Miyoko's Creamery cultured vegan butter
Vegetable oils are showing up in a variety of dairy alternative and vegan options.

CHICAGO — Butter is back and “whole” is now the smarter milk choice. Saturated fatty acids, such as those inherent to dairy products, are no longer universally decried as unhealthy across the nutrition community. Trans fatty acids, the basis of traditional margarines and shortenings, by contrast, are no longer considered safe for human consumption.

The industry changes prompt the question: What role do plant fats have in the refrigerated dairy case?

“The last five years have seen a sea-change in thinking on saturated fats, including those in dairy foods,” said Nina Teicholz, investigative science journalist and author of “The Big Fat Surprise.” “More than a dozen systematic reviews and meta-analyses now reveal that saturated fats have no effect on your risk of dying from heart disease. Also, there’s at least one rigorous new clinical trial showing that full-fat dairy is actually better than low-fat dairy for fighting heart disease.”

While this view is challenged by the American Heart Association, this view has been positive news for full-fat dairy and already is showing in retail sales trends data. Both whole milk yogurt and whole fluid milk volume retail sales increased in 2016, following a slow and steady growth trend that emerged less than five years ago, according to I.R.I., Chicago.

Cheese, which is mostly full fat or whole milk, continues to shine, with Americans now consuming 34 lbs annually, a growth of 43% over the past 25 years, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Butter, too, is a star in the dairy case, with annual per capita butter consumption in the United States (now 5.6 lbs), up almost 25% in the past decade to a 40-year high, 
according to the U.S.D.A.

“We have to rethink our views about all saturated fats, including dairy fats,” Ms. Teicholz said. “If they cause no harm, then not only is ‘butter back,’ but so are whole milk and cheese. The natural, full-fat versions of these dairy products are clearly the best for health. And, after all, cows don’t produce skim milk. The more natural and less processed the food, the better.”

Formulating with vegetable oils

Even with milk fat being in vogue, there are ample offerings of plant fat-based products in the dairy case. Some offerings are combined with milkfat, while others are vegan options.

The standards of identity for such traditional dairy products as butter, cheese, ice cream, milk and yogurt specify that milk and cream are required ingredients, explained Cary Frye, vice-president of regulatory and scientific affairs for the International Dairy Foods Association, Washington.

“When a required ingredient is replaced or substituted with a similar ingredient from another source, such as vegetable oil replacing the fat in milk or cream, the product can no longer be identified by its legal name,” Ms. Frye said.

The product may use the legal name when preceded by the word “imitation.” Imitations originated as a low-cost alternative to standardized dairy products, as milkfat has historically always been more expensive than vegetable oil.

Another option is to refer to the product as an “alternative,” which is what WhiteWave Foods Co., Denver, does with its Silk Dairy-Free Yogurt Alternative. The products often are designed to be a vegan version of a traditional dairy product. They are targeted to vegan consumers who may find such terms as imitation unappealing.

When the product is a blend of fats, the legal name may be used in the product description. For example, a bread spread package may include the phrase “a blend of all-natural butter and canola oil.”

Blending fats is quite common in the spreads arena, as a combination of animal and plant fats delivers a variety of benefits. You get dairy richness from the butter, while vegetable oil softens the product, making it spreadable right out of the refrigerator. In many cases, the vegetable fat is selected on the basis of its fatty acid profile, with the oil often a source of heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids.

Omega-3 fatty acids, and other fatty acids with recognized health and wellness benefits such as conjugated linoleic acid (C.L.A.) and medium-chain triglycerides (M.C.T.), are functioning as a nutrient in dairy products, not as a milkfat replacer. It is also the case with oils that may be carriers of fat-soluble vitamins A and D, which often are added to milk and other dairy products. The ingredients must be declared on principle display panels and incorporated in the Nutrition Facts Panel; however, they don’t convert a standardized dairy product into an imitation variety.

Earlier this year, Arla Foods in the United Kingdom introduced Lurpak Spreadable Infusions, which are blends of Lurpak butter and rapeseed oil with added herbs and spices, lightly whipped for ease of spreading. The spreads come in three flavor combinations, including chili and lime, smoked chipotle, and sea salt and pink peppercorn.

“Lurpak Spreadable Infusions taps into the trend of actively seeking out bold and adventurous new flavors, allowing consumers to spread flavor to enhance the taste and texture of breads of the world,” said Jordan O’Farrell, brand manager.

Finnish dairy processor Valio Oy introduced Valio Better. The new spreadable dairy product combines light quark, rapeseed oil and butter. The product states it is 37% quark, which the company explains reduces the product’s fat content, while giving it a fresh taste and softer texture. The rapeseed oil adds alpha-linolenic acid (omega-3 fatty acid). Valio Better is suitable as a spread and may be used in baking, but is not suitable for frying.

“We set out to create a completely new kind of spread with a full-fresh taste and soft texture, approaching its development from an entirely original angle,” said Annamari Jukkola, product developer. “Better spread combines the full taste of butter with the lightness of quark in a brand new way. Using quark in the recipe turned out to be the perfect choice.”

Spreads for vegans

Several innovative new spreads are designed for vegans. The products are blends of various plant fats crafted to deliver a fatty acid profile associated with specific benefits.

For example, Prosperity Organic Foods Inc., Boise, Idaho, produces Melt Organic spreads, which are made with a blend of what the company says are the healthiest plant-based oils. They include coconut, palm fruit, flaxseed, sunflower and canola. Each serving of Melt Organic is a source of medium-chain triglycerides (M.C.T.), which the body burn as energy instead of storing as fat, thereby boosting metabolism, according to the company.

The company recently added Melt Organic Buttery Sticks to its lineup. The sticks are made from a blend of coconut oil, high-oleic sunflower oil and palm fruit oil. The blend is described as being optimized for baking and cooking.

Also new is Probiotic Melt Organic Buttery Spread, which as the name suggests, is enhanced with probiotic cultures.

Daiya Foods, Vancouver, B.C., has built an entire business around dairy alternatives suitable for vegan lifestyles. Their lineup includes Greek yogurt alternatives and an array of cheese alternatives, including blocks, shreds and slices. Both product concepts rely heavily on coconut fats, which are similar to the saturated fatty acid profile of milkfat. Such fats deliver a rich mouthfeel and flavor not attainable with liquid oils.

The cheese alternatives blend coconut oil and non-G.M.O. expeller-pressed canola and/or safflower oil with tapioca starch, pea protein isolate and other ingredients. The yogurt alternatives rely on coconut cream, pea protein isolate and an extensive list of other texture modifying ingredients.

B’More Organic, Baltimore, recognizes the nutritional contributions of coconut cream and adds it to its new coconut variety of Organic Skyr Smoothie. The no-sugar-added probiotic cultured dairy beverage is made with milk from grass-fed cows. The new flavor is the first smoothie in the product line formulated with plant-based fat to support endurance and boost energy.

“We love developing products that have the power to change lives, providing the delectable nutrient boost needed to inspire and enable people to fuel their fitness and B’More,” said Andrew Buerger, co-founder of B’More Organic. “We are thrilled to share the launch of B’More Coconut as it continues to demonstrate our commitment to creating innovative, clean protein smoothies that are delicious, clean, organic, ethically sourced and completely free of the junk ingredients so typical of the category. Our goal is to make it easy to enjoy great health.”

Every 15-oz bottle of B’More Coconut contains 16 grams of healthy, plant-based fats. To date, there are more than 1,500 studies proving coconut oil and coconut to be one of the healthiest foods on the planet. Coconut cream differs from coconut milk as it contains less water and more coconut. An excellent source of minerals, namely manganese, iron, magnesium, copper, phosphorus, potassium and zinc, coconut cream also contains B-vitamins including folate, thiamin, vitamin B6, niacin and pantothenic acid.

John Ban, the founder of Grass Fed Coffee, Los Angeles, recognizes the nutritional value of the M.C.T. in coconut fat and adds it to Grass Fed Coffee, which is described as “premium butter coffee cold brewed, the evolution of energy.” In addition to the M.C.T., the 
beverage uses grass-fed butter imported from Germany, which is said to contain other healthy fatty acids, namely C.L.A., as well as vitamins, minerals and antioxidants.

Sunshine Dairy Foods, Portland, Ore., is starting to introduce Sunshine Power, which delivers a dose of dairy proteins and healthful fats. Each 16-oz serving contains 420 calories, 19 grams of fat, including added omega-3 fatty acids, and 30 grams of protein. The formulation was produced in collaboration with a strength-trainer exercise physiologist to provide athletes and exercise enthusiasts with the ideal beverage to provide energy, build muscle and assist with recovery.