Last Sunday I got a text from my coworker today that made my day.
To start the day, after the babies were down for their morning nap, I took big sis and went to Great Harvest bakery. I sampled some delicious bread that had whole pumpkin seeds and an appropriately short list of ingredients (they grind their wheat and make their bread on site, Monday-Saturday).
Going to Great Harvest takes me back in time, since my mom used to take us down to Indianapolis every so often to buy some fresh whole grain bread and visit her beloved Broad Ripple health food store. I can still visualize the dashboard of this sweet ride, which became my first car.
sweet ride via here
By the way, my sister and I didn’t know how lucky we were at the time to have a mom who liked health food stores and whole grain bread … I was just focused on the next stop, aka a trip to a “real” mall for some school clothes. I grew up in Muncie, which is basically a slightly more sophisticated, bigger, college town version of the fictional Pawnee, IN from Parks & Rec. Our mall had JCP and the Buckle, but nothing nearly as “cool” or “upscale” as the Gap (until, of course, I moved away for college).
Anyway, this Sunday I was lucky enough take along my mother who was visiting for the babies’ birthday. So I was already in a great mood.
I dropped one loaf of bread off at my coworker’s house (she’s really taking the lunch share rules seriously). I was still flooded with post-bakery-bread-sampling euphoria, out on a walk with the kids, when I got the following text from her:
Asking me for a chance to share the results of my many trips to the grocery employing Mindful Label Reading? SURE! So, over afternoon nap (the best time to cram in errands), I left my husband at home and ran to the regular grocery to check out the butter aisle and see what options they had. Snapped a few pics so I’d be armed with visual aids.
I am aware that there are definitely more “perfect” fats from a health standpoint (it doesn’t get much more perfect than minimally processed EVOO or coconut oil). And I know, I know, you don’t need butter at all, there are other options. But again, sometimes I just want a pat of butter. There’s not much like a regular ol’ slice of butter on a baked potato, hunk of crusty bread, or in my house, green beans.
So if you are like me, grocery shopping will inevitably bring you here once in awhile.
Where to begin?
For starters, I noticed there were not many things called “margarine”. There was actually only one honest-to-goodness margarine brand I encountered. It was actually hanging out in an entirely different section (by the tortillas).
At least Mother owns it.
Turns out, according to USDA regulations, butter and margarine must contain at least 80% fat. In butter, that fat comes from milkfat. But in the case of margarine, the fat can come from vegetable sources or a combination of animal and vegetable sources. The USDA does not specify how much fat should be in the spreads category, so the fat content varies between brands.
So why don’t I buy margarine?
Trans fatty acids are unhealthy fats that form when vegetable oil hardens in a process called hydrogenation. They are often used to keep foods fresh for a long time, and for cooking in fast food restaurants (and are the key ingredient in shortening). Trans fats can raise LDL (“bad”) cholesterol levels in your blood. They can also lower your HDL (“good”) cholesterol levels. (fact check: here )
If you wanna really nerd out with me, check this post I found through scienceblog.com that is a summary of the chemistry of trans fat … bonus points for calling it “Kinky fat”. I typically enjoy a little science humor. It’s safe to assume, there are not many redeeming qualities about artificially created trans fats.
Even though most of the containers I saw in this section said “no trans fat*”, I’m not so easily fooled. The claim is often accompanied by an asterisk that says *Per serving. So yes, these spreads may actually still contain trans fat.
Not chock full of trans fat, there is a grouping of less offensive vegetable oil based spreads. Unfortunately, these spreads usually are largely made with canola and/or soybean oils, which, unless labeled otherwise, are likely GMO (you can look at label for Organic or Non GMO verified). Up to you if you want to take this gamble, but for me, GMOs are relatively recent development in our food world, and I don’t necessarily want my kids to be the guinea pigs.
So that all seems like bad news. And GNP is in the business of spreading cheer, not fear (bear with me, still trying out tag lines).
Ok so where do we go from here? Remember I promised not to tell you to “always” or “never” do anything. Maybe I should have added buttery spreads to the disclaimer list along with fake creamer and identity theft. Oops. Well, good thing Wellness Mama is here to say what I can’t.
Ok so if you are hell bent on purchasing a buttery spread, for dairy allergies, lactose intolerance, or 1980s nostalgia (maybe my station wagon picture has triggered something for you) … here’s the best buttery spread I can find at the regular grocery.
It is organic (which by law means non GMO) and is dairy free. Best dairy free option in this section. It comes in sticks too if you want to more easily measure for baking.
But here’s the thing. I don’t love any of these buttery spread options. They are highly processed. Thanks a lot, Napoleon.
Now butter, I can get behind. It tastes better, and does not require a factory to produce. It meets my great grandparent rule (they would recognize it, and have it in their pantry). Butter is easy to buy, has been readily available for generations and it doesn’t require a laboratory to make. In fact, you can make it in your blender.
If you are going to buy it (like I do), then just make sure you pick real butter. Turning the label over you should see two ingredients: Sweet Cream, Salt. The most cost effective is private label (as long as the ingredients match, name brand butter shouldn’t really be any different).
I just keep flipping over and reading ingredients – name brands have made some tubs of butter that are spreadable by adding Canola oil to some (again, likely GMO). Even better (free) idea – You can just take your stick of butter out of the fridge a little while before dinner and it will be perfectly spreadable. Bonus is you get to use that butter dish you registered for.
If you are the type who needs spreadable butter straight out of the fridge, they make one with olive oil (3 ingredients: Sweet Cream, Olive Oil, Salt).
Ok, if that’s not clean-eating-enough for you … you may want to take it up a notch. I spied some organic butter on the top shelf. Even Better. I see this more and more at regular groceries now. It is pricey – $5.29, vs. $2.99 for the regular butter. But, you can count on this being rBST free, and not full of antibiotics. Wahoo!
Of course, USDA Organic is not a panacea. It’s not necessarily the only or best option if you want to make the “cleanest” food decision. If you have a local dairy that you trust and like how they farm their cows, that can sometimes be more pleasing, even though they didn’t pay to get USDA Organic certified. Or, they may not fit the Organic rules 100% (for example, I am not opposed to a farmer using antibiotics when cows are sick).
This is where you have to go beyond the label and do homework. For me, it all comes back to the source. What were the cows fed? In what conditions were they kept? Organic cows may still be fed a diet full of corn and soy (and, after all, you are what you eat eats). So it’s all about tradeoffs.
Which brings me to my pick for overall best in show. My new favorite.
This tastes good. Plus it is from primarily-grass fed cows that get lots of pasture time. And if you browse their website, you see the following:
“The Irish laws strike a healthy balance to ensure that the product is pure but that animals that require medical assistance are helped. Vaccinations & antibiotics are given to Irish cows if required in order to protect the health of the animal. If a cow does become ill and needs antibiotics, the milk that they produce is segregated from the rest of the herd for a specific withdrawal period until they recover & the antibiotic has left their system. Once this withdrawal period is complete, they return to producing milk as normal. This ensures the purity of the product and the welfare of our animals.”
I read this and decided I am comfortable with the butter produced under Irish law. And lucky for me I have seen the Kerrygold brand at Costco, Roundy’s, Trader Joe’s, and even the conventional grocery I visited for this post.
Why do I love grass fed cows? This is where I have gone a bit beyond label reading. Digging a little deeper, it turns out that when you use cream from grass-fed cows to make butter, it is higher in conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), a beneficial fatty acid that protects against some forms of cancer. CLA has also been shown to lower total cholesterol and reduce atherosclerosis in animals. Butter from grass-fed cows also contains high levels of vitamin E and beta-carotene (which is responsible for the yellow color in butter).
So here’s the thing. Everyone has different priorities. You have to decide what yours are.
So what will I tell my coworker? I’ll tell her this. Just say no to the giant tubs of spread. I know they are cheap. But look, they have ingredient lists like this that don’t sound yummy or healthy.
If you are cost conscious, and that is why you’ve chosen this, perhaps it’s worth re-evaluating how much spread you really use. Maybe you can modify recipes slightly to budget for the real stuff. Or try to make your own butter from cream in your blender in about 15 minutes (cheapest). If you don’t have time for that, get the store brand pure butter (2 ingredients). Trader Joe’s has taken a non rBST pledge so their regular butter would be an even better choice. But please, don’t vote with your hard earned dollars to support the manufacturing and marketing of big tubs of highly processed GMO soybean oil.
If you are not as concerned about cost (maybe you don’t use a ton or like the splurge), I’d get that top shelf Organic or Kerrygold (depending on your personal preference).
To summarize …
Absolute perfection in the butter department would be getting your butter from a local farmer who has grass fed, pastured cows.
You can safely rule out the other 96 options without fear of missing out on flavor or health.
If you’re scared of butter because you think it is fattening, talk to your doctor – but here are some articles that I found interesting:
Carrie Vitt’s Hashed Browns post. Carrie lives in SoCal and is a military wife, like Emily. She has some good recommended books if you want to learn more. Carrie also guest posted on 100 Days of Real Food, where she lists her recommended oils and oils to avoid. This is a good list to reference if you want to get away from butter completely.
NEJM – Weight Loss with a Low-Carbohydrate, Mediterranean, or Low-Fat Diet – A phase of maximum weight loss occurred from 1 to 6 months and a maintenance phase from 7 to 24 months. All groups lost weight, but the reductions were greater in the low-carbohydrate and the Mediterranean-diet groups than in the low-fat group. Also interesting, the ratio of total cholesterol to HDL cholesterol decreased during both the weight-loss and the maintenance phases. The low-carbohydrate group had the greatest improvement, with a relative decrease of 20% vs. a decrease of only 12% in the low-fat group. Then you can read this interesting interpretation of this study and the saturated fat / heart health.
Finally, Meta-analysis of prospective cohort studies evaluating the association of saturated fat with cardiovascular disease. See – the fact that I enjoyed these articles tells you I should have been a bio major. 😉
So why exactly did my coworker’s text make my day? It is so comforting to think that I have even in a small way helped influence my coworker to make cleaner food decisions. Next time I pick up some bread for her at Great Harvest, I will cross my fingers that she and her family will be enjoying it with a generous spread of real butter, not the big brown tub of processed GMO soybean oil.
Until next time, just remember … Butter is better (unless you’re allergic of course).