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Butter Alternatives: The Truth about Butter, and Alternatives to Butter

Updated on December 31, 2012

For more than three thousand years and throughout the world, humans have produced and utilized various forms of butter for consumption. Before the development of modern conveniences and food novelties, butter was prized for its flavor and high level of fat, which both satiated hunger and kept the body warmer through the cold of winter. Modern conveniences like refrigerators and grocery stores continued the progression and popularity of butter from the 1930’s forward, and with marketing from the dairy industry,it was viewed as an ally, not a foe, to one’s health. The 1990’s brought the information revolution, giving people access to a world of information and weakened the media’s hold on what information consumers were given. As people have begun to understand the various consequences surrounding high levels of butter consumption, the winds have begun to change, and people are seeking out alternatives to this high fat ingredient. In the following I am going to discuss what butter is and the pros and cons of having it in your diet, explain its origins, and provide some alternative ingredients you can use to avoid it.

The History

Butter did not start out as a product of cow’s milk, but rather that of sheep or goats. The first method of production involved filling a goatskin half with milk, half with air, sealing and agitating it. Most of this early butter production took place in cold climates, as it spoils in the heat, and the invention of the refrigerator did not take place for another thousand years. One exception to this is India’s longtime use of ghee, or clarified butter, for both consumption and ceremonial lighting fuel. Because it is clarified, ghee requires no refrigeration, and is a healthier alternative to conventional butter, which I will discuss in more detail below. Across northern Europe, the practice of barreling butter and then burying it in a peat bog to age was common, as the cool temperatures and airless environment provided excellent storage for any surplus.

Hand churning butter can take up to forty minutes of manual manipulation, not including the waiting periods in between.
Hand churning butter can take up to forty minutes of manual manipulation, not including the waiting periods in between.

Until the early 1800’s, all butter was made by hand and molded into unique shapes, distinguishing the farm they were from . By 1900, more than half of US butter was produced in a factory, now in the stick form we associate it with today. By the 1950s, margarine consumption overtook butter consumption, consumers favoring the less expensive and more spreadable tub of hydrogenated vegetable oils over the the stick of cream from times past. As the 21st century dawned, countless substitutes to the old standard have been introduced to the market, making it more confusing than ever for consumer to know what to purchase.

In the middle of the twentieth century and prior to the establishment of the FDA, misleading advertisements like this were common
In the middle of the twentieth century and prior to the establishment of the FDA, misleading advertisements like this were common

What is it?

We all eat butter, but do we really understand what it is? Butter is a dairy product, made by churning cream or milk, either fresh or fermented. Agitating the milk product makes it separate into to different ingredients; buttermilk, and butter. In the old days, this was done with a butter churner, but today you can do it yourself with a blender. Since butter is essentially just milk fat, and not milk, it contains very little lactose and can be consumed in moderation by those with an intolerance to lactose. It is a good source of Vitamin A, and the Vitamin D it contains helps absorption of calcium. In general, it is thought that consuming butter helps the body absorb the healthy nutrients found in other ingredients of a meal.

After butter production in the US switched from farmhouses to factories, the stick and blocks we associate butter with today began being produced
After butter production in the US switched from farmhouses to factories, the stick and blocks we associate butter with today began being produced

All of the sudden, butter doesn’t sound so bad, and in moderation, it isn’t. The bad news about butter is that it is sixty-three percent saturated fat, higher than any other oil used in cooking. For those of you who don’t know, saturated fats are the fats that clog arteries, cause heart disease, raise cholesterol, and should be consumed sparingly. The daily intact of saturated fat should be around fifteen grams. A single spoonful of butter contains 7 grams. There are eight tablespoons of butter to a conventional stick, so keep that in mind next time you use a recipe that calls for a whole stick.

It's easy to get carried away with butter, when its part of an unrolled stick or tub. To avoid this, precut your whole stick of butter into appropriately small slices, or make sure to use a measuring spoon with tubs, so you know what your eating
It's easy to get carried away with butter, when its part of an unrolled stick or tub. To avoid this, precut your whole stick of butter into appropriately small slices, or make sure to use a measuring spoon with tubs, so you know what your eating

What are the alternatives?

All of this information makes most people want to reduce their intake of butter, but are there any effective and comparable replacements? I have found that it is good to have a variety of oils in your kitchen, good for different levels of heat, and for different flavors as well. Below is a list of butter substitutes, and the pros and cons of each.

Ghee

Ghee, also known as clarified butter, is probably the closest thing you can get to conventional butter. Ghee is made by melting butter down to a point where white froth appears on top. After further simmering, this froth disappears and the butter changes to a pale yellow. Then it is cooked on low heat till it develops a golden color, with a strong aroma. Then pour through a fine strainer into a jar for storage. If you are interested in learning how to make your own, I would suggest visiting the tutorial about it on the VeggieBelly's blog, which provides pictures along with a step by step guide for making your own ghee. This process removes impurities stabilizes the butter’s saturated bonds, giving it a high smoke point and low chance of forming free radicals while cooking. While this process is relatively easy, many prefer to buy their ghee pre-made. If you choose this option, try to find ghee that is organic, and grass fed if possible, as this will assure the highest amount of nutrients and best flavor. It can be found in the organic section of your local grocery store, or online.

Ghee is distinguishable because of its golden hue and unique texture
Ghee is distinguishable because of its golden hue and unique texture

There are many benefits to consuming ghee. It is thought to lower cholesterol and stimulate secretion of stomach acids which aids in the digestion process, and is rich in antioxidants. In Ayurvedic medicine, ghee is used to treat burns, ulcers, constipation, and promotion of healthy eyes and skin.

Coconut Oil


Coconut oil is one of a chef's favorite to cook with, because of its creamy flavor and versatility. Extracted from the meat and core of matured coconuts, this oil can stand high heat, making it ideal for frying. This delicious oil is very high in saturated fats, but because of the small and medium chain fatty acids it contains, it actually helps with weight loss. Also, by removing stress on the pancreas, coconut oil increases metabolism, burning more energy and again, aiding in weight loss. This option is good for those with a strong intolerance to lactose. With almost every butter substitute I try with a friend egg, it makes the egg stick to the pan. Because of its saturated fats, coconut oil works the same way butter does.

Depending on the temperature of where it is being stored, coconut oil can either be a clear liquid or malleable, cloudy solid.
Depending on the temperature of where it is being stored, coconut oil can either be a clear liquid or malleable, cloudy solid.

Beyond all the health benefits associated with coconut oil consumption, there are many other useful ways to ouse coconut oil. It is one of the best natural moisturizers for hair, and a wonderful skin moisturizer and massage oil. It is effective at fight infections if put on an open wound, and has properties that help strengthen the immune system.

When purchasing coconut oil for consumption, it is best to look for an organic, virgin coconut oil. Virgin means that it was extracted from fresh coconuts, and this is the only process that doesn't boil the coconuts and change their nutrient makeup. This can be found at organic markets and online.

Olive Oil


Olive oil, like coconut oil, is extracted from the meat and seeds of olives, either mechanically or with chemicals. Very popular in cooking, for both its flavor and health benefits, olive oil is slightly less versatile than other butter substitutes because it has a lower heat point. In this lower heat, olive oil has a very pleasant flavor and cooks light foods to perfection. Containing a much lower level of saturated fats than butter, coconut oil, and other substitutes, olive oil is approximately 75% heart healthy monounsaturated fats, making it a great option for those with cholesterol issues.

Olive oil can come in a variety of shades, and many believe the darker the oil, the higher the quality. This is not the case, so make sure you read the bottle to make sure its up to your standards before buying!
Olive oil can come in a variety of shades, and many believe the darker the oil, the higher the quality. This is not the case, so make sure you read the bottle to make sure its up to your standards before buying!

Because olive oil coats food rather than absorbing into them, they end up less greasy and much healthier. Olive oil also aids in the digestion and absorption of fat soluble vitamins, taking advantage of all of the nutrients in the food you are eating. Olive oil is a great option for those looking to avoid butter. It substitutes into almost any recipe, and extends the life of baked goods.

When purchasing olive oil, I would look for an organic extra virgin cold, expeller pressed oil. Extra virgin means that it will have the lowest possible amount of fatty acid content, and that it will have excellent color and flavor. Cold, expeller pressed means that the oil is extracted in an environment with a temperature no higher than 120F degrees and is extracted mechanically, without the use of any chemicals. This ensures the oil will have the best taste and be the most nutritious it can be.

Margarine

Many people use margarine as a substitute for butter because of its similar taste and more malleable texture. It is a semi-solid emulsion made from vegetable fats, water, and skim milk, the fats coming from a variety of plants including sunflower, soybean, safflower, olive oil, or rapeseed. Margarine is high in trans fatty acids and is known to increase bad cholesterol while lowering good cholesterol, and has also been associated with lower quality breast milk, decreased immune response, and decreased insulin response. Many margarines make claims about being low fat or low cholesterol, but it is very important to read the ingredients and nutrition facts to ensure they are not making up for these benefits with deficiencies elsewhere.

Some margarine spreads have an olive oil or coconut oil base, which are the healthier options in a sea hydrogenated vegetable oils
Some margarine spreads have an olive oil or coconut oil base, which are the healthier options in a sea hydrogenated vegetable oils

If you are trying to avoid butter, I would recommend avoiding margarine for the same reasons. If you do choose to go this route, I would recommend something organic, and with something like coconut oil as a base, as opposed to hydrogenated vegetable fat. This has the benefits of coconut oil with the convenience of margarine. You will find this in the cold isle of your grocer's organic section.

Get creative!

In recipes that call for using butter as an internal ingredient as opposed to a cooking medium, you can get a little more creative with your substitutions. In baking, butter is added as a wet ingredient, and often as a binder. Through trial and error, many alternatives have been developed by creative cooks with healthy prerogatives, including both applesauce and mashed bananas. Pureed prunes are another good substitute, as is ricotta cheese, although unhealthy for its own reasons.

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