taste like butter. 

Sometimes lactic cultures, known as ‘lactic acid bacteria ’, are added to enhance the flavour and make the buttery spreads softer and easier to use. Lactic acid bacteria are probiotics and have many benefits for gut health – but not when added to  buttery spreads. “Their survival is very limited due to the high fat content, low moisture, and storage conditions,” Ruani explains.

Anchor Spreadable (UPF)

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