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Butter & Spreads

Ethical and environmental record of 50 brands of butter and spreads including vegan butter and margarine. 

We investigate palm oil and 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.

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What to buy

What to look for when buying butter, margarine or a spread:

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

  • Is it vegan? The dairy industry is responsible for 3.4% of global CO2 equivalent emissions, almost double that of aviation (1.9%).

Subscribe to see which companies we recommend as Best Buys and why 

What not to buy

What to avoid when buying butter, margarine or a spread:

  • Is it butter? Butter has a 3x larger carbon impact than plant-based spreads. Choose a vegan option for lower emissions.

  • Does it contain palm oil? 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 certified palm oil.

Subscribe to see which companies to avoid and why

Score table

Updated live from our research database

← Swipe left / right to view table contents →
Brand Score(out of 20) Ratings Categories Positive Scores

Our Analysis

This report covers butter, margarine and spreads, including vegan non-dairy alternatives.

What is the difference between butter, margarine and a spread?

Butter has a milk fat content between 80%-90% and is made by churning (dairy) cream until it thickens into butter.

Margarine is generally derived from plant-based oils, goes through a process of hydrogenation to turn those liquid fats solid, and contains between 80%-90% fat.

A spread is a blend of plant and/or animal fats with a fat content that is less than 80%.

Butter vs margarine vs spread - which is healthiest?

Margarine, also called butterine early on, was invented in the 19th century to feed growing populations due to a shortage of dairy butter. Amidst rationing during WWII, margarine became a staple food amongst all social classes. Yet it was associated with inferiority, poverty and fakeness, becoming, according to food historian Alysa Levene “a vehicle for class racism.”

In the 1960s and 70s, margarine had a revival, against the backdrop of increasing heart and cardiovascular disease. Around this time, too much saturated fat (of which there are high amounts in butter) was discovered to cause heart disease. Companies were quick to capitalise on this, with spread and margarine brands quickly coming onto the market and dominating sales by marketing themselves as having the full flavour of butter with much less of the saturated fat. In effect, Brits were swapping out saturated fats for polyunsaturated fatty acids.

However, the process to turn the liquid polyunsaturated fats into one which is spreadable but solid at room temperature – as needed for marg and spreads – involves partial hydrogenation: a process that creates trans fats, discovered in the 1990s to be worse for you than saturated fat.

Over the years, spreads have also been promoted as the healthier alternative to butter and margarine as they contain less than the 80% fat level demanded of butter and marg. However, the issue of trans fats still applies and there is endless debate between scientists as to which product is healthiest.

Nowadays, some newer margarines and spreads are low in saturated fat, high in unsaturated fat, and free of trans fats altogether.

But really the butter vs marg vs spread question is a false comparison, as it depends on which brand you’re talking about.

Overall, we would recommend that, whichever product you choose, you eat it sparingly as part of a balanced diet.

Slice of brown bread with butter spread on top

Environmental impact of butter, margarines and spreads

An analysis published in 2021 of 212 margarines and plant-based spreads, and 21 dairy butters across various European and North American markets, found that, due to the emissions produced by cattle, producing butter can have three and a half times the carbon emissions of plant-based spreads.

On average, for each kilogram of butter produced, 12.1kg of CO2 equivalent was emitted (including the more potent but short-lived greenhouse gas methane), compared to 3.3kg for plant-based spreads.

This means that one standard sized 250g block of butter is equivalent to 3kg of carbon emissions. However, whilst the study was peer reviewed and we also sense-checked the methodology, it is worth noting it was funded by Upfield, who own margarine brands such as Flora, Violife Viospread and Bertolli, and plan to make all brands plant-based by 2025.

Dairy links to 'catastrophic deforestation'

An investigation by Greenpeace has found that some of the world’s largest dairy companies are “feeding their cattle soya from a controversial agribusiness accused of contributing to widespread deforestation in Brazil”.

Within Brazil’s Cerrado region (which is where most of Brazil’s soya is grown), Groupo Scheffer, which supplies soya to the US grain giant Cargill, has been responsible for multiple instances of environmental damage, including rainforest clearance.

Key butter producers in the UK are said to be linked to the soya through farms in their supply chains, including: Arla, and Saputo's five brands: Vitalite, Willow, Clover, Utterly Butterly and Country Life.

Tree in the Cerrado area of Brazil
The Cerrado, Brazil (image Pixabay)

How to avoid palm oil in your butter, margarine or spread

The table below shows how all the brands on our score table rate under our Palm Oil category.

Many individual brands listed sell a vast range of different butters, margarines, and spreads, with some containing palm oil or derivatives and some being palm free.

If you’re happy buying a palm-free product from a company that uses palm oil elsewhere (for example, Naturli'), you’ll have a broader range to choose from. It can be difficult to know if a product contains palm derivatives because they can be a component of many different minor ingredients such as antioxidants or emulsifiers. Therefore, to avoid it completely choose a product that's either labelled as palm free, or only lists ingredients that you recognise as palm free.

Palm oil free Best rating Middle rating Worst rating
 Acorn Dairy Biona Anchor Clover
Mouse’s
Favourite
  Asda Country Life
Tiana   Benecol Koko
Yeo Valley   Bertolli Muller
    Co-op Naturli’
    Flora President
    Kerrygold Pure
    Lactofree St Helen’s
    Lidl Utterly Butterly
    Lurpak Vitalite
    M&S Willow
    Morrisons  
    Sainsbury’s  
    Stork  
    Suma  
    Tesco  
    Violife Viospread  
    Waitrose  

The life of a dairy cow

It is difficult to gain an accurate picture of what life is like for dairy cows – likely we’d hear a different story from small farmers, large-scale industrial farmers and animal rights activists. Here we outline some of the aspects of a dairy cow’s life, some of which also apply to sheep and goats, to explain why we marked butter companies down under the Animal Rights category for sale of dairy.

Separation of calf from mother

Shortly after birth, dairy calves are separated from their mothers so that the milk the calf would otherwise consume can be sold. Male calves usually end up as meat. Female calves usually become dairy cows like their mother.

Dehorning

Virtually all dairy cows are born with horns, which are removed through a painful procedure so that they are less likely to cause injury and require less space in pens and feeders.

Forced impregnation

For an animal of any species to provide a continuous supply of milk, they must be continually impregnated. The cow is restrained, and a farmer puts their arm into the cow and injects a gun full of semen into her cervix. A few months after giving birth she will be impregnated again, then be milked throughout most of her pregnancy. A few months after the next birth she will be impregnated again, and so on.

Intensive milking

Large producers balance the line between trying to get a cow to produce as much as possible while not overworking them so that they become diseased or otherwise unhealthy.

Dairy cows are bred to produce six to ten times as much milk as a cow typically would for their calf. They are milked by machines multiple times per day and regularly suffer from mastitis (inflammation of breast tissue causing swelling, hotness and pain).

Factory farming or access to pasture

Some companies permit cows (or goats or sheep) to roam and eat forage.

However, many cows have limited, or no, access to grazing outdoors. In 2018, an estimated 23% of UK and Ireland farms kept some or all cows inside for the whole year.

For example, major milk producer Grosvenor Farms Ltd has a 2,600-strong herd. The cows are seemingly only permitted to roam inside their barns, which the company describes as “larger than typical industry standards”.

Ultimately killed

After they first give birth at roughly age two, cows in developed dairy industries usually keep producing milk for 2.5 - 4 years before being killed at a total lifespan of 4.5 - 6 years. The natural life expectancy of dairy cows is 20 years. This ending may be brought forward if they are unwell or misbehave.

Drawing showing the life cycle of a dairy cow
Image (C) Moonloft

Vegetarian, vegan and non-dairy butter, margarine and spreads

What are the options for vegetarians (who eat dairy products), people who are dairy-intolerant, and for vegans who avoid all animal products?

Vegetarian butter, margarine and spreads

Products like lard (which look a bit like butter) are, of course, not vegetarian! Lard is fat from a pig.

The vast majority of butters, spreads and margarines are vegetarian, and will be labelled as such. If it doesn’t say vegetarian on the packet, and lists unfamiliar ingredients, it’s probably worth doing some research or picking a different brand.

Vegan and non-dairy margarine and spreads

If you want to buy a brand that is completely vegan and has no animal rights or factory farming anywhere in the company group, your best options are Tiana (coconut), Mouse’s Favourite, and Koko.

The following spreads are all vegan, however, they are owned by companies that are not vegan: Biona (vegetarian), Plant Pioneers (Sainsbury's), Pure (Kerry Group), Naturli' (Orkla), Suma (vegetarian), Violife Viospread (Upfield/KKR), and Vitalite (Saputo).

The following offer both vegan and non-vegan spreads: Asda, Co-op, Flora (Upfield/KKR), Stork (Upfield/KKR), M&S and Tesco.

Is there palm oil in my vegan spread or margarine?

Tiana and Mouse’s Favourite spreads are both vegan and sourced from companies that don’t appear to use any palm oil. (See the table above.)

Biona scored our best rating for palm oil sourcing because all of its products were certified organic (so from a physically certified supply chain), and it stated “we are striving to avoid the use of palm oil where possible. However, if this is not possible we ensure that only RSPO-accredited resources are used in the production.”

Since our last guide, Suma has gone from a best to a middle rating. It had been conducting an audit of suppliers and found that some derivatives in its Alter/Native range were uncertified. It has confirmed however that the palm oil used in all of its spreads, and the derivatives used in its Ecoleaf range, are covered by RSPO certification.

The butter mountains

The European Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) was created by the then EEC (later the EU) in 1962, with the intention of supporting European farmers. Initially this was done with a straight price support on food, which incentivised farmers to produce more and more, and governments ended up buying up the large surplus produced as a result.

The surplus butter was known as the EU Butter Mountains, although sadly it wasn’t ever turned into literal mountains you could slide down. Instead, it was sold off cheaply in poor countries (known as “dumping”) and while this meant they got cheap butter for a while, it also put local farmers out of business. And, as many poor countries are very dependent on agriculture and farmers are often the poorest of the poor, the practice was brutally criticised by Oxfam and others.

The CAP was reformed over the years, with the food mountains got rid of by ceasing to subsidise farmers to produce, instead paying them just to keep land in “agricultural condition”. This too has been pretty brutally criticised, partly for being a very regressive subsidy to land owners just for being land owners, and partly for incentivising them to clear wild land so it counts as being in “agricultural condition”.

Since Brexit, the UK has developed its own agricultural subsidies, which are more based on payments for environmental benefits. These probably are an improvement, although they have also been subject to various criticisms – for example, George Monbiot criticised them for being “payments for not mugging old ladies”: paying farmers for things they should just be required to do.

Image: milk cows dairy feed trough

Score table highlights on selected issues

Animal rights

Because of the inherent issues in milk production all companies offering dairy butter and spreads, products were marked down under Ethical Consumer’s Animal Rights category. If they have best animal welfare practice through organic certification this is reflected in our Factory Farming, Product Sustainability, and Company Ethos categories.

Acorn and Yeo Valley both only use organic milk so were not marked down under the Factory Farming category. Other organic butters, marked [O] on the table (Waitrose, Marks & Spencer, Morrisons, Asda), were marked down under Factory Farming, due to other activities in their company group.

Carbon management and reporting

At the very minimum, we expect dairy companies to be discussing how they are reducing the emissions from cows and their feed. Arla was discussing these issues, and was the only company to receive our best rating overall. However, as the company had received criticism from Animal Rebellion for its climate impacts (who said that it provided 10% of the milk supply in the UK), it still lost half a mark under Climate Change.

All other companies received a middle or worst rating, including the vegan alternatives – as they did not discuss steps taken to reduce emissions in enough detail, did not report on emissions figures and/or did not provide targets for reduction in line with international goals. Small vegan companies, such as Best Buys Tiana and Mouse’s Favourite, had a lower bar and received a middle by virtue of offering a lower-carbon alternative, although they did not discuss emissions reductions in detail.

Product Sustainability

All the brands which are non-dairy or vegan get an extra half mark for being vegan or an extra whole mark if they are certified as vegan by the Vegan Society. They may also get extra points for being organic [O] or Fairtrade [F].

(Additional research and reporting for this guide by Jasmine Owens.)

Company profile

Arla is the 5th largest dairy company in the world, and is a Danish co-operative owned by over 12,500 dairy farmers.

Arla owns the butter brands Lurpak, Anchor and Lactofree Spreadable and has a strong presence in the Middle East, owning brands such as Puck, Baby&Me and The Three Cows (Al Bakarat Al Thalath). Like Ornua it scored a positive Company Ethos mark for being a co-operative. However, it scored a worst rating for palm oil sourcing. It is also one of the companies Greenpeace linked to catastrophic deforestation in
Brazil.
 

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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