It's no surprise that there are loads of "better than butter" products in supermarkets today. Butter, after all, has 100 calories, 11 grams of fat, and 7 grams of saturated fat per tablespoon (about half the saturated fat you should consume in a day if you're following a 2,000-calorie-per-day diet). Margarine has the same calorie and fat content as butter, but less saturated fat. But it can contain trans fat, which is also damaging to your heart. Soft spreads that are low in saturated and trans fats are a definite improvement, says Alice H. Lichtenstein, D.Sc., Gershoff Professor of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University in Massachusetts. Here's the lowdown on the different types of toast toppers.
Spreads are typically lower in calories, fat, and saturated fat than butter or margarine. Some brands boast that they're made with olive oil or canola oil, but that doesn't mean they have the same nutritional profile as the oils themselves. Most are a blend of the featured oil and other vegetable oils. And all spreads—even those made with olive oil (such as Olivio) or yogurt (Brummel & Brown)—have trans or saturated fat. Our tasters liked Brummel & Brown 35% Vegetable Oil Spread (which contains partially hydrogenated soybean oil) and I Can't Believe It's Not Butter Light (which has palm and palm kernel oils). Both have 45 calories, 5 grams of fat, and 1.5 grams of saturated fat.
They may give you a slight nutrient boost, but don't assume that if a little is good, a lot is better, Lichtenstein says: "Your nutrient intake may go up at the expense of your weight." Smart Balance Buttery Spread with Calcium, which has 100 milligrams of calcium and 200 international units of vitamin D, had a hint of dairy flavor and melted nicely, but it was salty. The omega-3 spreads we tasted didn't fare as well. Smart Balance Buttery Spread with Omega 3 was saltier and artificial tasting compared with original Smart Balance. Earth Balance Omega-3 tasted like salty fish-oil pills.
Cholesterol-lowering sterols/stanols are another spread extra. Two grams a day—the amount in 4 tablespoons of a fortified stanol spread—might lower LDL (bad) cholesterol by about 10 percent. At 50 to 70 calories per tablespoon, that can put a big dent in your calorie intake. Our tasters gave Benecol 55% Vegetable Oil Spread a good rating but said it had an oily residue.
Trendy coconut-oil spreads contain coconut oil blended with other vegetable oils. They have 3.5 to 5 grams of saturated fat, 50 to 100 calories, and 7 to 11 grams of total fat per tablespoon. You may have heard that coconut oil contains a "healthy" saturated fat called medium-chain triglycerides. But Lichtenstein points out that it contains other types of saturated fat as well. Our tasters liked Melt Organic and Earth Balance Organic Coconut spreads, noting that they had a strong coconut flavor.
You may get more health benefits if you keep an open mind about what to spread on your bread. "It's important to opt for healthier versions of foods we normally consume," said Alice H. Lichtenstein, D.Sc., Gershoff Professor of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University. "However, we need to step back and decide if there's something even better." Nut and seed butters, such as almond or sunflower, are naturally rich in heart-healthy fats and also contain fiber and protein, which are not found in butter substitutes. You can also try mashed avocado, hummus, or extra virgin olive oil. All have a better-than-butter fat mix.
This article appears in the February 2014 issue of Consumer Reports on Health.