Want a spread that’s better than butter? The good news: Your days of worrying about trans fat are over. And some new spreads are healthy and delish.

The bad news: To find the best spreads, you have to wade through misleading claims about coconut, butter, ghee, and more.

Here’s what to look for. Scroll the page for some claims to ignore.

What to look for

Almost any spread beats butter because spreads deliver more healthy unsaturated fat. But to find the best, check:

Saturated fat. Our Best Bites have no more than 1½ grams per tablespoon. Honorable Mentions can have 2 grams.

Added sugar. We didn’t give Best Bites or Honorable Mentions to sweetened spreads like Land O Lakes Honey or Country Crock Honey, which are nearly one-third added sugar.

Calories. We set no limit because in the best spreads, more calories means more unsaturated fat. But if you’re trying to lose (or not gain) weight, look for “light” spreads. Most have 35 to 50 calories per tablespoon.

Sodium. We set no limit because most spreads don’t top 100-or-so milligrams per tablespoon. But you can go lower with Smart Balance Low Sodium (30 mg) or with Finlandia 25% Reduced Fat Spreadable Butter (50 mg).

Finlandia reduced fat spread

Click here to see a chart of our Best Bites, Honorable Mentions, and other spreads.

Artificial trans fat: sayonara!

“0g trans fat per serving,” proclaim many spread labels.

Got that right. Partially hydrogenated oils—the source of artificial trans fat—gave spreads a bad name for decades. But on June 18th, the federal ban on using those oils kicked in. (Don’t worry about “hydrogenated” or “fully hydrogenated” oils. They have no trans fat.)

Note: A tablespoon of butter contains nearly half a gram of naturally occurring trans, which may be no less harmful.

Butter...or better

A tablespoon of regular butter has 7 grams of saturated fat (and 100 calories). “Extra creamy” or “European style” butters tack on an extra gram.

Why go there. We found some better butters and not-butters that taste darn close to the real thing. Your best options, from least to most sat fat:

Oil & water. Most regular tubs blend largely unsaturated soy and canola oils with largely saturated palm and palm kernel oils (to keep the spreads solid), plus water (and sometimes buttermilk).

The result: 50 to 100 calories and 1 to 3 grams of saturated fat per tablespoon, unless you’re talking coconut oil spreads.

Miss that buttery taste? Best Bite Brummel & Brown Made with Real Yogurt will knock your taste buds off for only 45 calories and 1½ grams of sat fat.

Brummel & brown yogurt spread

If you’re done with dairy, Honorable Mention I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter! It’s Vegan (60 calories and 2 grams of sat fat) is a good bet.

I can't believe it's not butter vegan

Butter & oil. If you’re stuck on butter, at least get it mixed with oil. Sat fat ranges from 3 grams (ones with more oil) to 6 grams (ones with less).

Our hands-down favorite: Finlandia 25% Reduced Fat Spreadable Butter, a near miss with 70 calories and 3 grams of sat fat. “Light” spreadable butters—they have more water—cut the calories to 50 and the sat fat to 2 grams. But no lights come close to the flavor of Brummel & Brown Made with Real Yogurt.

Whipped butter. Less butter and more air means you get less sat fat (5 grams) and calories (70) per tablespoon. Land O Lakes whipped butters lead the pack, with just 3½ grams of sat fat and 50 calories.


melt spread

“At last, good fat!” declares Melt Rich & Creamy, which blends coconut oil with palm, canola, sunflower, and flaxseed oils to get 3½ grams of sat fat per tablespoon.

Coconut oil is on a roll. But there’s no solid evidence that it’s a “good fat.” While some of its shorter-chain saturated fats don’t raise LDL (“bad”) cholesterol levels, its longer-chain saturated fats do (see November 2017, "The Heart of the Matter: Which foods protect your arteries?"). And it’s missing the unsaturated fats that lower LDL.

The upside: Like Melt, some coconut oil spreads mix in other oils. So instead of the 13 grams of sat fat in a tablespoon of, say, Nutiva Organic Butter Flavor Coconut Oil, you get only the 2½ grams of sat fat in, say, I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter! with Coconut Oil. That’s not nearly as bad.

Ghee whiz

4th and heart ghee

“Ghee is much better for you than butter,” says 4th & Heart. “Paleo Friendly,” says Kelapo Ghee. The trendy Whole30 diet also pushes ghee.

Better than butter? In fact, it’s worse. Ghee is butter that has been clarified, which removes milk solids and water. Unfortunately, that also concentrates its dairy fat.

So instead of butter’s usual 7 grams of saturated fat and 100 calories per tablespoon, you get roughly 8 to 10 grams of sat fat (half a day’s worth) and 120 to 140 calories.

To make matters worse, many ghee labels (like Organic Valley’s and 4th & Heart’s) use a one-teaspoon serving instead of the required one tablespoon. That makes the numbers look lower. Trying to trick your customers, ghee guys?

Cholesterol smarts

smart balance

“Supports healthy cholesterol levels,” boasts Smart Balance. But that only goes for levels “already in the normal range,” says the fine print.

In other words, Smart Balance can’t lower your cholesterol like an unsaturated oil would.

Hidden on the bottom of the tub is another disclaimer: “Clinical research has shown that the right blend of fats may improve your cholesterol ratio when at least ⅔ of your fat intake comes from this product or a properly balanced diet.”

No spread is likely to supply two-thirds of your fat intake. And a tablespoon of many Smart Balance spreads has 2½ to 3½ grams of saturated fat. You can do better with our Best Bites.

On the other hand, Promise Activ Light and Benecolcan reduce cholesterol levels. Promise adds a gram of plant sterols—and Benecol adds ½ gram of stanols—per tablespoon. Two grams per day can lower LDL (“bad”) cholesterol by around 8 percent (see Jan./Feb. 2016, "Lowering Cholesterol: Can supplements help?" ).

Greener pastures?

organic valley pasture raised culture butter

Pasture Butter contains elevated levels of beneficial omega-3 fatty acids,” says Organic Valley. Really?

Each tablespoon has 105 milligrams of omega-3s, says the label. But that’s not much. A modest 4 oz. of farmed Atlantic salmon has roughly 2,600 mg.

What’s more, salmon is rich in EPA and DHA, the longer-chain omega-3s that may protect your heart. Organic Valley won’t say how much EPA or DHA is in its butter, but odds are, the butter’s omega-3s are largely the shorter-chain ALA that predominates in milk.

Why bother. You’d get two or three times as much ALA in many spreads, thanks to their soy and canola oils...for less than half the sat fat.

The olive caper

Olivio original spread

“The Goodness of Olive Oil,” promises Olivio Original. “Olivio’s unique formulation with olive oil produces a rich spread with a delicious buttery taste.”

Olivio is unsaturated enough for a Best Bite, but don’t let its name or its claims fool you. You’re getting more canola and palm oils than pricier olive oil.

The same goes for Smart Balance Made with Extra Virgin Olive Oil and Earth Balance Made with Olive Oil. Buyer beware: “made with” may mean “made with very little.”

Spread the love

Want to branch out beyond buttery spreads? Try these tips from our Healthy Cook, Kate Sherwood:

Toast. Spread with mashed avocado, peanut or almond butter, mayo and sliced tomatoes, or chopped tomatoes mixed with olive oil and salt (think bruschetta).

Vegetables. Drizzle with olive oil, fresh lemon juice, and salt.

Grains or pasta. Top with a dollop of pesto, or toss with roasted vegetables.

Zoe Rosner helped compile the information for this article.

Photos: Viktor/stock.adobe.com (top), Jennifer Urban/CSPI (all others).