Food scientists at Cornell University have developed a butter-like spread they said is sustainable and contains only natural ingredients and no synthetic stabilizers. Their research was published in the journal ACS Applied Materials & Interfaces.
The product contains 80% water and small amounts of vegetable oil and milk fat. It could function as a low-calorie, low-fat substitute for butter or other applications. One tablespoon has 2.8 grams of fat and 25.2 calories, while the same amount of dairy butter contains 11 grams of fat and almost 100 calories, according to Food Navigator.
Alireza Abbaspourrad, a food science professor at Cornell University and senior author of the study, told the publication that researchers kept adding water to oil until reaching a final composition of 80% water and 20% oil. The process created a product that had the consistency, mouthfeel and creaminess of butter.
The Cornell scientists were looking to create a butter substitute using some familiar ingredients — water, vegetable oil and milk fat — yet delivering far fewer calories and much less fat. Their formulation could appeal to consumers who want to limit their intake of both but still appreciate butter's mouthfeel, creaminess and stability.
Whether this new product could approximate dairy butter in taste and cooking ability remains to be seen, although the researchers said it looks and has a texture like the real thing. Another potential asset is the lack of synthetic stabilizers and artificial preservatives, which some consumers are trying to avoid.
Still, recent trends have been toward higher-fat spreads, including dairy butter. According to Euromonitor research cited by Bloomberg, global retail butter sales were expected to rise 2.9% last year to $19.4 million, while North American retail sales posted a 7% compound annual growth rate from 2012 to 2017. A recent IRI report ranked butter and butter blends as No. 4 on a list of its top-growing categories.
Meanwhile, sales of spreads have been declining, leading to Unilever's sale of its margarine and spreads business to KKR & Co. last year for $8 billion. Unilever had managed to keep a relatively stable market share in the global spreads segment by debuting vegan and organic varieties of its brands such as I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter. But that couldn't make up for sales declines and the consumer shift back to butter.
Given the overall picture, a spread that looks and tastes like butter but has far fewer calories and much less fat might make an intriguing entry into the marketplace if it also tastes and functions like real butter. Still, it's likely to face competition beyond the dairy segment.
Non-dairy substitutes are increasingly challenging butter, with Fora Foods debuting a plant-based product made with aquafaba, the liquid residue from canned or cooked chickpeas. Miyoko's Creamery turns out both vegan butter and vegan cheese. With the Cornell butter-like spread containing many of the attributes that consumers look for, it would not be a surprise to see a food company and consumers give the new product a try.