When it comes to butter alternatives, Smart Balance and Earth Balance are the 2 most popular options.
While they both market the products as “healthy,” a closer look at the ingredients gives me some doubt.
It may be healthier than butter, but is it a healthy food in general? That’s what we’ll answer here.
Table of Contents
Smart Balance Ingredients
Let’s start with the main ingredients.
The ingredients do vary based on the specific variety of Smart Balance, but all of them are made of 98%+ of just 2 types of ingredients:
Vegetable oil blend (canola, palm, olive), water
In other words, Smart Balance is essentially just oil with a small amount of other ingredients added to create a desirable texture and flavor.
Is the Vegetable Oil Blend in Smart Balance Healthy?
Again, each product has a slightly different mixture of oils, but most of them are focused on canola and palm oil.
Palm oil is terrible for the environment and most people get way too much of it as it is. It’s high in saturated fat, and while it has some nutrients, it’s not particularly healthy.
I’d like to focus more on canola oil here, which is the main ingredient of every Smart Balance margarine.
Canola oil is used because it’s cheap and has a pretty neutral flavor. It’s marketed as “heart healthy” because it’s low in saturated fat and high in unsaturated fats. However, in order to extract it from the seed, canola oil is highly processed, which destroys any trace of healthy antioxidants (source).
In other words, you’re left with pure fat molecules and pretty much nothing else.
How healthy canola oil is currently quite controversial, here are the most important things I think you should be aware of:
- Canola oil is high in omega 6 fats – Most people get way too many omega 6 fats in their diet, and it leads to inflammation.
- Olive oil vs canola oil – In a small study, people cooked using either olive oil or canola oil. The ones who were in the olive oil group had lower levels of inflammatory markers, while there were no positive findings in the canola group.
- Replacing saturated fat with vegetable oil – An independent review concluded that replacing saturated fat with vegetable (like canola oil) didn’t reduce mortality or heart disease risk.
Many of the studies in the past that have shown canola oil in a positive light were funded directly by the canola oil industry. That doesn’t necessarily mean all the results are invalid, but I trust them less than the independent studies mentioned above.
Other Ingredients in Smart Balance
You’ll see several other ingredients on the package of Smart Balance, preceded by “less than 2%”.
These are all present in such a small amount that unless they’re incredibly healthy or unhealthy, they won’t make much of a difference.
For example, one Smart Balance product contains:
Less than 2% of: salt, pea protein, natural and artificial flavors, sunflower lecithin, vitamin a palmitate, beta-carotene, vitamin D, monoglycerides (vegetable), potassium sorbate, lactic acid, calcium disodium edta
Most of those are just:
- Stabilizers (e.g. gellan gum)
All of those are common ingredients added to foods that are deemed as safe, and I wouldn’t have any concerns about them.
Smart Balance Nutritional Profile
Finally, let’s take a look at the nutritional profile of Smart Balance before wrapping up.
Here are the nutritional facts of one serving (1 tbsp or 14 grams) of the original Smart Balance:
|Total Fat||7 g|
|Saturated Fat||2 g|
|Polyunsaturated Fat||1 g|
|Monounsaturated Fat||3.5 g|
|Vitamin A||140 mcg (15% RDA)|
|Vitamin D||6.1 mcg (30% RDA)|
As mentioned before, it’s all fat.
There’s a small amount of vitamin A (beta carotene) and vitamin D that are added in small amounts.
Many people can use more vitamin D, so this is a small positive.
While it’s good to get at least some fat in a diet, most people don’t struggle to get enough of it. Smart Balance provides very little nutritional value that people lack in a healthy diet.
Bottom Line: Is Smart Balance Healthy?
Ultimately, we’ve seen that Smart Balance is essentially just canola oil mixed with one or two other vegetable oils.
The evidence on whether or not canola oil is actually healthy is controversial at best. Most positive studies are industry funded, while recent independent reviews seem to find either no positive effects or even a negative effect of regular canola oil consumption.
Aside from that, Smart Balance has next to no nutritional value, especially compared to something like virgin olive oil.
Overall, Smart Balance is not particularly healthy, but also not unhealthy in reasonably small servings.
Is Smart Balance Vegan?
All Smart Balance butter spreads are now dairy-free.
That’s a step in the right direction, but it doesn’t necessarily make them vegan.
There are a few flavors that are vegan, and a few that aren’t.
There are a few ingredients that might cause you some concern.
Let’s look at the ingredient list for the original flavor (all the flavors are similar), and then I’ll break down any potential issues:
Vegetable oil blend (canola, palm, olive), water, salt, pea protein, natural and artificial flavors, sunflower lecithin, vitamin a palmitate, beta-carotene, vitamin D, monoglycerides (vegetable), potassium sorbate, lactic acid, calcium disodium edta
I highlighted ingredients that you might not be sure about. Let’s go through them one-by-one:
- Palm oil – While technically vegan, many ethical vegans do not eat palm oil.
- Vitamin D – Most vitamin D added to foods is not vegan. It’s typically derived from lanolin (from sheep’s wool).
- Natural and artificial flavors – While natural flavors aren’t always vegan, it’s pretty safe to assume they are considering the spreads are all “dairy-free.”
- Lactic acid – While “lactic” makes it sound like it’s from milk, most lactic acid is in fact vegan friendly.
- Vitamin A palmitate – There no relation to the palm tree, despite the name. It used to come from animal sources, but most modern vitamin A palmitate is made in a lab.
Which Smart Balance Flavors Are Vegan?
A few specific Smart Balance margarines are vegan friendly (depending on your palm oil views).
Let’s go through them one-by-one:
- Original Smart Balance – Contains vitamin D, most likely not vegan.
- Light with flaxseed oil – Vegan (But contains palm oil).
- Light Omega 3 – Contains vitamin D, most likely not vegan.
- Omega 3 – Contains fish oil and vitamin D, not vegan.
- EVOO – Contains vitamin D, most likely not vegan.
- Low sodium – Contains vitamin D, most likely not vegan.
- Organic – Vegan (But contains palm oil).
After all of that, if you’re okay with palm oil, the Smart Balance spreads that you would consider vegan are Smart Balance Light with flaxseed oil and Smart Balance Organic.
That should be everything you need to know to make your own decision on the matter.