Have you ever given thought to exactly what butter is? Is butter dairy? Let’s do a little butter 101. Real, grass-fed butter is a dairy product made from cow’s milk also known as milk fat. It’s composed of about 80 percent fat, which is the part that has been separated from the carbohydrates and protein of the milk, and yes, it is dairy. Given its high fat content and the frequency of lactose intolerance, many people seek butter substitute options for their baking, cooking and/or spreads.
Now, most recent studies suggest that real, grass-fed butter can be healthy for you, though past research has positioned too much butter as bad for your heart due to its saturated fat content, which yields about 70 percent fatty acids and about 25 percent monounsaturated fatty acids. There’s a bit of polyunsaturated fat in butter, as well — about 2.3 percent. To top it off, it contains cholesterol and phospholipids, two more types of fatty substances. (1)
There are many substitutes for butter for these reasons and more, but if you choose to eat butter, have the real thing. Never consume processed butter substitutes like margarine. Instead, if you’re looking for some ideas for an ideal substitute for butter, I’ve got some healthy options for you. Keep in mind that moderation is important. Many of these options are still loaded with fat, and while they’re healthy fats, paying attention to how much you consume is key to balance in a healthy diet.
Healthiest Butter Substitute Options
1. Coconut Oil and Coconut Butter
Coconut oil may be getting a bit of a bad rap lately with new studies that have been published by the American Heart Association claiming it’s unhealthy to eat. In moderation, though, coconut oil is a healthy choice — perhaps the problem is people are overdoing it.
However, it’s delicious to cook with and makes a great spread on muffins or toast. Equally, it’s great in homemade recipes, such as my Energy Balls. Like coconut oil, coconut butter is delicious and can add just the right sweetness and toasty coconut flavor to most any dish.
2. Shea Butter
Yes, you read that right. Shea butter does more than help promote healthy skin. It’s an alternative to butter and often used instead of cocoa butter. It’s edible and filled with antioxidants, essential fatty acids and vitamin E.
If you’re a label-reader, you’ve probably noticed it in the ingredients list of some dark chocolate treats. You can simply use a small amount of shea butter in place of regular butter in just about anything. Make sure to purchase pure, unrefined versions, and I suggest purchasing small amounts as it tend to go rancid quickly.
3. Cocoa Butter
Cocoa butter is another alternative to butter and is considered a healthy fat. It’s used to make chocolate and is high in antioxidants, providing amazing polyphenols. According to one study, the polyphenols are so great that it may actually help lower the risk of cardiovascular disease. (2)
Some of the other benefits are improved immunity and lowering inflammation within the body. Like shea butter, make sure to get 100 percent pure versions with no additives. Try using it in baking instead of regular butter.
4. Mashed Avocado
Mashed avocado is one of my favorite healthy fats, and with the recent popularity of avocado toast, I’m not the only one who loves it. Avocado makes a nice spread when mashed, is delicious on eggs and adds an amazing creaminess to your smoothie, all while offering the nutritional benefits of fiber and loads of phytonutrients. Additionally, research has shown it may help reduce the growth of cancer cells and inflammation. (3)
Hummus is one of my favorite ways to flavor just about anything and is part of a healthy Mediterranean diet. It’s typically made from chickpeas, lemon juice, garlic and tahini as the main ingredients, offering tons of fiber, protein, vitamin B6 and other nutritional benefits, but it can be made from black beans, lentils and even vegetables. It’s a great topping on sauteed vegetables, eggs, mixed greens or as a snack with raw vegetables. Hummus is commonly eaten with pita triangles, but you can skip the bread and opt for celery if you’re watching your wheat and gluten intake.
6. Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Extra virgin olive oil is a great way to add a little flavor to sourdough bread, toast or grilled meat, to name a few. While you don’t need much, it’s a great way to gain some added benefits, such as lowering inflammation, the risk of heart disease, depression and dementia.
With all of that in mind, unfortunately, not all olive oil is created equally. Just make sure you get the real thing; there is a lot of fake olive oil out there. Watch out for virgin olive oil that costs less than $10 a liter, look for a seal from the International Olive Oil Council and check for a harvesting date on the label. Additionally, if it’s labeled light, pure or a blend, it isn’t real, pure virgin olive oil. Oils that are packaged in dark bottles are best.
Applesauce is great for baking or to add a little flavor to your oatmeal or chia pudding. You get fiber, vitamin C and that perfect touch of sweetness without a lot of calories. There’s some sugar to think about, however. Read the label and be conscious of how much you use. Try spreading thinly or mix it with a little nut butter for a delicious, healthy blend.
8. Dairy-Free Yogurt
Dairy-free yogurt, such as coconut yogurt or almond yogurt, blended with a little cinnamon can be delicious on toast. There are many of options out there for anyone who really needs to watch dairy consumption. Dairy-free yogurt can be a great alternative and helps strengthen bones.
Regardless, watch the label. I cannot stress this enough, especially with new foods popping up everywhere trying to cash in on a trend, such as no dairy. Most of the dairy-free options still have added sugar and more. You can easily find the plain, no-sugar versions if you look for them, however. Go for those and you can create an amazingly, healthy, dairy-free chia pudding, use it on your favorite Mexican dish like sour cream and more. Also, many have the probiotics that can help treat leaky gut.
9. Chicken Stock, Vegetable Stock and Bone Broth
Chicken stock, vegetable stock and bone broth are great for sautéing. You won’t even miss the butter! The stock or broth can help keep foods juicy and tender while adding delicious flavor and nutrients, even helping with digestion, arthritis and cellulite while boosting the immune system.
10. Nut Butters
Nut butters, such as almond butter, cashew butter and peanut butter, are great on celery sticks, bananas, toast or even a vegetable sauté for a quick and easy Thai dish. Almond butter, for example, contains vitamin E, iron and magnesium.
The key here is to be conscious of just how much. Two tablespoons is a serving, which comes in at about 180 calories. Also, you need to read labels since most add tons of sugar and oils. Either grind your own or purchase those that contain nuts only. Sea salt is fine, but avoid added oils and sugars.
11. Pumpkin Puree
Pumpkin puree is a great option to add to plain yogurt, breads, coffee cakes and muffins. You gain nutrients like vitamin K, potassium and fiber with just a few extra calories. Use ¾ cup of pumpkin puree for every cup of butter called for in a recipe.
12. Nutritional Yeast
Nutritional yeast is often forgotten but is great for seasoning most anything if you want a cheesy flavor. It also contains nutritional benefits, such as being an immune booster and contains protein, B6 and B12, making it a vegan must-have. It’s quite the superfood, but what is nutritional yeast? It’s an inactive yeast made from sugarcane and beet molasses. It’s found in most health food stores on the shelf or in the bulk section, typically as a powder of flakes.
Butter Substitute Benefits
1. Help Avoid the Effects of Milk Allergies
Butter does not have much protein, but it contains a little casein. Casein is a protein found in milk that often causes allergies. In fact, reports indicate that cow’s milk allergy affects 2 percent to 3 percent of young children. (4) Reactions can include hives, rashes, wheezing, severe pain, food malabsorption, vomiting and breathing problems. (5)
2. May Reduce the Risk of Heart Disease
Some studies show that there may be a relationship to cardiovascular disease and the consumption of high-fat dairy products, such as butter. (6) Yet others suggest that butter is not the cause of heart disease and other health issues, such as stroke or type 2 diabetes. Ultimately, moderation is key while ensuring the body gets plenty of micronutrients, which can be obtained through a substitute for butter in some instances. (7)
3. Can Offer Lactose Intolerance Relief
Lactose intolerance is the inability to digest lactose, the sugar in dairy products. This happens because the small intestine doesn’t make enough lactase, which is the enzyme that digests lactose. With about 75 percent of people in the world suffering from lactose intolerance on some level, it’s something worth taking note. If you notice that you feel bloating, cramps, diarrhea, painful gas or nausea, you may have lactose intolerance. Steering clear of dairy products like butter, as well as milk and ice cream — the two biggest offenders — can be a big help if you suffer from lactose intolerance. (8)
For baking, see what the recipe calls for, but it may take a little experimenting. There are tons of options out there that have already measured the quantities for you.
Ghee vs. Butter
Ghee has been the suggested way to go for butter in recent months. What is ghee? It’s clarified butter, which means it’s the melted part of the butter — the liquid part that remains after the water has evaporated and the milk solids are removed. It’s usually more expensive than butter, but is it healthier? In actuality, it’s pretty much the same in terms of nutrition, according to Berkeley Wellness, as it’s high in saturated fat and has a few more calories than butter. (9)
Though ghee has a higher smoke point than butter, it may be a better option for cooking and keeps longer than butter, but ghee may contain a a good amount of oxidized cholesterol, which could be more harmful to the arteries than butter.
Most butter substitute options are easy to find in your local supermarket, but a health food store is sure to have the best options. Try to purchase organic when possible. You can order many of these items online as well.
Who said you can’t make delicious frosting without butter? You absolutely can and will gain some nutrients along the way. Try my chocolate butter-free frosting. It only takes about 10 minutes to make, and the kids will love it right off the spoon.
Chocolate Butter-Free Frosting
2 ripe California avocados
2 cups Medjool dates, pitted
¼ cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup boiling water
- Pinch of fine sea salt
- Using a blender, place the dates in the blender and pour boiling water over dates. Allow it to sit for about 15 minutes or until the dates are very soft.
- Now, blend the water and dates on high until very smooth. Add the cocoa, sea salt and vanilla. Blend well.
- Add the avocado. Blend slowly, adding a little water until very smooth. This adds a delicious creaminess and rich flavor.
- Let the forting cool or chill the frosting until cool in the fridge. Spread on your favorite cupcakes or my black bean brownies.
Here are a couple more butter-free recipes that utilize some of the butter substitute options listed above:
- Flourless Chocolate Cake — This recipes shows the option of using coconut oil instead of butter. You can even go half and half if you prefer.
- Butter-Free Cheesy Popcorn
Risks and Side Effects
While real butter or grass-fed butter is fine for most when consumed in moderation, that goes for the substitutes too. If avoiding dairy is a health concern dues to lactose intolerance or some other health condition, make sure you’re educated about the alternatives and understand their portions. Don’t overdo it, as even these butter substitute foods can cause issues if overconsumed.
- Try some of these butter substitute alternatives in your recipes. The nutritional value that you can gain from a butter substitute may go way beyond what you expected while offering delicious flavor. You don’t have to give up flavor to have the best health. You just need to take the time to learn how to put foods together. Experiment with some of the options I list above for your next meal.
- Try a sauté with bone broth instead of butter or oil. Opt for a little hummus on your morning eggs instead of butter. Or try any my favorite butter substitute options: coconut oil/coconut butter, shea butter, cocoa butter, mashed avocado, hummus, extra virgin olive oil, applesauce, dairy-free yogurt, chicken/vegetable stock or bone broth, nut butters, pumpkin puree, and nutritional yeast.
- One more note — if you cook with a non-stick pan, just make sure that it has not been damaged since it can cause chemicals can leach into your food.
- Keep in mind that some of these butter substitute options are very high in fat. Even though it may be healthy fat, it’s still important to keep an eye on the amount you use.