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Ethical Food & Drink – Butter, Margarine & Spreads

The world has long been divided into lovers of pure butter, who defy the risks of too much cholesterol, and those who search for a palatable alternative. Although butter is still holding its own in the market, there have recently been huge advances in the development of nice-tasting margarines, dairy spreads and vegan butters. The drawback is that these tend to use a wide variety of different ingredients and additives.

What’s in them‍‍‍?

Butter is a simple product. It consists mainly of the fat found in cows’ milk and it is not highly processed, beyond the churning that makes it solid. Some of the ‘spreadable’ butters, the ones that stay soft in the fridge, may be blended with vegetable oil. Others are processed by breaking down the hard fats.

Margarine is usually more complex. It contains at least 80 per cent oils and fats – which can be of animal, fish or vegetable origin – as well as ingredients such as whey, vegetable colouring, flavouring and emulsifiers. Vitamins are also often added.

Any product with less than 80 per cent oils or fats has to be called a ‘spread’. To be labelled as ‘reduced fat’ a spread may contain up to 60 per cent fat, and to be labelled as ‘light’ or ‘low fat’ it may have up to 40 per cent fat. Spreads contain at least as many added ingredients as margarine and some of the lower fat ones have added gelatine and water. The dairy spreads – the ones marketed as being ‘butter-like’ – contain added cream or buttermilk.

Major supermarkets have now begun stocking vegan-friendly spreads such as Pure, although for a greater choice of products, wholefood shops are still the best option.‍‍‍

The search for health

During the 1980s, fears over the health risks of saturated fat convinced many people to switch from butter to margarine. However, in the 1990s it was discovered that trans fatty acids (TFAs) in margarine could raise the level of LDL, the ‘bad cholesterol’ in the blood, by as much as saturates, while decreasing the level of HDL, the ‘good cholesterol’. This is why some products, including some of the dairy spreads, are now marketed as having ‘vitrually no TFAs’.

Organ‍‍‍ic butter

Organic cows receive better treatment than most, because they are never kept permanently indoors, which keeps them healt‍‍‍hier, and their calves are suckled for around nine weeks.

GM ‍‍‍issues

Some spreads and spreadable butters contain soya oils, which may be labelled simply as vegetable oil or fat. Many of these m‍‍‍ay be from GM soya beans. That’s why it’s better to look for products labelled as GM free or organic.

Lecithin is a common additive derived from soya, and if it is of GM origin it need not be labelled as such on the grounds that there will be no DNA present.

Butter may not be unaffected by the GM issue, as the cows may have been given GM feed. Only organically certified products will avoid GM entirely


Butter normally comes wrapped in a single piece of paper, and this is clearly better than the plastic tub packaging used ‍‍‍for margarine and spreads. Although the tubs are marked as recyclable, very few of us actually recycle them.

The main reason for this is that polypropylene (identified by a number five on the packaging), the substance used to make margarine tubs, is difficult and expensive to recycle, and there is currently little demand for the resultant materials. Until this changes, few authorities are likely to provide facilities for recycling.

Key Research

Below you will find links to the key sections of our ethical research in Food & Drink:

We have created ethical comparison rankings for the following brands, based on the activities of the company group (see above tables): Suma, Pure, Yeo Valley, Anchor, Lurpak, Castle Dairies, GranoVita, Willow, Vitalite, St. Ivel Shirgar, Country Life, Clover, Utterly Butterly, Kerrygold, Flora, I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter, Benecol.

Disclosure:  Some of the links above are affiliate links, meaning we earn commission if you click through and make a purchase. Placement and use of these links has no bearing in terms of the ethical scores that we give to a brand.  All commission earned by The Good Shopping Guide is re-invested into the research carried out by The Ethical Company Organisation.

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