Research has shown that veganism can help to lower your risk of obesity, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes and certain forms of heart disease, while the moral and environmental arguments are also driving a growing number of people towards the lifestyle too. With a little preparation, it is perfectly possible to enjoy a varied and interesting diet, but there are certain foods you need to steer clear of and unfortunately, many of these are extremely common ingredients. One of the most popular ingredients that causes a certain amount of confusion, however, is butter.
So is butter vegan? The simple answer is ‘no’, because it is a dairy product, which is produced by churning milk or cream. In the majority of cases, it will be derived from cow’s milk, although the milk of other animals may be used. Regardless, it cannot be considered vegan-friendly.
With that said, there are a number of replacements available, which can be used as a spread, as a cooking ingredient, or for pan frying. Although these products are not technically butter in the truest sense of the word, they are sometimes marketed as ‘vegan butter’ and serve a very similar purpose. Generally speaking, these replacement products will work as a substitute for cooking recipes, although the texture and consistency will differ, potentially altering the end results. In this article, I will try to explain why butter is unsuitable for vegans, and what the best alternatives are.
Why Butter is Not Vegan
At its most basic, butter is a substance which is produced by churning either milk or cream, in order to separate the liquid buttermilk from the butterfat. The result is a semi-solid substance, which can be spread, which is solid at room temperature, and which melts into a liquid at higher temperatures. The main additional ingredients are water and salt, with the latter being an entirely optional ingredient, which is used to add flavour to some butter varieties.
Most commonly, butter is produced from cow’s milk, but it can also be produced from goat’s milk, sheep’s milk, yak’s milk and various other animals. The crucial thing to note here is that real butter is always the result of churning an animal product and is, therefore, completely unsuitable for vegans.
If you are new to the vegan lifestyle, the realisation that butter is off-limits can seem daunting. After all, butter is widely used within cooking, is contained in many of the products you buy from shops, and is used as a spread for sandwiches, toast, crumpets and various other food types. Fortunately, there are a range of alternatives.
Many of the replacement products are marketed using the name ‘vegan butter’. In reality, these products are not classed as a type of butter at all, but the marketing makes sense. After all, they are specifically designed to replace the use of butter in a variety of different contexts, including as a spread and within food preparation. This means you can put it on your toast, use it for pan frying and use it in place of butter when making cakes.
It is also possible to find vegan-friendly alternatives that are not actually labelled as such. I will cover this in more detail in the next section, along with some of the ingredients you need to watch out for.
Crucially, this means there is no need for vegans to miss out on foods that require butter to be spread on them, or foods which contain butter within their recipe. All that you will need to do is replace the use of dairy butter with one of these vegan-friendly replacements. Thankfully, these replacements are also easier to find than ever before, with even some of the major butter brands producing their own vegan alternatives.
With that being said, the non-vegan status of butter will make certain pre-made items or convenience foods off-limits. Unfortunately, you will find butter is a surprisingly common ingredient in everything from cakes, biscuits and pastries, right through to certain sauces and even drinks. It is also important to check the ingredients list on many other food types, as they may be cooked in butter, or prepared using equipment that has been coated with butter.
Look out for any mention of butter, milk and/or cream on the ingredients list and check the allergy advice for reference to dairy. Whenever possible, try to stick to products that have been certified as vegan-friendly.
In the next section, I will cover the most common alternative to butter and explain whether it is suitable for vegans.
What About Margarine?
Margarine is a kind of spread, which became popular as an inexpensive alternative to butter, due to the high levels of milk required for butter production. On the most basic level, it consists of a combination of vegetable oils and water and while most of the margarine products on the market will also contain some additional ingredients, plenty of them are vegan-friendly. Therefore, margarine is a perfectly viable replacement for butter – in some cases.
The problem here is that many brands add skimmed milk to margarine, as it can improve the texture and assist with the actual production itself. Even when milk is not used, many varieties of margarine contain trace amounts of casein and/or whey, which also makes them unsuitable for a vegan diet. Some of the other ingredients you will also need to check for include lactose, animal fats and oil derived from fish, while vitamin D may be problematic if it is sourced from wool.
It is important that you do not assume all margarine is vegan. Again, whenever possible, try to stick to margarine products that have been specifically labelled as vegan, or which have obtained credible vegan certification.
One other useful tip here is to look for margarine products which are labelled as kosher. According to the Jewish dietary rules which govern kosher cooking, meat and milk products cannot be mixed. As a result, the use of butter is problematic, not only in terms of cooking meat, but also when it comes to making certain sandwiches. For this reason, kosher margarine does not contain milk, allowing it to be mixed with meats. Although a vegan’s reasons for using kosher margarine would obviously differ, the most crucial thing to note is that kosher margarine is vegan-friendly.
Best Butter Replacements
Butter is extremely diverse and is used for a large number of different purposes. With this in mind, the vegan replacement you opt for may depend on what you are intending to do with it. Although ‘vegan butter’ can be used for most of the same applications as regular butter, it may not necessarily be the best choice for all of them.
For example, if you are looking for a replacement to use for frying, vegan butter will work, but there are better options, including a number of oils. The precise oil you use may depend on what you are cooking. Rapeseed oil is a fairly safe pick, as it is relatively tasteless, while olive oil and coconut oil are also safe alternatives for vegans. Coconut oil is one of the healthiest oils if you are deep frying, but it will add a slightly sweet taste to your food. Extra virgin olive oil is another viable option for shallow frying, but it does not perform well at very high temperatures.
If, on the other hand, you have a cake recipe and need to substitute butter for something non-dairy, a vegan-friendly margarine is likely to be your best option here. Although certain oils can be used in place of butter – and you will often see this with vegan cakes bought from a shop – actually getting the balance right is much more difficult this way and may adversely affect the moisture of your cake, or the texture of the sponge. If you are using margarine, remember to double check the ingredients and stick to either a certified vegan or kosher product when possible.
A simple rule of thumb would be to use vegan-friendly margarine or vegan butter when you are replacing butter in its solid form, and to opt for coconut, rapeseed or olive oil when you are replacing the use of liquid butter.
Alternative Vegan Spreads
It is worth noting that vegan butter is not necessarily the healthiest food option, as it has very little nutritional value and may also introduce harmful trans fats into your diet. It is fine in moderation, but if you are looking for a simple spread for your toast, crackers, crumpets or bagels, there are a number of healthier vegan spreads to try.
For example, nut butters are an excellent alternative for use on most of these products, offering a more distinctive taste. Peanut butter, in particular, is widely available and is usually 100 percent vegan. Despite the name, it bears no real relation to butter and is a simple combination of ground peanuts and salt. A small number of peanut butter brands make use of honey for flavouring, which would make their peanut butter off-limits, so check the ingredients to be sure. Other options include almond butter, hazelnut butter, walnut butter and cashew butter.
Tahini is a vegan-friendly spread and condiment, perfect for spreading on bread, which is primarily made from crushed sesame seeds and water. Similarly, Marmite is a popular spread, made from yeast extract and it is completely free from animal products. With that being said, Marmite is produced by Unilever; a company which does not have the best history when it comes to animal testing. Whether you wish to use it or not may depend on your own personal thinking on why to become vegan. Generic supermarket brands are also available and usually marketed as ‘yeast extract’.
Some of the other possible spreads available to you include vegan pesto, avocado spread, hummus and a number of vegetable pates, including mushroom pate, aubergine pate and chickpea pate. As ever, be sure to double check the label for any problematic ingredients, but these options should all be perfectly suitable for a vegan diet.