We get so many queries on this topic. There are a lot of negative feelings in the minds of people regarding anything considered “unnatural” in the food production world.
Whenever we talk about butter, most of us think that butter is prepared from cow’s milk. So, if someone says that their butter is vegan and not margarine or some vegetable spread, it sounds a little odd.
So, what is vegan butter? Vegan butter is just one more name for margarine, but with a clause that the margarine does not contain animal-derived ingredients say milk ingredients. Contents may change, but almost all vegan butter is a mix of plant oils, water, preservatives, flavoring agents, and emulsifiers.
You may argue that all margarine doesn’t contain animal products and is just a spread with the taste of butter and prepared from hydrogenated plant oils. We’d say that margarine is mostly plant-based, but there are some great products on the market that use milk-based ingredients.
Therefore, vegan butter may be defined as margarine without any animal-based ingredients.
We’ll check all the ingredients here, which are commonly used in 100% plant-based butter.
Table of Contents
Common Ingredients in Vegan Butter
One beautiful morning we will be telling stories to our grandchildren that there was a time when there was a thing called trans-fat. It was an innovative derivative in food production that helped plant oils to be converted into a substance called margarine that tasted and looked like butter.
The first part of the word transfat is “trans,” which is a term from organic chemistry that stands for isomers. If two molecules are having precisely the same chemical formula, but if they are still set differently, they’re known as isomers. Chemists use the cis and trans terms to mean how the atoms are oriented.
Food scientists discovered that they could rearrange an unsaturated fatty acid to the transposition so that it would switch from a bent position to a linear orientation. This helped the unsaturated FA chains to bond with one another in a similar fashion that long linear saturated FA chains did.
When FAs bind together, they tend to be solid at room temperature. Hence, you may take plant oils, change their FAs to trans FAs, and then they will automatically get a substantial uniformity just like our regular butter.
Trans fats are quite unhealthy and are even worse than saturated fats, so food researchers discovered other methods to prepare buttery spreads with plant oils.
In these days, the way of preparing margarine is to emulsify a blend of vegetable fats and oils, which are done by interesterification.
Earlier it was done with the help of partial hydrogenation, which is the process of making hydrogen atoms pass through oil with a catalyst like nickel.
After interesterification, the oils are required to be chilled and processed to get the designated texture.
Milk is also used sometimes during its processing, which is what makes some margarine non-vegan. But, most of the margarine factories do not add milk, and we categorize these products as “vegan butter.”
Please note that the word butter may be used for any spreadable or edible substance like peanut butter, shea butter, and so on.
So, it is clear now that the butter is not a monopoly of cows, so to say.
Sunflower or soy lecithin and monoglycerides or diglycerides are natural emulsifiers added in vegan butter.
Lecithin emulsifies ingredients, which means that it helps its contents stay nice and blended. One side of the molecule attracts water, while the other hand attracts fat, thus making oil and water blend when they’d generally like to stay unmixed.
Eggs also have lecithin, but we haven’t heard of any margarine product that makes use of lecithin from eggs. It’s always sunflower or soy.
Monoglycerides and diglycerides are also common emulsifiers in vegan butter preparation. You may have heard of triglycerides or TGs. It is a type of fat that resides in our fat cells. Monoglycerides and diglycerides have one and two fatty acids respectively glued to a glycerol backbone, in place of three FAs in TGs.
Unlike soy and sunflower lecithin, monoglycerides and diglycerides have a little shady reputation in the vegan community, as they’re made from triglycerides, which can also be derived from animal fat.
However, TGs are usually derived from plants, so diglycerides are not categorized as non-vegan.
If you’re a strict vegan, you may use margarine that mentions plant diglycerides on their ingredients panel. The health-conscious brands always do that to market their products to a wide variety of people.
Natural and Artificial Flavors
Some elements that are naturally found in butter, and are partly responsible for its distinctive taste, may be derived by chemical synthesis and are suitable for vegans.
Artificial butter flavor usually consists of acetoin, diacetyl, or acetyl propionyl, three natural compounds that give a popcorn flavor to the butter.
Somehow, producers must add such ingredients. Otherwise,the final product may turn out to be tasteless without them and may taste like stable canola oil.
Besides the oil, emulsifiers, and flavorings, other ingredients usually added in vegan butter are:
- Plan protein, such as pea protein
- Vitamin A Palmitate and Beta-Carotene (Color)
- Vitamin D
- Potassium Sorbate
- Lactic Acid
- Calcium Disodium EDTA (To Protect Freshness)
Lactic acid is not the same as lactose, a type of sugar found in milk. In terms of manufacturing, lactic acid is typically made from LA bacteria and is vegan.
Vitamin A palmitate has palmitic acid, an FA that is usually sourced from palm oil but can also be sourced from animals.
Most vegans don’t check these ingredients too much, because they’re usually totally vegan-friendly, and there’s no method to find out if they use animal-derived ingredients.
That was the fact file of vegan butter. Thanks for reading.
- Making Trans-Fat Free Margarine. https://www.mcgill.ca/oss/article/science-science-everywhere/making-trans-fat-free-margarine
- Margarine. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Margarine
- Babalu, Z; Nikoopour, H; Safafar, H (2007). “A comparison of commercial nickel catalysts effects on hydrogenation of soybean oil” (PDF). World Applied Sciences Journal. 2 (6): 621–626. http://www.idosi.org/wasj/wasj2(6)/10.pdf
- IUPAC, Compendium of Chemical Terminology, 2nd ed. (the “Gold Book”) (1997). Online corrected version: (2006–) “glycerides.”
- Pavia; et al. Introduction to Organic Laboratory Techniques (4th ed.). ISBN 978-0-495-28069-9.
- Lactic Acid. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lactic_acid#Production