Sure, we can’t believe it’s not butter but is margarine vegan? The answer to that question is…it depends. For those avoiding dairy or animal-derived products, here’s what you need to know about the popular butter substitute.
What is margarine (and is it really healthier than butter)?
Most people are aware that margarine is a fatty spread, designed to taste so much like butter that you can’t believe it isn’t...or can you? Well, no two palates are the same so the answer to that question depends on personal preference, which is why we’ll stick to a fact-based definition of the stuff. The simplest definition of margarine is that it is an emulsified blend of fat and water.
And here’s something else that you should know: Margarine has evolved since its early days, when it emerged as a purportedly healthier, stick-form substitute for butter, only to be outed as a fraud that was full of trans fats (i.e., the bad fat that has been linked to an increase risk for heart disease and other adverse health effects). The margarine industry made some quick (and necessary) changes and now the grocery aisles are stocked with new-and-improved versions of this butter substitute. These days, most margarines are made out of a combination of vegetable oils (like soybean, palm, palm kernel), water, salt and preservatives.
In terms of nutritional content, all margarine contains as much fat as butter, but some may be lower in cholesterol and saturated fats. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s the healthier choice. Many margarines are made with hydrogenated (chemically hardened) vegetable oil, a process that creates harmful trans fats. Wait, but didn’t they get rid of those? While the United States has restricted the use of artificial trans fats, foods with less than 0.5 grams of this type of fat per serving are labeled as actually containing 0 grams, which means that there could still be small amounts present in your spread.
So where does that leave us? According to Harvard Health Publishing, “Some of the newer margarines that are low in saturated fat, high in unsaturated fat, and free of trans fats are fine as long as you don't use too much (they are still rich in calories).” In other words, when it comes to heart health, you can use these new iterations of margarine just as you would butter—sparingly.
Is margarine vegan?
Answer: No, not necessarily. Per the FDA, margarine is a solid or liquid emulsion containing no less than 80 percent fat content, derived from “edible fats and/or oils, or mixtures of these, whose origin is vegetable or rendered animal carcass fats, or any form of oil from a marine species that has been affirmed as GRAS [Generally Recognized As Safe] or listed as a food additive for this use.”
In other words, a product labelled margarine is not necessarily a vegan-friendly spread. There are no regulations stating that margarine must be made using vegetable oils, at the exclusion of animal fat and dairy. In fact, some brands of margarine include a blend of both plant and animal-derived ingredients—and even margarine that is 90 percent plant-based might have a non-vegan component in the mix. (Hint: Fat-based spreads can be emulsified using water...or milk.)
That said, it’s fairly easy to find margarine that boasts a purely vegan ingredient list, and many companies have taken to plainly advertising the product as such. For example, I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter has released an ‘It’s Vegan!’ spread and other companies have followed suit with packaging that describes their products as “plant-based butter”. For those following a vegan diet, these are all safe butter substitutes.
Still, there are many other suitable margarine options for vegans—ones that are more easily overlooked (presumably because the marketing teams are more than a few paces behind the competition). As such, it’s a good idea to know how to read an ingredient list. Some common culprits to watch out for include whey, casein, lecithin, tallow, lanolin and marine oil. If you see any of these ingredients on your toast topper, you should look elsewhere. May we suggest a couple of tablespoons of peanut butter or smashed avocado?