If you are a vegan or anti-saturated fat, you’ve probably sought out alternatives to butter. Earth Balance, a popular alternative, is a “natural” spread of expeller-pressed oils “shown to raise good cholesterol while lowering bad.”
Use this so-called food for any purpose — every diet and every customer. Take a look at the latest ad for another butter substitute, Country Crock, and you’ll learn it “has 70 percent less saturated fat than butter.” Paired with a slice of whole grain toast, a banana and low-fat milk, it will make up the perfect breakfast for your kids, says the commercial.
But what’s truly better for you, Earth Balance or old-fashioned butter? Beyond personal health, how do these products impact social justice and the planet? Vegans and “plant-based diet” folks will trumpet “Earth Balance, of course!” It has much less ‘artery-clogging’ saturated fat than butter. Omnivores, meat lovers and moms cooking traditionally would probably say, “Butter, because my family’s been eating it for generations!”
It makes sense to weigh both from a historical perspective. According to The Nibble, butter has been present in human diets for about 4000 years, mostly in colder northern latitudes where it spoils less quickly.
It has long been a staple of many civilizations, even serving as a potent fuel source. Ghee, or clarified butter (butter reduced entirely to its butterfat), has held sacred status in India as a symbol of purity for 3000 years.
But wait. If butter’s bad for you, why would one of the oldest civilizations on Earth praise ghee? Why would the French, one of the world’s most eager consumers of butter and other animal fats, have one of the world’s highest rates of people living past 100 in the world? Shouldn’t citizens of both countries be dropping dead from clogged arteries with all the butter they consume? Let’s continue our investigation.
Earth Balance and Country Crock, in contrast to butter, are not so time-tested. In fact, their predecessor, margarine, has only been around since the end of the 1800s. It was in 1869 that French chemist Hippolyte Mège-Mouries responded to Louis Napoleon III’s call for an affordable butter substitute for those who did not live off the land.
Mège-Mouries invented margarine, which now appears in its trans fat-laden form. Trans fats, by the way, are not found anywhere in nature Đ chemists invented them with a complex process called hydrogenation Ń hence all of the nasty hydrogenated and partially-hydrogenated oils you’ve likely heard about. In medical literature, there is no doubt whatsoever that trans fats seriously damage the human body, causing heart disease. The only boon from the trans-fat boom has been to the profits of the food industry companies that use them.
Country Crock and Earth Balance, two of the most recent descendents in the margarine family, tout themselves as healthful. But can we trust these so-called “foods” if they’ve only been around for decades? And what about the lifecycle cost of butter and vegetable oil spreads?
If the degree of processing is any hint at a food’s nutrition, as author Michael Pollan suggests, then butter wins out bar none. In most cases, butter has just one ingredient: cream, which is sometimes salted. Granted, the resource cost for butter is intense, at 21 pounds of milk to produce a single pound of product.
Earth Balance, however, has 11 ingredients. It has the dubious “natural flavor,” which Fast Food Nation author Eric Schlosser thinks is neither a flavor nor natural. It’s a man-made food additive, a chemical. This is the first Real Food Red Flag.
Aside from soy lecithin and annatto, two ingredients our bodies had never encountered before the 20th century, Earth Balance features a “natural oil blend” of palm and soybean oils. Sounds smooth, doesn’t it? It really rolls off the tongue. As the industry knows well, that’s what sells.
On one hand, we’re left with Earth Balance and its food additives and massive processing. On the other, butter and its time-tested blend of a few ingredients and less distant production, yet with an inefficient conversion of resources to final product. Which is the winner this round? You be the judge.