Butter & Spreads

In this guide we investigate, score and rank the ethical and environmental record of 32 brands of butter and spreads. 

We also look at palm oil scores, animal rights, shine a spotlight on Arla and give our recommended buys.

About Ethical Consumer

This is a product guide from Ethical Consumer, the UK's leading alternative consumer organisation. Since 1989 we've been researching and recording the social and environmental records of companies, and making the results available to you in a simple format.

What to buy

What to look for when buying butter:

  • Is it palm oil free? The palm oil industry is destroying a significant amount of tropical rainforests in Malaysia and Indonesia. Buying uncertified palm oil supports this practice. Look for spreads that are palm oil free or buy from companies that source only sustainable palm oil.

  • Is it organic? Butter and spreads contain ingredients that are often grown with the use of pesticides and herbicides. Look for organic to avoid the environmental damage these cause.

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What not to buy

What to avoid when buying butter:

  • Is it butter? When all environmental impacts are considered, such as energy use, greenhouse gases, damage to waterways and acidification, butter is more than twice as damaging as margarine.

  • Is it dairy? The dairy industry is riddled with ethically troublesome practices. The best way to avoid these practices is to choose Vegan products.

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Score table

Updated live from our research database

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Brand Score(out of 20)

Our Analysis

This report covers butter, maragarine and  spreads, including non-dairy and supermarket brands.

What is the difference?

In the EU there are regulations over what can be called a butter, margarine or spread.

  • Butter: “The product with a milk-fat content of not less than 80% but less than 90%, a maximum water content of 16% and a maximum dry non-fat milk-material content of 2%.”
  • Margarine: “The product obtained from vegetable and/or animal fats with a fat content of not less than 80% but less than 90%.”

According to DEFRA only a “small number of producers in the UK make a fat spread that would legally qualify as margarine.”

  • Spread: a blend of plant and/or animal fats whose fat content is less than 80%.

What’s in a spread?

Over the years spreads have been promoted as the healthier alternative to butter due to the fact they contain less saturated fats, which increase cholesterol, and more polyunsaturated fats, which can help to maintain healthy cholesterol levels. The robustness of these claims is currently the subject of debate. Research was published in 2014 suggesting there was insufficient evidence to support claims that spreads are healthier. However, the British Heart Foundation, which helped to fund the study, has not changed its advice on butter and cholesterol because it says that more research is still needed.

With sales of bread in decline in recent years, the whole butter, margarine and spreads market has struggled. Butter has fared better than margarines and spreads though, perhaps partly due to this uncertainty around the latter’s health benefits and due to the image of butter as more natural and less processed.

Butter is made by churning cream until it thickens. The remaining liquid (buttermilk) is drained off and the residual solids are shaped into blocks.

The basic method for making margarine is to emulsify a blend of vegetable oils and fats such as palm, rapeseed or sunflower with skimmed milk, chilling the mixture to solidify it and working it to improve the texture.

In the past, many companies made margarine using a process called hydrogenation. This is where liquid oils are hydrogenated by bubbling hydrogen through them to turn them into solid fats. However, concerns about this process leading to increased trans fats has meant that many of the companies and supermarkets in this report have removed hydrogenated fats from their products.

Many food manufacturers have turned to palm oil as the preferred replacement oil because, unlike most vegetable oils, it is solid at room temperature.

As water and fat do not usually mix, emulsifiers are used in spreads as well (namely, lecithin and mono-glycerides). Flavourings, stabilisers, colourings and preservatives are also added, along with artificial vitamins. Some spreads contain gelatine to help improve consistency.

Image: butter

Environmental impact 

The process for making margarines and spreads may be more convoluted than butter but this doesn’t necessarily mean that it is more energy intensive.

A life-cycle analysis of butter, margarine and spreads in the UK, France and Germany found that margarine was less than half as environmentally damaging as butter in terms of energy use, greenhouse gases, damage to waterways and acidification. The large carbon footprint of butter (and spreadable butter) is due in large part to the methane produced by cows.

The only area where butter outperformed margarine was on its potential to create low-level ozone. This was due to the use of hexane in the extraction of oils – the more oil in a product, the more hexane required for extraction.

Packaging

When it comes to the packaging of butters and spreads, the words ‘rock’ and ‘hard place’ spring to mind.

Butter comes in wrappers made with layers of paper, aluminium and wax, paraffin or polyethylene. These cannot be recycled but they are small in volume and contain relatively little plastic, so could be considered a less bad option. Spreads come in containers made of low-grade plastic which are theoretically recyclable, but there are few facilities in the UK to do this.

This lack of facilities is partly down to demand for the recycled material and partly down to the recycling process itself.9 Companies making things out of recycled materials demand high-grade plastics such as the ones used in plastic bottles, but margarine and spreadable butter tubs are mainly made from low-grade plastics. High- and low-grade plastics also melt at different temperatures, so any low-grade plastics that find their way into a batch of plastic recycling will contaminate it, rendering it unusable.

If you have room in your fridge you could buy in bulk, which means less packaging per unit of product and also gives you potentially more useful storage containers afterwards. Of the companies in this guide, Suma’s sunflower spread and Morrisons spread are available in 2 kg tubs. Tesco and Asda spreads are available in 1 kg tubs.

You can of course try making your own regular butter using cream, or vegan butter using chickpea water (aquafaba). An online search will give you all the information you need.

Animal rights

Butter is, of course, a product of dairy farming, an industry with inherent animal welfare issues due to the simple fact that, if you want a continuous supply of milk, you need to keep female cows in a perpetual cycle of pregnancy and birth to encourage lactation.

Image: cows

To ensure high yields, cows have been selectively bred for dairy farming and can now produce six to ten times (20-45 litres) what they naturally would for a calf. This can have health implications which, when coupled with reduced pasture time or zero grazing (no time outdoors), it’s not surprising that dairy cows commonly suffer from Mastitis (an infection of the udder) and lameness (a foot infection).
Because of these inherent issues all companies offering dairy products are marked down under Ethical Consumer’s Animal Rights category. Where we differentiate between best animal welfare practice is under the Factory Farming, Product Sustainability, and Company Ethos categories. 

Yeo Valley uses only organic milk so is not marked down under the Factory Farming category and gains a positive Company Ethos mark. Other organic butters were marked down under Factory Farming due to other activities in their company group. If a company offers an organic product (look for the [O] on the score table), it will gain a positive Product Sustainability mark.

Table: butter palm oil ratings
*These brands have some palm oil-free products even if the company group is not entirely palm oil-free: Biona Coconut Spread, Waitrose butter, M&S butter and softer butter, Yeo Valley (all products), St Helen’s Farm (all products), Kerrygold Spreadable and Softer Butter.
‡No ingredient information could be found.

Palm oil scores

None of the companies in this guide were palm oil free. Yeo Valley is a palm oil free brand but its parent company, Yeo Valley Farms (Production) Ltd, makes products containing palm oil for external clients. St Helen’s Farm similarly does not use palm oil in any of its products but it is part of a wider group, Kavli, that does use palm oil and has a weak policy regarding sustainable sourcing. St Helen’s Farm therefore received our worst rating for palm oil, based on the policy of its parent company.

Kerry Group (Pure Dairy Free) has gone from a best rating for palm oil sourcing to a worst rating in the space of a one year.
When we looked at Kerry Group in 2017, it stated that 100% of its palm oil was certified by the RSPO. The company had promised that, by 2018, all of its palm oil would be certified under stronger mechanisms: mass balance or segregated. This may be the case in the UK, but its most recent report to the RSPO has expanded to cover its global palm use, revealing that only 5% of the palm it uses is certified and only 0.2% through a segregated mechanism.

Kerry Group’s own palm oil policy contains stipulations designed to protect forests, peatlands and indigenous communities. It claims to be able to trace 81% of its palm kernel oil and 97% of its crude palm oil to the mill.[2] Unfortunately, these traceability figures did not include derivatives, which accounted for nearly two-thirds of its total palm oil use and of which 0% was listed as certified by the RSPO.[3]

Veggie and vegan brands

Vegetarians, vegans and those with pig-related dietary restrictions should look out for E471 in the ingredients list. This is an emulsifying food additive comprised of diglycerides and mono-glycerides of fatty acids. It is mainly produced from vegetable oils, but animal fats are sometimes used.

Veggie

In this guide, all the spreads are suitable for vegetarians except Benecol Light, Sainsbury’s spread and Lidl spread. The latter two are unclear, but they did not state that they were suitable for vegetarians and the online ingredient information was either insufficient or absent.

Vegan

These ones are suitable for vegans: Suma, Biona, Tomor (regular margarine), Vitalite, Pure Dairy Free, M&S Dairy Free spread, Flora Dairy Free, Waitrose Avocado spread and Sainsbury’s Free From spread.

Salty spreads

A survey in 2013 by Consensus Action on Salt and Health looked at over 300 products and found a large proportion (62%) of ‘fats and spreads’ failed to achieve salt targets set out by the Department of Health in 2012. It found that, on average, people consume 11 g of spreads a day, and that “whilst people are aware of the high fat content of fats and spreads and the risks linked to obesity, they rarely think about its contribution to their daily salt intake and their blood pressure.”

It also found that some diet spreads contained higher amounts of salt than full-fat versions.

The organisation’s advice to consumers wanting to make healthier choices is:

  • Opt for unsalted spreads and butters.
  • Think twice about diet spreads with less fat – they may have a higher salt content.
  • Have smaller portions or eat them less often.
  • Opt for olive oil, canola (rapeseed) oil or other vegetable oils high in mono-unsaturated or polyunsaturated fat when cooking, as they have no salt and less saturated fat than butter.

Company profile

Arla is a global dairy cooperative from Denmark. It was rated ‘tier 3’ in the 2017 ‘The Business Benchmark on Farm Animal Welfare (BBFAW)’ report, the same score it had received the previous year. Tier 3 indicates that animal welfare measures were ‘established’ within Arla’s business model but there was still work to be done. We felt that companies rated Tier 3 and below needed to demonstrate more progress, and so these companies lost a whole mark under the Animal Rights category.

Want to know more?

If you want to find out detailed information about a company and more about its ethical rating, then click on a brand name in the Score table. 

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References:

  1. Mintel Yellow Fats and Edible Oils - UK - September 2017
  2. Kerry Group Palm Oil Sourcing Progress Report, March 2017 
  3. Kerry Foods, RSPO Annual Communication on Progress 2016