Is Butter Vegan?

The Difference Between Butter, Margarine, and Vegan Butter

Butter and bread
Mizina / Getty Images

Butter is one of those ingredients that many of us use often but don't give a lot of thought. If you or a loved one is keeping a vegan diet, you may be wondering if butter is OK to eat. The short answer is no, butter is not vegan. Luckily, whereas many years ago butter was the only option, nowadays the dairy case at the supermarket is stocked full of a variety of butters and butter substitutes. So which is the best if you are cooking vegan?

Before answering that question, it is best to fully understand what a vegan diet is and what butter is made of.

What is a Vegan?

A vegan is a person who does not eat any food that came from an animal. This includes meat, of course, but it also includes eggs, dairy products, and some other animal byproducts as well. So, to be more specific, vegans do not eat beef, chicken, fish, shellfish, or pork. Also eliminated from their diet is any kind of dairy product including milk, cheese, butter, ice cream, and yogurt. And because eggs come from chickens, they are forbidden as well. So any foods containing these products—from pizza to smoothies to cookies to omelets—are not part of a vegan diet. Keep in mind that a vegan is different than a vegetarian, who is someone who avoids all animal meats, but will usually consume eggs and dairy products.

The word vegan is also used as an adjective to describe foods which are free from animal products and made entirely from plants, such as fruits, vegetables, beans, lentils, whole grains, and nuts, and anything made from these foods, such as hummus, tofu, and meat substitutes.

What is Butter?

We spread it on toast, melt it in a frying pan, and cream it with sugar, but have we really thought about what makes up butter? Butter is actually made from cream, the higher-fat part of milk, which, as we know, comes from a cow. Traditionally, the definition of butter is very simple, and theoretically, butter contains little else other than the cream. But nowadays there are dozens of different products labeled "butter" on the grocery store shelves, from nut butters to fruit butters to almost anything that spreads like butter. 

So since butter comes from cream, which comes from a cow, and vegans do not eat any products that come from animals, it is clear that butter is not vegan and should be avoided by anyone eating a vegan diet.

What is Margarine?

There are several versions of margarine on the store shelves made with a variety of ingredients. Mainly, margarine is a mixture of a plant-based fat, along with skim milk, water, flavors, and coloring. There are also some kinds of margarine that don't contain any dairy at all. Margarine was created as a less expensive alternative to butter since making butter requires a lot of milk—11 quarts to make just 1 pound of butter! Therefore, margarine is not a clear vegan substitute for butter but can be if the ingredient list does not include any animal products. So it is important to always read labels carefully.

So What is "Vegan Butter"?

Vegan butter is not actually butter. It is not made from milk, or cream, or any product coming from an animal. Usually, vegan butter is made using oil and other plant-based ingredients to create a product which looks, acts, and tastes like butter, but is not actually butter.

So now when you hear or see the words "vegan butter," you will realize it's a bit of a misnomer and a shorthand for "vegan substitute for butter" or a "vegan butter-like product." But in the world of marketing, those phrases are not appealing to the consumer, hence vegan butter. To avoid this confusion, many people label the product as "vegan margarine", which is a bit more accurate. 

There are some good vegan butter substitutes out there that you can use for both cooking and baking. Earth Balance makes a dairy-free vegan margarine that acts like butter—you can spread it on toast, saute vegetables, and even bake cookies and cakes with it. It has a nice rich, buttery taste and smooth texture, and doesn't contain any hydrogenated oils; it is also gluten-free and non-GMO. It is available as both a stick and in a spreadable tub and is offered in a few different varieties including soy-free and olive oil.