Butter Substitutes

Tuesday, 3 February 2009 | Tags: ,

Margarine was developed in the 19th century when butter availability became scarce. Now mostly vegetable fat (originally mostly animal fat), butter substitutes come in many shapes and formats. We find out more about using butter substitutes on our food and in our cooking.

The Basics

  • Regular, commercially-made butter is usually 80% butterfat, 15% water, and about 5% milk solids (plus salt in salted butter types).

  • Margarine is also about 80% fat. The remainder is water (or skim milk), emulsifiers, and additives.

  • Concerns over butter’s saturated fat and cholesterol content have contributed to increased margarine sales. However, until recently, most margarine also contained hydrogenated oils (trans fat).

  • You will find margarine in three main forms:

    • Stick margarines are wrapped in wax or foil similar to butter and usually contain hydrogenated oil (trans fat), so are becoming less popular on the market.

    • Soft-tub margarine is usually made of non-hydrogenated vegetable oils, so most are nearly trans fat-free, though some still contain trace amounts, even if the label says “trans-fat free”. Soft tub margarine is also low in cholesterol and saturated fat. Some brands also provide healthy fats such as omega-3 fatty acids.

    • Light margarine is the same as soft tub, but has a much higher water content, so about half the calories and fat (which makes it unsuitable for use in cooking).

Other Considerations

  • Cooking with Margarine

    • Hard margarine can be substituted for butter in many recipes. Just pay attention to the salt content since many recipes call for unsalted butter.

    • Light margarines cannot be substituted for butter since has more water than fat so doesn’t provide the right mixture.

    • Regular soft margarine can be substituted in some cakes and cookies. Don’t use it in pastry because it won’t make flaky crust.

    • In the end, unsalted butter is the best to use in baking since it allows you to control the salt content of the recipe.

Be Aware

  • Always check the trans fat content of margarine. Don’t assume that it is trans fat free.

  • Though most margarines are now virtually free of trans fat, some experts point out that it’s still a highly processed food and often contains genetically modified ingredients and additives.

  • If you are considering margarine due to dietary needs, remember many types of margarine contain whey and milk protein. Always check the ingredients.


We cooked up a big batch of popcorn and invited some kids to help us taste test a variety of butter substitutes. We tested:

  • Lactantia Light Butter (454 grams): $6.09
  • Safeway-brand Hard Margarine (454 grams): $1.99
  • Becel Original Soft Margarine (454 grams): $4.19
  • I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter Soft Margarine (454 grams): $3.69

Taste Test

  • We all found that the Lactantia Light Butter didn’t have much flavour. It just didn’t taste as buttery compared to the other brands.

  • The Safeway, Becel, and “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter” all tasted similar

  • In the end, most of us felt the “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter” had a “butterier” taste overall.


If real butter isn’t on the menu, we think “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter” does a great job providing a rich buttery taste.

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