If you’ve switched to vegan or plant-based butter to be heart healthier, drop the butter knife. You may be adding a substitute that is just as bad for you or even worse than the real thing, according to a cardiologist. Most spreadable plant-based butters are high in coconut oil, which contains 50 percent more saturated fat than regular butter. Saturated fat has been linked to a higher risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, and ultimately more incidents of heart attacks and strokes.
So before you buy your next healthy-looking spread–the green one that touts it’s plant-based and has olive oil in it–turn it around and check the label, since if the first ingredient is either coconut oil or palm oil, it is high in saturated fat. The other culprit for containing a high percentage of hidden saturated fat is palm kernel oil, which comes from the fruit’s seed. If your goal is to drive down your LDL (or bad) cholesterol through a healthy plant-based diet, and you are not seeing the results you want, then this may be why, says Dr. Joel Kahn, Clinical Professor of Medicine at Wayne State University School of Medicine and bestselling author of The Whole Heart Solution.
“People have seen Forks Over Knives and are eager to get the same results as they saw people get in the documentary [by going plant-based], but sometimes they will be frustrated when their cholesterol doesn’t go down as much as they think it should,” says Dr.Kahn, a leading cardiologist, and plant-based nutrition advocate. “They say: ‘How come I am not doing great?’ I tell patients: It will be tough to get results if you’re eating a lot of palm or coconut oil.
“So if you continue to use a fair amount of palm oil-based plant butter, you may not see your cholesterol drop,” says Dr. Kahn. Instead, he suggests, look for cashew nut butter or other types of nut butters that don’t contain as much saturated fat as these tropical oils.
Saturated fat has been associated with an increased risk of heart disease including high blood pressure, stroke risk, and heart attack incidents, according to studies. By reducing dietary saturated fat, subjects lowered their risk of combined cardiovascular events by 21 percent, and the greater the reduction in dietary saturated fat, the greater the drop in the risk.
Regular butter contains seven grams of saturated fat in one tablespoon,
The plant-based oils highest in sat fat are coconut and palm kernel oil
Palm oil, coconut oil, and palm kernel oil (from the seed of the fruit) are all high in saturated fat, which is a culprit in driving up LDL cholesterol in the body that can lead to plaque, blockages, and ultimately heart disease, which may end up raising your risk for heart attack and stroke. Consider these values, according to the Harvard Health News Letter, a trusted source:
- Palm oil is about 50 percent saturated fat
- Coconut oil is about 83 percent saturated fat
- Palm kernel oil is about 85 percent saturated fat
- Olive oil is about 14 percent saturated fat
High-sat-fat oils are found in many of the most popular non-dairy vegan butters and spreads used by health-seeking nutrition-conscious consumers, who think they are making a better choice by leaving butter at the store and bringing home Tubs that tout “Olive Oil” based as one of the main reasons for buying the healthier-looking alternative. But don’t be fooled. A quick check of the labels and you will find that palm oil, coconut, and palm kernel oil top the ingredients list.
If you are avoiding saturated fat to lower your risk of heart disease, stay away from palm kernel oil and coconut oil, which are in the range of 85 percent saturated, while palm oil is 50 percent saturated.
How can you know what oils are healthier or lower in sat fat? Look at how solid they are: In general, the higher the saturated fat content, the more solid the fat will appear at room temperature. Palm oil is semi-solid at room temperature but coconut oil is as solid as lard.
Coconut oil is high in saturated fat — about 50 percent more than butter
Coconut oil is extremely controversial since some people swear by the medium-chain triglycerides (MCT) oils to help them lose weight, but there are few of these in coconut oil and more saturated fat. MCT oil has been extracted to use in products, but those that contain coconut oil are mostly sat fat.
How much saturated fat should you have in a day? The less, the better
The American Heart Association recommends limiting your intake of saturated fat to no more than five to six percent of your total calories, which is about 10 to 13 grams of sat fat a day depending on your caloric intake. For someone who eats 2,000 calories a day, then the cap would be 120 calories from saturated fat or 13 grams of saturated fat per day. If you eat less, then back that down to 10 grams of sat fat a day. Consider that butter has about seven grams of saturated fat in one tablespoon, it’s half or more than half of your recommended amount.
Deceptive labels show olive oil on the top, but serve up palm oil inside
I am devoted to my favorite buttery spread that is made of “olive oil,” or so it says on the label. And yet… I was doing some research on ingredients on the labels and discovered to my horror that it has the first ingredient of palm oil. We know that palm oil is terrible for the planet- since farmers are deforesting great swaths of the Amazon rainforest to make room for more palm plants that will supply the world with this oil, which also happens to be terrible for us.
The use of palm oil in food has been directly connected to the loss of biodiversity, the rise of greenhouse gases, and the loss of Amazon acreage. To say I felt “deceived” is an understatement. Another favorite spread’s first ingredient on the label is coconut oil, as the top of a list that makes up the “vegetable oil blend.” Since heart disease runs in my family and I am eating plant-based for health benefits. I held out hope that these plant-based saturated fats are somehow better than animal ones. But Dr. Kahn says there is virtually no difference.
Dr. Joel Kahn explains that there is virtually no “good news” about saturated fat, even if they come from plant-based oils such as coconut or palm oils. “Is it any better for you than the sat fat that comes in a marbly steak or a pat of butter? Not actually,” according to Dr. Kahn.
“If you are choosing oil because of the desire to see your cholesterol come down, know that Coconut oil is on average 85 percent sat fat and palm kernel oil is about 80 percent but those are six times higher than extra virgin olive oil and ten-times higher than canola oil.” At least canola oil is high in Omega-3 fatty acids, which are beneficial, he explains.
So if you see that a spread is selling “Olive Oil” on the top but it’s way down the label behind palm oil or coconut oil then that’s not truth in labeling, adds the doctor. If olive oil is lower on the label and palm is higher then skip it.
“Many of the plant-based oils that are used in baking use coconut oil since it stands up to the cooking process. So if you see a bakeshop with plant-based goods and they have nice baked cakes and muffins, you can be pretty sure they use a lot of it,” he added.
These tropical oils may fail to lower your cholesterol nearly the way butter would
“Still, if you look at a typical dairy butter, say a typical dairy brand, their standard butter has twice as much sat fat as many plant-based versions,” Dr. Kahn adds. We don’t have to name names, but there are very hot plant-based butters, and there is coconut oil everywhere. So plant-based may still be somewhat better than actual butter, but it may not get you the cholesterol-lowering results as fast as you’d like, since it still has about half as much as dairy and you could do better.”
The same question comes up when Dr. Kahn gets asked about meat versus alternatives: Which is better, a plant-based burger or a beefsteak hamburger? And just like eating a big marble beef burger, if you moved to an Impossible burger there may be some advantages, but it’s a long way from being as healthy as a homemade bean or lentil burger without all the extra additives, he explains.
When it comes to spreads, you’re best off earning to make homemade hummus or nut butter. Even when you choose a store-bought nut butter, check the labels, Dr. Kahn advises since even healthy-looking ones contain not only almonds but also palm oil. So a scoop of almond butter has as much palm oil as those other spreads.
“You have to read the label since every major study says reducing your sat fat includes these coconut oils and palm oils,” Dr. Kahn adds.
The same is true whether you are looking for plant-based creamers or cheeses or when you’re eating plant-based ice cream. Always check the labels, Dr. Kahn advises, since many are made with coconut oil, and it’s better to choose one made from almond milk. “But either way, don’t confuse that for an apple” he adds, for all the added sugar in every bite.
“Just because it says ‘vegan’ on the label does not mean it’s healthy,” says Dr. Kahn, “or going to help you reach your heart health goals.”