Fi Global Insights is part of the Informa Markets Division of Informa PLC

This site is operated by a business or businesses owned by Informa PLC and all copyright resides with them. Informa PLC's registered office is 5 Howick Place, London SW1P 1WG. Registered in England and Wales. Number 8860726.

Plant-based butters: More than margarine

Article-Plant-based butters: More than margarine

© iStock/stockah RS, butter, credit stockah, Stockfoto ID1406572808 .jpg
Plant-based butter alternatives are on the rise – but are consumers willing to pay a premium for non-dairy products in this category? Fi Global Insights spoke to Brad Vanstone, co-founder and head of impact at Willicroft about its latest plant-based butter product.

Dutch startup Willicroft’s Original Better is the first butter alternative product produced by the plant-based company, which has previously focused on the plant-based cheese category. According to Vanstone, some alternative dairy segments are still much harder to break into than others.

Cheese and meat are perceived as the hero of a given dish whereas butter and milk are perceived to be ingredients [or] commodities. Breaking past this perceived notion is consequently much harder with alternative cheese.”

Margarine, the original plant-based product, has a 42% global market share in the butter category, whereas plant-based cheese only makes up 2.6% of all dairy cheese sales. This has helped sensitise consumers to plant-based options. Nonetheless, Vanstone believes that the market is lacking a true alternative to butter.

arine, in my eyes, is a simple spread with a fairly neutral flavour. Butter lifts the flavour of any dish as spread, or when cooked with and is multifaceted ... it can be used as a spread, cooked with, and baked with.”

Consumer surveys from Willicroft confirm these perceptions, with feedback identifying margarine as ‘simple-tasting’, requiring recipe adjustments for baking and cooking purposes, and with the product predominantly being used as a spread.

Willicroft uses an in-house developed fermentation process to replicate dairy butter’s butyric acid. The company describes its fermentation process as “a controlled, finely tuned fermentation process with non-genetically modified microorganisms such as lactic acid bacteria to achieve desired outcomes to re-create specific flavours.” This is not to be confused with precision fermentation, which does involve engineered microorganisms. The resulting Original Better product has a taste profile and melting point that Willicroft claims are much closer to dairy butter than traditional margarines.

From palm to shea

Vanstone also identifies a shift away from palm oil – long the primary source of fat in margarine – to other fats as an important development in the category. Willicroft’s product incorporates shea butter, and it is not the only company that avoids palm oil or has moved away from it; the negative environmental and sustainability image associated with the ingredient has increased interest in alternatives like coconut butter.

To ensure the ‘palm oil-free’ label, Upfield’s Flora Buttery uses coconut butter alongside vegetable oils from rapeseed, sunflower, and linseed. The Flower Farm’s Spread without Palm Oil opts for the more expensive shea butter in combination with sunflower oils and fats.

While shea remains a niche ingredient in this space, Vanstone touts its many advantages – both in terms of its sustainability and nutritional profile.

“Shea is a very resource-efficient crop that requires far less water than other comparable trees used to harvest oil. It creates a canopy under which other crops can grow and is generally harvested in the wild ... Nutritionally it is also very compelling with far more healthy fats than other alternative fat bases, which have a lot of saturated fats, [and] it is anti-inflammatory, rich in Vitamins A and E, and has antioxidants.

Currently, the vast majority of shea is sourced in West Africa, but Willicroft is exploring options to grow the crop in Portugal using regenerative practices. The country has very similar growing conditions as the original home of the karite tree, including favourable sunlight, temperature, rainfall, and altitude.

Butter economics

While improved flavour profiles and applications have been welcomed by consumers, whether alternative butter can fully replace dairy butter will also be greatly affected by the price point of both products. Vanstone is optimistic about the long-term trends – noting that dairy subsidies have long depressed dairy butter prices. If those are scrapped and carbon taxes are introduced, this could level the playing field.

“In this decade, we predict a major swing in our favour with regards to the comparable price to dairy butter. Like all dairy, butter remains highly subsidised. We continue to pay a price that is not actually indicative of the true inputs of producing this product ... In 2024, butter prices are already up 20%, long may this continue.”