You butter believe it: Low-calorie spread made mostly of water

Cornell food scientists have created a new dreamy, creamy – and very low calorie – spread for your morning toast.

They figured out a new process to emulsify a large amount of water with miniscule drops of vegetable oil and milk fat to mimic butter, at approximately one-fourth the calories of real butter and without artificial stabilizers.

“Imagine 80% water in 20% oil and we create something with the consistency of butter, with the mouth feel of butter and creaminess of butter,” said Alireza Abbaspourrad, the Yongkeun Joh Assistant Professor of Food Chemistry and Ingredient Technology, senior author of “Ultrastable Water-in-Oil High Internal Phase Emulsions Featuring Interfacial and Biphasic Network Stabilization,” which published in June in the American Chemical Society’s journal Applied Materials and Interfaces.

Emulsifying water and oil is nothing new, said Abbaspourrad, but by using high-internal phase emulsions (HIPE), “we keep adding water to that oil until the final composition is 80% water and 20% oil.”

low-calorie butter spread

Jason Koski/Cornell University

Using a special emulsion process, water is added to oil. When the water-to-oil ratio is 4 to 1, the oil spheres begin to deform and pack tightly against one another, resulting in a product that behaves like butter.

A tablespoon of this low-calorie spread has 2.8 grams of fat and 25.2 calories. Butter, on the other hand, which is 84% fat and about 16% water, has about 11 grams of fat and nearly 100 calories.

Using the HIPE process, when water and oil are emulsified in a 3-to-1 ratio, the emulsion looks like spheres. But when the water-to-oil ratio is 4 to 1, the spheres begin to deform and pack tightly against one another.

“They start squishing against each other, and the squishing and packing results in high friction,” said Abbaspourrad. “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.”

The demand for low-fat, high-protein products has rapidly increased due to consumers’ growing health awareness, said lead author Michelle C. Lee, a doctoral candidate in Abbaspourrad’s research group.

“Since the HIPE technology features high water-to-oil ratios – while simultaneously delivering unique texture and functionality – it can play a role in providing healthier solutions for consumers,” Lee said.

Abbaspourrad said food chemists can adjust for taste, preferences and health.

“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 flavors,” he said. “Essentially, we can create something that makes it feel like butter – and instead of seeing a lot of saturated fat, this has minute amounts. It’s a completely different formulation.”

In addition to Abbaspourrad and Lee, co-authors on this research include postdoctoral researcher Chen Tan and doctoral candidate Raheleh Ravanfar. Support for this research came from the New York State Dairy Promotions Board.

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