The Great Butter Debate

March 28, 2013 | By | Comments (7)

Butter Varieties

We recently received an e-mail from a reader asking about butter. “Comparing butter and/or whipped butter to Smart Balance, which is the healthiest choice?” she asked.

It’s a common question, and understanding the answer is an important part of healthy eating.

We’re all for butter.

“Our philosophy would be to have the REAL THING in moderation over having more of an imitation,” says Test Kitchen Director Tiffany Vickers Davis. (Tiffany was one of our Healthy Habits Heroes for her approach to healthy fats–check out her advice on cooking with healthy fats.)

There are some caveats, of course:
– We like it in small quantities.
– We like it when it’s the most appropriate fat to use.
– And we believe that adding it at the right time makes all the difference.

To get the biggest bang from your butter, aim to add it later in the cooking process. Sauté your vegetables in olive or canola oil, then use a bit of butter to finish, tossing to melt and coat. Sprinkle buttered toasted breadcrumbs on top of pasta dishes as a last touch. When you use butter in this way, the flavor will be upfront on your palate when you bite in. Also, we suggest using unsalted (also known as sweet cream) butter and then adding your own salt. This gives you better control of your sodium.

Whipped Butter:

Whipped butter, as Executive Managing Editor Phillip Rhodes explains, is “butter with air beaten into it.” It’s a great lower-fat option for flavor but not so great for cooking. Don’t try to use it as a substitute in your baking either–it won’t work. But because it’s less dense than regular butter, a little whipped butter goes a long way when spreading on toast.

Butter Alternatives/Substitutes:

The mechanical process of making margarine solid produces trans fats, so check the ingredients list for hydrogenated oils and the nutrition label for trans fats–you don’t want either. Also, substitutes can be just as high in calories as normal butter. Typically butter and oil combinations like Smart Balance’s Butter and Canola Oil Blend are good options.

Olive Oil:

When you’re cooking, olive oil is a good swap for butter in most cases. Plus, it’s what we consider a healthy fat. We suggest you cook with olive oil and add butter at the end for flavor. Don’t miss our Guide to Healthy Fats.

Sliced butterThe Verdict: Butter Wins (in most cases)

In the end, we really like butter. No, we’re not all walking around with sticks of butter in ice cream cones or anything, but it is pretty irresistible. We like to savor it in small quantities, at the right moment.

Nutrition Editor Sidney Fry advises, “Butter has its place in the kitchen of the healthy cook, but knowing how much–or how little!–to add and when is essential.” After all, as with all fats, it’s the most calorie-dense nutrient, so be mindful when adding, and don’t forget to measure (and we’re not talking by the vat).


Butter: 100 calories, 11g fat (7g sat, 0g trans) per tablespoon
Whipped Butter: 50—70 calories, 6—7g fat (3.5—5g sat, 0g trans) per tablespoon
Smart Balance Original: 80 calories, 9g fat (2.5g sat, 0g trans) per tablespoon
Smart Balance Butter and Canola Oil Blend: 100 calories, 11g fat (4g sat, 0g trans) per tablespoon

Further Reading: Good News for Good Fats
Guide to Healthy Fats
Healthy Butter Cooking Tips


  1. Butter was the enemy

    Butter.Hands down.Margarine is gunk. Check out the short vid about transfats by clicking my link. This stuff was pushed to us in the same era as the emergence of things like aspartame.

    January 29, 2014 at 10:22 pm
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  3. National Eggs Benedict Day – Simmer & Boil | – Cooking Light

    […] divinely indulgent. It is, however, one of those things we encourage you to enjoy in moderation, like butter. In fact, the key to a great hollandaise is butter, according to James Peterson, whose cookbook […]

    April 16, 2013 at 10:25 am
  4. Kathryn

    Yes, I agree with everything you said. I always use unsalted butter. Actually can’t tell the differance from salted butter.

    March 29, 2013 at 7:42 pm
  5. Nancy

    Some margarines are made with buttermilk; some with yogurt; some with olive oil. They are whipped, I believe.

    March 29, 2013 at 12:54 pm
  6. Jen

    Forget the canola… It’s Monsanto!

    March 29, 2013 at 12:47 pm
  7. tina

    butter is better

    March 29, 2013 at 10:51 am

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