Covering the Spreads: Sorting Through The Claims

by Jayne Hurley & Bonnie Liebman; Information compiled by Amy Johnson


Talk about confusing. These days, butters, margarines, and other spreads all sound good for you.

Most have "0 grams trans," according to the labels, though they still deliver some heart-damaging trans fat. Many crow about their healthy olive, canola, or flaxseed oil, though they may contain too little to matter. And some boast about their "buttery taste," though almost all margarines and other spreads try to mimic butter.

Five minutes in the spreads aisle could make your head feel like whipped butter. Luckily, buying a decent spread is pretty simple. Look for one that doesn't contain partially hydrogenated oil and that has as little saturated fat as possible. (Our Best Bites have no more than 1.5 grams of sat fat per one-tablespoon serving.)

Here are some examples to help you decode the confusing claims that crowd spread labels.

0 Grams Trans Fat

"0 grams trans per serving," mean they're totally free of trans fat. According to the Food and Drug Administration, if a food has less than 0.5 grams of trans in a serving, the label can say "0 grams."

So "0 grams trans" really means 0.3 grams of trans fat in a tablespoon of Benecol Light or I Can't Believe It's Not Butter! Original, 0.4 grams in Blue Bonnet or regular Country Crock, and 0.5 grams (0.47 grams, actually) in Land O'Lakes Fresh Buttery Taste spread. (Most of those numbers come from the Web site of competing spread Smart Balance, not from the companies, which are mum on trans levels below 0.5 grams.)

Is 0.3 or 0.4 grams of trans fat too little to worry about? It may matter more than you think. In 2004, a panel of scientists advising the FDA considered a limit of 2 grams of trans per day. So a spread that's labeled "0 grams trans" could supply nearly a quarter of a day's limit in every tablespoon. That's not trivial.

On the other hand, a tablespoon is roughly equal to three pats (or three teaspoons) of butter, and many people use less than that on a slice or two of toast.

Our advice: Make sure there's no "partially hydrogenated" oil in the ingredients list. That way, you know the spread won't have any added trans fat. (Don't worry about "hydrogenated" or "fully hydrogenated" oil. Neither has trans fat.) Then look for as little saturated fat as possible.

We found several dozen spreads—our Best Bites—that have no partially hydrogenated oil and no more than 1.5 grams of sat fat per serving (see chart on p. 15). Our favorites: Country Crock Omega Plus and Plus Light, Olivio Light and regular, Promise activ Light and regular, Promise Light, Promise Buttery, Smart Balance Light with Extra Virgin Olive Oil and Omega Light, and Smart Beat Smart Squeeze. (Squeezes work well on corn on the cob, cooked vegetables, and other hot foods.)

Off Balance?

"Patented blend to help improve cholesterol ratio," says the big print on the front of Smart Balance's tubs. Few people read the small print on the back.

"The right blend of fats may improve the important cholesterol ratio when at least two-thirds of the fat intake in the diet comes from this product, or our Food Plan," it notes. That's what people ate in studies that tested Smart Balance's impact on cholesterol.

Regular (not Light) Smart Balance has more saturated fat (2.5 grams per tablespoon) than our Best Bites (1.5 grams or less). The extra sat fat might not be bad if at least two-thirds of your fat came from Smart Balance. But few people fall into this category.

Instead, most of us get plenty of saturated fat from foods like cheese, chicken, and even low-
fat milk, yogurt, and ice
cream. So you're better off with a spread with less sat fat (like our Best Bites) to balance" the sat fat in the rest of your diet.

Butter Up

A tablespoon of butter has 7.5 grams of grams of saturated fat—a third of a day's worth. It also has 0.4 of naturally occurring trans fat, which does as much harm as the artificial trans in partially hydrogenated oil. Yet some people insist on butter no matter what.

If that's you, check out Land O'Lakes delicious Light Butter with Canola Oil. Thanks to added oil and water, it has just 2 grams of sat fat per tablespoon and 50 calories (butter has 100).

That beats Land O'Lakes Light Whipped Butter or Balade Light Butter (3 grams of sat fat), Country Crock Spreadable Butter with Canola Oil or Olivio Spreadable Butter with Canola & Olive Oil (3.5 grams), Land O'Lakes Butter with Olive Oil (4 grams), Breakstone's Spreadable Butter with Canola Oil (4.5 grams), and Smart Balance 50/50 Butter Blend (5 grams).

Land O'Lakes Light Butter with Canola Oil isn't low enough in saturated fat for a Best Bite, but it's as close as butter gets.

Sticky Business

When it comes to baking cookies or cakes, a regular (non-light) tub spread like Promise Buttery is fine. (In some recipes, you can even get away with oil.)But to get a flaky pie crust, you need a solid fat. What are your choices?

Forget butter (7.5 grams of saturated fat in every tablespoon) and stick margarines like Land O'Lakes (2 grams of sat fat plus 2.5 grams of trans fat).

At first glance, Earth Balance Vegan Buttery Sticks ("No trans. Non-hydrogenated.") sounds great. But each tablespoon has 4.5 grams of saturated fat. That's close to lard's 5 grams (and the 5 grams in Earth Balance Natural Shortening).

In contrast, you get less sat fat in Promise sticks (2.5 grams per tablespoon), Crisco (3 grams), or I Can't Believe It's Not Butter! Cooking & Baking (3.5 grams). But they're made with partially hydrogenated oil, so odds are that the "0 grams trans fat" on the labels really means 0.4 grams of trans in every tablespoon. (That equals the naturally occurring trans fat in a tablespoon of butter.)

Your best bet? Promise sticks probably do the least damage. But no stick is harmless, so save that pie-baking for the holidays.

Heart (Sort of) Right

"Made with ingredients to help reduce cholesterol," says the Smart Balance HeartRight Light label. Well, yes and no. Here's the scoop on the three main claims on HeartRight's label:

  • Plant sterols have been shown in clinical studies to help reduce cholesterol. Yes, by about 10 percent. And HeartRight has 1.7 grams per tablespoon, more than the 1.0 gram in Promise activ. (Benecol has 0.85 grams of sterols, but it also has 0.3 grams of trans fat you don't need.)
  • Omega-3 DHA/EPA promotes heart health.The catch: Each tablespoon of HeartRight (as well as Smart Balance's Omega spreads) has just 32 milligrams of EPA plus DHA (the two key omega-3 fats in fish). That's what you'd get in about half a teaspoon of salmon. The rest of the spreads' omega-3s are ALA (alpha-linolenic acid). ALA is found in foods like canola and soybean oil…which is why you'll see "omega-3" claims on spreads like Olivio, Country Crock Omega Plus (or Plus Light), Promise, Land O'Lakes Margarine, Fleischmann's, I Can't Believe It's Not Butter! Mediterranean Light, and Earth Balance. EPA and DHA are more likely to cut the risk of heart attacks than ALA. But the smidgen in Smart Balance HeartRight may not matter.
  • Vitamin E…potent antioxidant. High doses of vitamin E may raise the risk of dying of heart disease. Luckily, HeartRight's low levels are safe.

Bottom line: HeartRight Light is a Best Bite, and its plant sterols make it even better. But it's not as good as its label implies.


"Masterfully blended oil for the demands of high heat cooking," crows the designer can of PAM Professional Cooking Spray. With 0 calories, 0 trans fat, and 0 saturated fat in each serving, what's not to like?

A "serving" of most cooking sprays is one-third of a second, according to the labels. What if you take longer to coat a pan? According to the company, a 1-second spray of PAM has 7 calories and less than 1 gram of fat. That's darn good.

Exception: PAM Professional. Unlike other sprays, it contains partially hydrogenated oil. We estimate that a 1-second spray has around 0.2 grams of trans fat. Hold down the nozzle for three seconds and you could be dispensing a third of your trans limit for the whole day.

With seven kinds of amateur PAM and at least a dozen other companies' sprays available, who needs a Professional?

Our advice: buy an oil spritzer from a store like Bed Bath & Beyond or Williams Sonoma and keep refilling it yourself.