A slice of bread spread with nut butter

There it sits, that bare slice of bread, waiting for you to spread something on it to make it even more appealing and nutritious.

What’s the healthiest pick? You could opt for a drizzle of olive oil, mashed avocado, hummus, or even low-fat cottage cheese. But many people would prefer dairy butter, margarine, plant or vegan butter or spread, or nut butter. And among these, there are a few considerations. “Many spreads are mostly combinations of different oils,” says Amy Keating, R.D., nutritionist at CR. “Some have more saturated fat, but others have mostly ‘good’ fats that can be healthy additions to your diet.”

Complicating matters, you may have heard that some studies have suggested that saturated fat is not such a dietary villain. That’s just not true, says Alice H. Lichtenstein, D.Sc., the Gershoff Professor of Nutrition Science and Policy at the Friedman School at Tufts University in Boston. “The data clearly indicate that replacing saturated fat with unsaturated fat decreases heart disease risk,” she says.

To help you make the best choice for your health and taste buds, we’ve broken down the differences among the common spreads so that you have the information you need when you’re navigating your choices.

Nut and Seed Butters

Peanut butter is a good source of plant protein (about 4 grams per table­spoon), but you have other options. There are other nut butters, such as almond, cashew, and pistachio. Or you can try a seed butter, such as one made with sunflower, sesame, pumpkin, or even watermelon seeds.

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Pros: “They’re low in saturated fat, so they’re good substitutes for [protein] foods high in saturated fat, like red meat,” Lichten­stein says. Unlike animal sources of protein, these butters also contain fiber. Plus, nuts and seeds are generally rich in vitamin E and beneficial phytochemicals.

Cons: “Like real butter and spreads, nut butters are a calorie-dense food and should be used in moderation,” Lichtenstein says. Nut and seed butters also vary in the addi­tives they contain, such as sugar or palm or palm fruit oil, which keeps the spread from separating at room temperature but adds saturated fat. Try a variety of nut and seed butters, but stick with brands that are unsalted or have just a little salt and that list the fewest ingredients.

Dairy Butter

Bread and butter is a breakfast staple—just think hot buttered toast. Made primarily from cream, butter is widely available and keeps well for a dairy food.

Pros: Butter isn’t full of additives, and it naturally contains beta carotene that your body converts into vitamin A, which is important for eye health. (But butter doesn’t provide as much of the nutrient as orange-colored fruits and vegetables, such as carrots, do.)

Cons: The big one is saturated fat. A tablespoon of butter has about 12 grams of fat, around 7 of them saturated. (If you’re eating 1,800 calories daily, you should be trying to keep your saturated fat intake to less than about 20 grams.) It’s high in calories, too: around 100 per tablespoon, an amount that doesn’t go as far as you might think on a dinner roll or baked potato

Plant Butters

These may sound like a new product, but the ingredients lists on plant butters (sometimes called vegan butters) are pretty similar to those for margarine and vegetable oil spreads. For practical purposes, the categories are interchangeable.

Pros: Much like margarine, they’re often made from a combination of plant oils, such as soybean, canola, olive, and avocado. They can be lower in calories and saturated fat than dairy butter and have more heart-healthy mono- and poly- unsaturated fats.

Cons: The labels may say “made with olive oil” or another healthy-sounding oil, but these products typically contain a mix of plant oils, some of which might not be as good for you as the one being touted. Palm and palm kernel oil are commonly used, which adds a fair amount of saturated fat. They may also have additives, like natural flavors. Taste and texture can vary, too, so it may take some experimenting to find the one you like best.

Editor’s Note: This article also appeared in the August 2020 issue of Consumer Reports On Health