What’s the Difference Between Vegan Butter and Margarine?

If you’ve ever peeped the ingredients listed on a tub of vegan butter, you may have noticed that they’re pret-ty similar to the ingredients listed on a regular ol’ tub of margarine. So let’s get to the bottom of some things: Is vegan butter the same thing as margarine? If not, what’s the difference? If Betty Botter bought a bit of vegan butter and put it in her bitter batter, would it make her bitter batter better? Or should she have used margarine instead? Just some questions I ask myself whenever I (vegan) butter a piece of bread. As for whether vegan butter and margarine differ, you butter believe we’re aboutta find out!

What ingredients are in margarine and vegan butter, respectively?

To understand how these two products differ, we have to know what’s in them. Like margarine, vegan butter is oil-based, and often contains some sort of plant-based oil emulsified with water, salt, and occasionally some plant-based solids. This oil can be canola, palm, avocado, cashew, coconut, or macadamia nut oil, and each option gives the spread a unique texture and cooking properties. As for margarine, it’s made by “mixing vegetable oils with water, salt, and emulsifiers until it’s got the consistency of butter.” Soooo…they sound pretty similar. Margarine used to be made with beef tallow, but nowadays, it’s mainly made with vegetable oil.

That didn’t clear things up at all. Again, what’s the difference between vegan butter and margarine?

The main difference is that vegan butter is guaranteed plant-based, whereas margarine is allowed to have milk solids in it. According to the FDA, margarine must be a “food in plastic form or liquid emulsion, containing not less than 80 percent fat.” So it’s really what a company does with that remaining 20% (or more than 20% if you call it a “spread” and not a “margarine” — food rules are so fun and pedantic). If it’s just vegetable oil, water, salt, and emulsifiers, the butter alternative in question may exist in that in-between space where a margarine just so happens to be vegan butter. If that 20% percent of other ingredients includes some milk products, which is totally allowed for margarine, then it’s margarine, not vegan butter. Essentially, if margarine is vegan and 100% plant-based, then it is synonymous with vegan butter. If you’re vegan or don’t eat dairy for other reasons, always check the back of a margarine tub for a warning that the product “contains milk.”

So is vegan butter just margarine then?

The conclusion here: All vegan butter is margarine (unless it’s less than 80% fat; then it’s a vegan spread), but not all margarines are vegan since some contain milk. When it comes to categorizing plant-based margarines versus vegan butters, I say go with your gut. No matter what you decide to call it, there’s a high chance the plant-based butter (or margarine) you choose will make Betty Botter’s bitter batter better.

About the Author

Jessica Block

Jessica Block is a freelance contributor to Sporked, a comedian, a baker, a food writer, and a firm believer that Trader Joe's may just be the happiest place on earth. She loves spicy snacks, Oreos, baking bread, teeny tiny avocados, and trying new foods whenever she can. Also, if you give her a bag of Takis she will be your best friend.

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  • Good day
    In my opinion if a product is not made from dairy cream then it surely cannot be called butter. It should be called Vegan Spread or margarine.