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.