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Scientists create healthier butter made mostly of water


Photo Credit: Getty Images

*Product has four times fewer calories, fat than conventional ones
Scientists have created a spread that is made almost entirely of water, in an attempt to make a healthier alternative to butter. The spread is derived from 80 per cent water and 20 per cent fat, while real butter is made of 80 per cent fat – and has no artificial ingredients.

A tablespoon of the fake ‘butter’ contains a quarter of the fat (2.8g) and calories (25.2) of the real thing, barely touching daily dietary guidelines. The scientists have not said when the spread would be available, or what it tastes like, but previous ‘healthy’ butters have left customers disappointed. However, the team said how it was created gives the fake spread the ‘consistency of butter’, as well as having a similar ‘creaminess’.

Government officials have ruled that people cut down on butter because it contains saturated fat, which is bad for heart health. However, there is evidence saturated fat – also abundant in cheese and red meats – is good for health, too.

Food scientists at Cornell University are behind the low-calorie spread, and shared its creation in a paper published in the journal Applied Materials and Interfaces.


What is saturated fat and why is it bad? Saturated fat is a natural form of fat found in meats, butter and cheese. It differs from unsaturated fat in the way chains of fatty acids are joined together. Eating a lot of saturated fat can increase cholesterol levels in an unhealthy way and increase someone’s risk of developing heart disease.

This is because the cholesterol builds up on the walls of the arteries, narrowing them and increasing pressure on the heart while restricting blood and oxygen flow.

Foods high in saturated fat include: fatty red meats such as pork and beef; butter and products made of butter, including pastries and pies; cakes and biscuits; cheese, cream and ice cream; and chocolate.

The British Heart Foundation recommends that, where possible, people swap saturated fats for unsaturated fats.

Unsaturated fats are those found in: nuts and seeds; fish such as salmon and mackerel; vegetable oils, including olive oil; peanut butter; and avocados.

Senior author Professor Alireza Abbaspourrad said: “Imagine 80 per cent water in 20 per cent oil and we create something with the consistency of butter.”

He added it would have the same “creaminess” and texture as the real thing, adding: “Essentially, we can create something that makes it feel like butter. And instead of seeing a lot of saturated fat, this [spread] has minute amounts. It’s a completely different formulation.”

The spread is an emulsion – a mixture of two or more liquids, which do not normally mix well, in this case water and oil. Combining water and oil is nothing new, but the scientists were able to use new technology to make the perfect blend. They emulsified a large amount of water with miniscule drops of vegetable oil and milk fat to mimic butter.

Such mixtures need to have a stabiliser added to them to ensure they don’t ruin over time. But the scientists said the product is made solely with natural ingredients. Butter is around 84 per cent fat and 16 per cent water, the complete opposite of the low-calorie spread. The smooth dairy product contains approximately 11g of fat and nearly 100 calories per tablespoon.

Consumers are demanding a healthier alternative, according to co-author Michelle Lee, part of the research group.

She said: “It can play a role in providing healthier solutions for consumers.”

Professor Abbaspourrad said other food scientists could adjust the spread for taste, preferences and health.
The food scientists published their experiments (pictured) in a paper published in the journal Applied Materials and Interfaces

He said: “We can add milk protein or plant-based protein, and since the water acts like a carrier, we can adjust for nutrition and load it with vitamins or add flavours.”

How did they make the ‘butter’? The spread is an emulsion – a mixture of two or more liquids, which do not normally mix well. The traditional way to make an emulsion is to combine the liquids very slowly, usually drop by drop, while mixing rapidly.

Combining water and oil is nothing new, but the scientists were able to use new technology to make the perfect blend.

The food scientists at Cornell University used the HIPE (high-internal phase emulsions) process. When water and oil are emulsified in a three-to-one ratio, the emulsion looks like spheres.

But when the water-to-oil ratio is four to one, the spheres begin to deform and pack tightly against one another.

Professor Abbaspourrad said: “They start squishing against each other, and the squishing and packing results in high friction. They can’t slide easily anymore. They can’t flow anymore. It’s firm, as you’ve created something with the consistency of butter spread.”

Rob Hobson, Healthspan’s head of nutrition, said: “When it comes to butter, I’d say just use less of it rather than anything that’s been messed around with. I don’t think it’s an important enough component of the diet to worry about. If someone is desperate to reduce calories and saturated fat it might be an option.

“But if it’s just going on a piece of toast, it’s better to have butter than something that’s been emulsified.”

Hobson said if a person is concerned with their saturated fat intake, they should look to cut down on processed foods, like biscuits, cakes and pastries, first.

He said: “The problem with saturated fat is it’s often found in foods which are high in salt and sugar like chocolate and packaged foods. But butter is a real food.”

Saturated fats have been demonised since the 1970s after they were linked to high cholesterol, which in turn can lead to heart disease.

Since then, many health experts have sparked debate with the view that saturated fats aren’t all that bad, and in some ways, are good for health.

Looking at all the evidence over 25 years, Government advisers ruled in July that eating too much saturated fat is unhealthy.

The Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition said advice drawn up in 1994 shouldn’t change, angering critics who accused the panel of ‘gross incompetence’.

Current guidelines say saturated fat should make up no more than 10 per cent of an adult’s daily calorie intake, which is about 200 to 250 calories of the average adult’s 2,000–2,500 intake.

Flora spent millions changing the recipe for its butter in 2012 to make it lower fat and healthier.

But customers branded it ‘disgusting’ and the brand owner, Unilever, was forced to backtrack after losing sales.

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